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N.C. Becoming Hub For Drug Trafficking

Raleigh, N.C. (AP) -- North Carolina is becoming a hub for illegal drug traffickers who repackage marijuana and cocaine smuggled from Mexico and send it north, federal authorities say.

"It's a dramatic change in the way North Carolina is viewed with regard to drug enforcement," U.S. Attorney Frank Whitney said. "It's no longer just a state where drugs are brought to be consumed here. They're repackaged and redistributed up the Eastern Seaboard."

Midlevel dealers in North Carolina previously traveled or sent couriers to New York, Florida, California, Texas and Arizona. Now the supplies come here, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Evenson, who heads the drug section of the federal prosecutor's office in Raleigh.

South Carolina and Georgia are also becoming what the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration calls "transshipment" states.

Easy interstate access makes North Carolina an ideal choice, said John Boone, acting head of the DEA office in Raleigh. Agents have tracked cocaine from staging areas in North Carolina to Virginia, Washington, D.C., Baltimore and farther north.

The new patterns of drug distribution are the result of several important events during the past few years: the passage of NAFTA; the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; increased immigration and the collapse of Colombian drug cartels.

Cocaine still comes from that country, but investigators say it's handled by smaller operators and smuggled through Mexico rather than directly into the United States.

The increase in trade allowed by NAFTA allows thousands of commercial trucks cross the border daily, some loaded with cocaine and Mexican-grown marijuana.

"It's virtually impossible for the border patrol or customs to truly check every one of these vehicles," Whitney said.

Law enforcement pressure in the traditional cocaine entry points -- Miami, Los Angeles and Houston -- has forced dealers to cut back on their use as repackaging points, Whitney and other federal officials say.

Smugglers turned to the highways as airport security increased after the terrorist attacks, relying on long-established marijuana distributing routes from Mexico into the United States.

The DEA calls organized Mexican drug traffickers "a significant threat" in North Carolina. One of the agency's fact sheets attributes part of the problem to the influx of Mexican immigrants in recent years.

In March, Davidson County deputies found 5 kilograms of cocaine hidden in the spare battery of a car on Interstate 85. Davidson County is one of several departments in North Carolina with teams that look specifically for drugs on the interstate.

Maj. Dallas Hedrick, Davidson County's acting sheriff, said some doubted the strategy at first.

"People wondered why we were worried about the interstate: 'Why aren't you just worried about your own county?' " Hedrick said. "Well, the little dude down here on the street corner selling a bag of marijuana, that bag didn't just fall out of the sky on him. It came from a larger supplier, and that came from a larger supplier."

The Davidson County team last year seized more than $1 million in suspected drug money, about 16 kilograms of cocaine and 184 pounds of marijuana as well as methamphetamine and other drugs just from I-85, he said.

In November, the team stopped a California driver on a traffic violation and found 12 kilograms of cocaine headed to a transshipment point in this state.

"Those drugs didn't originate here," Hedrick said. "We need to think about that."

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