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Ariz. Officers Trying to Choke Off Drug Flow on Major Pipeline

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) -- The dog circles the Passat 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.

Police dog Barry wags his tail and scratches the back seat, alerting the accompanying 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, who was originally pulled over for tailgating, is arrested on suspicion of money laundering. The Georgia man's car is seized by officers who say they believe the money would be used to buy drugs, and the specially constructed compartment to smuggle them.

Variations on this scene play out regularly on this northern Arizona highway, which according to authorities has become one of the country's main corridors for transporting cocaine and marijuana smuggled in from Mexico.

On Nov. 25, for example, Arizona Department of Public Safety officers stopped a driver who was transporting 35 pounds of cocaine on I-40 near Flagstaff, said DPS spokesman Frank Valenzuela. In October, officials seized 160 pounds of marijuana and 5 kilograms of cocaine on the interstate 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 border.

But this area can be just as active in some respects. For example, DPS's K-9 unit made more drug-related busts in northern Arizona from January through early December than in the south, Valenzuela said.

Authorities concede that drug dealers who use the state as a gateway to get their products from Mexico into the U.S. 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 traffickers.

The highway, which is about 6 1/2 hours north of the border, doesn't have Border Patrol checkpoints like those that pepper highways further 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 spokesman.

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.

I-40 begins in Barstow, Calif., and enters Arizona near Kingman. It traverses the desert and then pine forests as it approaches Flagstaff. The forest disappears as the road heads toward New Mexico. The interstate ends in Knoxville, Tenn.

Most of the highway'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 by passing through 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, DPS officials said.

While the Midwest is one of the main markets for drugs passing through Flagstaff, the traffickers are from all over the country.

And these traffickers' ages and lifestyles vary.

DPS Officer Casey Kasun said they have 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, Kasun said. Drivers have people pretend they are their 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 his Volkswagen's bumper. He was then 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, officers said. For every person they arrest, another will appear.

"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."

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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