DEA targets US travelers to seize drug money

An investigative report by USA Today published Thursday details the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) nationwide surveillance of American travelers on airlines, buses and Amtrack trains, through intelligence gathered from private industry employees to catch suspected cash-runners for drug traffickers.

Justice Department (DOJ) records shows that $209 million has been confiscated by DEA agents at 15 large U.S. airports over the past 10 years, although arrests are rarely made and charges almost never pressed against suspects.

Asset forfeiture, a legal law enforcement practice under federal law, has been used more frequently in recent years to combat both foreign and domestic drug rings attempting to sell narcotics in the U.S.  The seized cash ultimately helps fund local police departments, which volunteer personnel to help in DEA operations.

Cash can be confiscated from private citizens if the money is suspected of having been acquired illegally.  Red flags that DEA agents look for include: the purchase of one-way tickets, cash payments for travel expenses, listing a phone number that is out-of-service and certain destinations such as Los Angeles and Fresno, California.

The most controversial element of DEA’s asset seizing operation is its comprehensive method of gaining information about travelers, achieved primarily through both paid and unpaid informants and without the consent of companies which hold personal data on its customers.

DEA informants who alert the agency of suspicious travel activity are employees of “airlines, bus terminals, car rental agencies, storage facilities, vehicle repair shops, other businesses,” according to spokesman Russ Baer.

Former DEA supervisor, Louis Weiss, said that travel industry companies typically discourage their workers from divulging customer information to the authorities, “because of privacy issues,” but some are some are incentivized by being paid a percentage of the confiscated cash.

DEA units typically act on tips from private employees by questioning the suspected drug money carriers and asking if they can search their baggage or using canine units to detect the possession of illegal drugs. If a large amount of cash is found, the money is normally taken without arrest.

Of 87 cases brought by the DOJ in recent years seeking cash from suspicious travelers, only two suspects were actually charged with a crime.

While the targeting of U.S. travelers carrying large amounts of money may seem like a new phenomenon, DEA airport surveillance began in 1975 when drug smugglers were primarily targeted.  Since September 11, 2001, however, increased security has made narcotic transfers through air terminals nearly impossible without the cooperation of airline personnel, making cash payments for drugs the outstanding problem for law enforcement.

Los Angeles International, O’Hare International in Chicago, Lambert-St. Louis International and Kansas City International are the top four airports where suspected drug cash has been seized since 2006.


[USA Today] [Photo courtesy Ricardo Arduengo/AP via ABC News]