Special Report: Contraband Corridor

When it comes to the illegal drug trade, and other contraband, Highway 77 is one of the busiest corridors in the country.

While all law enforcement agencies try to stop the flow of drugs and drug money, there's a special task force in Kingsville that focuses almost exclusively on it. Kiii News Reporter Mike DaSilva had the chance to ride along with that task force.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug money were found hidden in the seats of a Honda Odyssey van, and inside the firewall of a Toyota Camry. Kilos of cocaine and meth were found hidden inside a Ford pickup truck's 4.6L V8 engine intake manifold; and more than 20,000 rounds of AK-47 ammunition and 127 thirty-round magazines were hidden underneath the bed liner of another Ford pickup truck, in the spare tire and in the fuel tank.

"It's limitless Mike," said Special Agent Mike Tamez with the Kingsville Task Force. "Where dope and contraband can be hidden, it's totally limitless."

That's where the Kingsville Task Force comes in. It is their job to find the hidden contraband being trafficked on Highway 77.

Special Agent Tamez has been working interdiction for a decade. He began with the Kingsville Police Department, and now he is with the task force. He says criminal interdiction is about being 100-percent proactive, using skills learned through training and experience to find the hidden compartments.

"You keep searching and you follow all your indicators of tampering until one, you've discovered the contraband, or two, you've discovered that there's nothing in that vehicle," Tamez said.

Because the criminal organizations trafficking contraband are so deceptive, the Task Force has to think outside of the box when searching for it. It is hit or miss. Some searches lead to a big find, and others come up empty.

"It's a cat and mouse show, is what it is," Tamez said. "They know their doing bad things, and it's up to us through our training and our experience to uncover those bad things."

With so many vehicles traveling to and fro on Highway 77, the odds of not being caught are in the favor of the cartels; but for the Task Force, being proactive means looking at the totality of the circumstances involved in a traffic stop, and making important observations. If a driver exhibits nervous behavior, or their story doesn't add up, that could lead to a search.

"You told me you left to Houston at four in the morning," Tamez said. "Listen, I want to believe you because you seem like a great person. Okay. I just don't like being lied to."

Using some traditional tools and other state of the art ones, Tamez and his fellow agents and law enforcement colleagues apply their skills in searching for hidden compartments filled with contraband.

"Just looking for indications of recent tampering," Tamez said. "And what I mean by indicators, Mike, is that, you know, scratches like around this screw would tell me that somebody's taken it off before, right here."
Even as Tamez searches the vehicles, he is teaching his colleagues what to look for, just as he learned techniques from other interdiction officers over the years.

"See how this locks? See how that locks like that? That's your front differential, which means it has gears," Tamez said. "Alright. One thing that they've done, and I've caught one where they tried to beat us, is they put a sleeve on the inside, a metal lock, okay, and they lock it so it gives the appearance that it has gears. It didn't have gears though. It was totally gutted out, and it was loaded with dope."

As skilled as Tamez and his fellow special agents are at knowing what to look for, they're constantly learning new ways that criminals are hiding contraband as the cartels are wise to do evil, using their creativity and imagination for trafficking.

"But the game evolves. We find it. They find a different way to beat us. It's a vicious cycle man, it is a vicious cycle," Tamez said. "These people, they're, they're extremely intelligent. You've got to give them their props. They're extremely intelligent."

Fortunately, the interdiction officers are extremely intelligent too, and so the battle continues between the law and the traffickers; and it never stops, day or night, because trafficking is a lucrative business. But those doing the trafficking run the risk of getting caught by some of the best special agents in the country, and if the Task Force catches you, they're likely to find the goods you've got hidden here on the contraband corridor.


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