Story by Jude Joffe Block

Note: This is part three of a five-part series airing this week, courtesy of the Fronteras Project

PHOTO: Illustration courtesy Office of National Drug Control Policy
High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) in the U.S.-Mexico border states. Illustration courtesy Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Lt. Lazaro Chavez oversees a team that intercepts drugs smuggled from Mexico and the money heading back to the cartels. But Chavez isn’t anywhere near the border. He works 300 miles away, for the Las Vegas Metro Police Department.

“This is the battleground for us,” Chavez said. “Right here, Interstate 15.”

I-15 starts in San Diego, cuts through the Mojave desert, heads into Las Vegas, and onto Salt Lake City, where it turns due north.

The drugs that made it across the southern border are usually divided up in stash houses in cities like Phoenix and San Diego. Drugs coming from Southern California heading to Northern and Midwestern cities will almost inevitably ride on this road.

Chavez and his team are also in charge of monitoring U.S. Highway 93 from Phoenix, the airport, trains and buses. But he says most of the action is on I-15.

“This is the road that the cartels have identified as their route,” Chavez said, standing next to the busy freeway. “And we have identified it as our area to really fight this battle.”

They fight this battle with some help from the federal government: $3 million annually for Nevada alone. Southern Nevada is one of 28 areas identified across the country as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, known as HIDTA for short.

They essentially are chasing down packages that managed to slip past border inspection – cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana, and Mexican black tar heroin. But by the time the drugs get to Chavez’s stretch of I-15, the loads have usually been divided once and the smugglers can blend in with the 250 million cars on America’s highways.

PHOTO: Jude Joffe-Block
Drug seizures by HIDTA in the region.

Chavez and his team drive with police radios, but their cars are unmarked. That way, they can observe other drivers unnoticed.

“It is almost like a big chess game. The drug dealers want to outsmart the police so they can get their product and their drugs onto the streets,” the lieutenant said. “So we figure out, how are they doing it today? Are they using a semi? Are they using buses? Maybe they are using hidden compartments inside cars.”

Chavez said it’s mostly intelligence that guides his team to pull over certain cars. They also notice things like two cars in a caravan. One could be the security for the other one, which is carrying the drugs. And they know which makes and models traffickers have used before. But Chavez won’t elaborate much more about his strategy.

“The last thing I want to do is give up some of our intelligence, some of our tools, so the bad guy wins,” he said.

The lieutenant has colleagues who do similar work all across the nation. About 400 officers who specialize in highway drug enforcement gathered in Las Vegas in early May.

They attended sessions with titles like “Bulk Currency” and “Mexican Drug Cartels." Attorneys gave workshops on best practices to avoid racial profiling and illegal searches and seizures. One priority that they talk about at these conferences is sharing intelligence between agencies.

PHOTO: Jude Joffe-Block
Marijuana seizures by HIDTA in the region.

“A trooper making a stop in Las Vegas can put a message to this entire community within one hour,” said Jack Killorin, head of HIDTA’s Department of Highway Enforcement.

And what would that message say?

“I stopped a car. It gave up that there is a load car,” Killorin said. “It is a Cadillac Escalade, it has Texas license plates and they are heading to Chicago, Illinois. And those troopers will respond to look for that vehicle.”

While collaboration may be improving, other aspects of the job may be getting tougher.

It’s becoming less common for those arrested drivers to cooperate and become informants, some authorities said. That may be a direct result of the Mexican cartels’ brutal enforcement strategies.

“They are not willing to talk because they are afraid of the cartels,” said Kent Bitsko, who directs Nevada’s HIDTA program. “They are a lot more afraid of what will happen to them if they cross the cartels than what will happen to them if they go to prison here.”

Those informants and sources of intelligence are critical to finding other cars with drugs.

“If you are not already being watched by law enforcement, the risk that you as the courier with the drugs will be pulled over is the same risk of anybody else being pulled over–-which is to say, not very high,” said Jonathan Caulkins, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who studies drug markets. “It really is needle-in-a-haystack stuff.”

PHOTO: Jude Joffe-Block
Cash seizures by HIDTA in the region.

Back on the highway, Lt. Chavez shares his team’s stats from last year. They seized $2 million dollars in cash, more than 1,300 pounds of marijuana and about 100 pounds of methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin combined.

But that is a small fraction of the drugs a metropolitan area the size of Las Vegas is likely to consume in a year.

“You cannot help but to take it a little bit personal when you hear of search warrants being done in the city where you find 50 pounds or 100 pounds of methamphetamine,” Chavez said. “And you know that there is only one way it could have gotten here.”

And that is on the highway, probably I-15.