Atlanta airport one of country's biggest smuggling hubs

ATLANTA — Channel 2 Action News discovered one of the country’s biggest smuggling hubs right here in Metro Atlanta.

Channel 2 investigative reporter Aaron Diamant got exclusive access to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and operations working to pushback against smugglers who push the limits.

"It’s a game. It’s a game out here," CBP Port director Carey Davis explained to Diamant. "It’s extremely difficult."

CBP showed Diamant a side of the airport rarely seen by passengers. Officers on the tarmac looking for out-of-place stitches on luggage, or suspicious glue on boxes -- all tactics used by smugglers to bring illegal or dangerous goods into the country.

"There’s a lot that goes on here that people just don't realize," CBP supervisor Ronnie Matheson said. "Every day is a different environment for us."

As the world's most traveled airport, Hartsfield-Jackson's sheer size makes it a smuggling hub. CBP said their highest profile enforcement actions target smuggled illegal drugs and dozens of flights from high risk international airports in Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Channel 2 cameras watched as highly trained customs officers with K-9 units swept planes, and used mobile X-ray machines to scan luggage rolling off a flight from Bogota, Columbia. Several pieces of luggage were quickly flagged.

CBP showed Channel 2's Aaron Diamant a side of the airport rarely seen by passengers.

"When it came through the X-ray machine, we noticed some anomalies that may indicate the presence of contraband," Davis explained as CBP officers searched a piece of luggage.

Officers quickly and methodically scanned those suspicious suitcases and items inside. Although officers didn’t find anything illegal on this flight, last year alone CBP’s Atlanta field office, which covers ports of entry in Georgia and parts of Virginia and the Carolinas, sized nearly 60 pounds of heroin, and nearly 900 pounds of cocaine worth millions. The agency said it does not release site-specific statistics because it would give smugglers too much information on enforcement operations

CBP officers said they found one haul of drugs sewn into coats, purses, and animal skins from Peru and another packed into bags of beans from Guatemala. Once they found items smuggled into the liner of a suitcase from St. Lucia.

Diamant asked Davis why officers were cutting into dozens of boxes of fresh flowers from a Columbia flight's cargo hold.

"We have in the past found cocaine that was part of the glue, it was in the glue that held the box together," Cary explained.

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Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson told Diamant a quarter of her office's caseload comes from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, hundreds of cases every year.

"They keep trying out new ways to get [drugs] through," Lawson said. "If these bad guys would use their genius for good instead of evil, they could be really successful people."

CBP said a critical component for enforcement is human intelligence.

"The moment you make your airline reservation, our computer system is looking at you against the people we know we're going to have a problem with," Davis said. Officers scan crowds at international baggage claim looking for potential clues that warrant secondary inspections.

"We’re an all threats agency,” Davis said. “We have to look for the potential for everything."

Diamant saw officers use those skills to run down intelligence on departing passengers, including a man found on the jet way with a bogus passport. Another passenger was pulled out of line after officers found a warrant for his arrest.

"We're here for the protection of the United States," Davis said.