ATLANTA - The financial cost of the heroin epidemic in the U.S. is nearly $22 billion each year. Most of the heroin that winds up on the streets of Metro Atlanta comes from Mexico.
Channel 2 Action News traveled to Texas to see first-hand the crackdown at the border.
At the U.S.- Mexican border in Laredo, Texas, customs officers surrounded a pickup truck they suspected had heroin or another illegal drug stashed under the hood.
“They’re either looking at the radiator or the engine or maybe the air intake manifold,” said Greg Alvarez with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
At the U.S.-Mexican border just across the Rio Grande River, cars line up waiting to get into the U.S. The checkpoint there is the first line of defense. More than 15 million people come through the checkpoint every year and more than two million trucks pass through the nearby World Trade Bridge.
Any one of them could be carrying heroin that could make its way to Metro Atlanta.
“They might give a duffel bag to the driver and the driver may put it in the cab of the truck and just take a chance,” said Jim Reed with the Drug Enforcement Administration.
It’s impossible for customs officers to check every vehicle. They rely on sophisticated license plate and radio-frequency identification chip readers to relay information before a vehicle gets to the booth. Officers question drivers and K-9’s sniff for drugs.
The process can be a hassle for drivers.
“I mean they pulled me over a few times and it’s just for what? Nothing. I’m just minding my own business driving along,” said McAllen, Texas, resident Niles Pena.
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At the World Trade Bridge, every day more than 6,500 trucks come into the U.S. from Mexico. Customs officers look through cars and trucks for anything out of the ordinary, including heroin.
“They rely on the officers’ experience so then comes in questioning, reading behaviors, looking for certain signs,” said Alvarez.
Just days before we arrived in Laredo, officers acting on a hunch discovered more than $2 million of heroin in the rim of a Mercedes SUV.
“If we don’t catch it that day $2.5 million worth of heroin just keeps driving down the street into our neighborhoods and that’s it,” said Alvarez.
Officers have found drugs in car batteries, fire extinguishers and even engine blocks. When they are suspicious that drugs may be involved, they bring the trucks to a high energy X-ray machine. It can shoot through six inches of steel. Customs officers would not show us the X-ray photos, but say they’ve found heroin in toner cartridges being shipped inside trucks.
Last year, the Port of Laredo seized 900 pounds of heroin, but even more cocaine and meth. Those illegal drugs could have ended up on the streets of Atlanta.
“We actually deny those drugs from going into somebody else’s arm and that’s the impact that we make where we can prevent those overdoses in those larger eastern cities,” said Reed.
So why do the cartels take such extreme measures to get heroin into the U.S.? The bottom line is money. It is a $29 billion industry in Mexico.
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