By Ananda Shorey, The Associated Press
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- The police dog circles the car stopped on
the shoulder of Interstate 40 just outside the city. It sniffs,
pauses and then leaps toward the passenger door, clawing up the side
before slipping in through the window.
Barry, a Belgian malinois, wags his tail and scratches the back seat,
alerting the officers that he smells something.
The officers find $97,434 in a suitcase and in the driver's wallet,
and a compartment hidden beneath the floor of the trunk.
The driver, a Georgia man originally pulled over for tailgating, is
arrested on suspicion of money laundering. The car is seized by
officers who say they believe the money will be used to buy drugs,
and the specially constructed compartment to smuggle them.
Variations on this scene play out regularly on Interstate 40 in
northern Arizona which, according to authorities, has become one of
the country's main corridors for transporting cocaine and marijuana
smuggled in from Mexico.
I-40 begins in Barstow, Calif., and enters Arizona near Kingman. It
traverses the desert and later pine forests as it approaches
Flagstaff. The forest disappears as the road heads toward New Mexico.
The interstate ends in Wilmington, N.C.
On Nov. 25, Arizona Department of Public Safety officers stopped a
driver who was transporting 35 pounds of cocaine near Flagstaff, said
spokesman Frank Valenzuela. In October, investigators seized 160
pounds of marijuana and 5 kilograms of cocaine along the same
interstate highway near Kingman.
The southern part of the state is perhaps more widely known for being
a transit point for drugs because of its proximity to the U.S.-Mexico
But northern Arizona can be just as active in some respects. For
example, DPS's K-9 unit made more drug-related busts in that region
from January through early December than in the South, Valenzuela
Authorities concede that drug dealers who use Arizona as a gateway to
get their products from Mexico into the United States are increasing
the amount of highway crime, clogging up the courts and costing
residents money and officers time.
The reason: I-40 has several features that make it attractive to drug
The highway, which is about 6 1/2 hours north of the border, doesn't
have Border Patrol checkpoints like those that pepper highways
farther south, including Interstate 10.
"Drug smugglers are human, too, and like to follow the path of least
resistance," said Jim Molesa, a Drug Enforcement Administration
The highway also provides a straight shot between the West Coast and
the South, and it connects to interstates leading to the Midwest, the
destination for many of the drugs coming through the area.
Most of Interstae 40's drug traffic from Mexico comes through the
border communities of Nogales, Mexico, and Nogales, Ariz., said Steve
Volden, a DPS spokesman.
But traffic also comes from California, where it enters from Tijuana,
Mexico, and gets to I-40 via San Diego or Los Angeles. The Arizona
traffic heads north through Tucson and Phoenix.
These drugs are mainly transported to Columbus, Ohio, Chicago, New
York City, as well as cities in Massachusetts, Indiana and Missouri.
While the Midwest is one of the main markets for drugs passing
through Flagstaff, the traffickers are from all over the country. And
their ages and lifestyles vary.
The Department of Public Safety has arrested an 82-year-old man; a
67-year-old English nurse from San Diego; as well as doctors,
attorneys and firefighters.
Rent-a-families are common, too, said DPS Officer Casey Kasun.
Drivers have passengers pretend to be spouses and children while they
transport the drugs.
"Greed -- it attacks all walks of life," said Sgt. Jeff Brownlee, who
oversees DPS' K-9 officers in Flagstaff.
When these traffickers get caught, the counties where they are
arrested bear the financial burden.
"We take a little beating here because we are a small community and
we don't have the resources that bigger counties have for similar
problems," said Fred Newton, Coconino County's presiding judge.
County officials won't have to deal with the case of the man caught
recently with the large amount of money and the hidden compartment in
his car. Because of its magnitude, the case is being filed through
the U.S. Attorney's Office, which is expected to charge the driver
with money laundering, according to the DPS.
When the man was taken back to DPS' crime lab, he watched as officers
pried off the bumper of his car. He was released after officers
counted the bundles of money from his suitcase and the wad of cash
found in his pocket.
Arresting one alleged drug trafficker doesn't offer much relief. For
every person arrested, officers said, another will appear.
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"The drug trade is very entrepreneurial," said Coconino County
attorney Terry Hance. "It probably will always remain there as long
as there is a market."