Tricks of the (drug) trade

2010-10-17T00:00:00Z 2010-10-18T00:00:03Z Tricks of the (drug) tradeBy Sarah Tompkins, (219) 836-3780

Police stopped the Dodge Caravan in Merrillville. To the untrained eye, it was a minivan from Miami passing through to Chicago.

But peeling back the passenger side rear corner panels revealed 2 kilograms of heroin -- which could sell for $160,000 on local streets.

A routine traffic stop can turn into an elaborate search for hidden contraband, as drug dealers are getting more sophisticated in their efforts to protect their pricey products.

Chicago and Lake County are among the Drug Enforcement Agency's most prolific sites for drug trafficking across the country, and the technological advances society has enjoyed have enhanced practices by the criminal underground as well.

"It really has made its way full circle with the traffickers," said Sgt. Dean Wildauer, who leads the Indiana State Police force on drug interdiction. "We see the same thing happen year after year -- they are getting more creative with areas in which they hide stuff."

Secret storage areas in trucks and cars are known as "traps," and Wildauer said he's found drugs everywhere -- from vehicles' gas tanks to tires to steering wheels. On one stop, he said he found more than $1 million worth of cocaine and heroin hidden in an airbag compartment, a vehicle safety device that was not in many cars 15 years ago.

Creative evasion

Over the decades, criminal technology has evolved to the point where some traps can be opened only with magnets or by pushing hidden switches to open a hydraulic or electronic trap. Some motors on hidden compartments require that a specific combination of car functions run -- perhaps including a defroster -- before the secret doors can be activated and released.

Indiana State Police said the Internet has made it easier to buy wiring, motors and other parts to devise the traps.

Though it can cost thousands of dollars to install, getting a high-quality trap is a lucrative business move for drug dealers, Wildauer said.

"This is their business, this is their job," Wildauer said. "The rewards are phenomenal."

Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations generate, remove and launder between $18 billion and $39 billion in wholesale drug proceeds each year, according to a 2009 DEA report. Mexican drug lords control the majority of the local market, according to the DEA, and some drug organizations from different countries now are enlisting Mexicans' help to get narcotics across the border.

Drug leaders also are wrapping their contraband in layers that each contain different chemicals, so that when an officer cuts a bag open, the chemicals mix and cause an explosion or reaction, Wildauer said.

"We've been very fortunate," Wildauer said, estimating his officers have seen the effects about three times. "We've had a few of them start to smoke on us, a few of them start to fizz ... (but) we try to do it in a ventilated area."

But the trends don't stop there.

High tech evolution

In the 1980s, drug traffickers were using beepers to communicate, now they are taking advantage of the anonymity that comes with prepaid phones.

"You're not required to give an address or legitimate name with it," Indiana State Trooper Jason Carmin said. "If you think the police are on to you and know your number, you can throw it away and get another one."

Yet, as the drug trade evolves, so does law enforcement technology, said Wildauer, who leads about nine police officers throughout the state in drug interdiction. Law enforcement now has better access to phone records and can get them in less time than in the past, he said.

"If a guy in California makes a traffic stop ... he puts in on the Internet for law enforcement," Wildauer said. "If I make a stop, I can pull up a list of the most common places for traps in a vehicle."

Officers now use devices such as density meters to read whether an area of a vehicle that normally would be hollow, such as a tire, is stuffed with drugs or trafficking money. Those meters carry a price tag of up to $5,000, Wildauer said.

And in 2003, Georgia Tech University was in the middle of researching technology that would replace drug-sniffing dogs. During testing the university's "Dog-on-a-chip" device was able to detect tiny amounts of cocaine, which on the street can command a $30,000 price tag per kilo.

Police canines can get thrown off drug scents when traffickers put coffee grounds or ground pepper in vehicles, according to law enforcement officers. Street sources say those in the drug trade also are deterring the animals by installing dog-training clickers and white-noise makers inside car panels. With a flip of a hidden switch, traffickers can activate the noise makers to throw off a canine search.

Tactical maneuvers

Indiana State Trooper Joseph White said the most difficult part of fighting the drug trade is the constantly evolving game of tactics, with police having to tip their hand on investigative techniques when testifying on drug cases in open court.

But so far this year, White and the rest of Wildauer's team have seized more than 50 pounds of cocaine and 20 pounds of meth. White said officers never know who might be carrying illegal contraband.

A few years ago, he said he pulled over a semitrailer driver who forgot to signal when changing lanes in a Porter County construction zone. The driver was heading to Chicago, hauling hundreds of melons.

Two melon boxes in the trailer were tilted out of place, and removing the top layer of fruit revealed more than 30 kilograms of Mexican cocaine. White and other officers took the drugs out to New York, where drug traffickers were arrested during a 5 a.m. meeting to deliver the cocaine in the Bronx.

"The drug trade is like a big funnel," White said. "It comes out of Mexico and fans out across the United States, and unfortunately nobody is immune to it."

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