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Utah a Growing Market for Cartels as Law Enforcement Agencies Work to Curb Drug Traffic

RICHFIELD, Utah — The unrelenting summer sun baked the desert landscape that surrounded them, as they sat, waited and watched.

It was late June, and Utah Highway Patrol’s interdiction team was perched along a section of I-70, patiently working to identify drug traffickers who were working equally hard to avoid attention.

“This job takes a lot of patience,” Sgt. Randy Riches, eyes trained on the eastbound lanes of the interstate. “Somebody who is involved in criminal activity will give off different behavior changes than the normal, innocent motoring public, so those are kind of some of the things we’re watching for to help us to distinguish potential criminals from someone who is just driving down the road.”

It’s a by-the-numbers approach that has helped the team of two full-time sergeants and 13 part-time interdiction troopers make anywhere from 200 to 250 seizures of illegal drugs per year.

“It’s always friendly competition to see who can get the next seizure, the next load,” Riches said.

Sophisticated Traffickers

Drug traffickers, however, are only increasing in their sophistication, making the work of troopers and other police that much more difficult.

Hidden compartments are only the beginning of what cartels and trafficking organizations will do to protect their product.

“Some of these professional compartment builders build compartments to conceal the narcotics within the vehicle, and with the normal eye you would that that it was part of the vehicle manufactured that way from the manufacturer,” Riches said.

Riches said cartels have also been known to “rent” children to help legitimize the appearance of disguised traffickers.

They also ride in tandem with “decoy” vehicles that are intentionally driven to attract the attention of law enforcement officers who happen to be on patrol.

“They look at it as business,” Riches said. “From one standpoint, it’s smart business.”

The open frontier that surrounds I-70 is just one front in the ongoing “war on drugs,” which has seen Utah increasingly become a key battleground for the cartels.

“Would it be safe to say that the cartels love Utah?” asked Brian Besser, assistant special agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Utah. “Without sounding derogatory, I would say, ‘yes.’”

Besser said not only does Utah offer convenient, rural corridors between borders and coasts in I-15, I-70 and I-80—it also has become a more important market because of its demand for opioids.

“The Sinaloa cartel and the BLO—the Beltran-Levy organization—those two syndicates namely have taken a vested interest in Utah,” Besser said. “They’re pushing very, very high-quality and low-priced, readily-available heroin into the streets of Utah.”

Effects

Besser said the problem reflects in a wide spectrum of crimes, including burglaries, robberies, murders and human trafficking.

Even some of the street drug dealers themselves are believed to have been trafficked from other countries like Honduras, Salt Lake City Police Sgt. Brandon Shearer said.

“We would arrest drug dealers in this area (and) the next day, there would be 3 or 4 brand new ones that had just arrived in the area,” Shearer said. “A lot of times, there’s a debt incurred and human traffickers will use that debt and hold that debt over someone’s head to make them do illegal work.”

Modern Landscape

Identifying who in Utah is at the top of Utah’s drug trade landscape can be difficult, acknowledged Besser.

“The cartels are a multi-billion dollar business,” Besser said. “Many of their representatives look like me, wearing a coat and tie, and they’re out to make money, whether they’re funneling their proceeds through shell corporations and other illegal businesses.”

Besser said the advent of the ‘dark web’ has only added complexity to the landscape—making it possible for people to acquire illicit drugs through the mail.

“People nowadays can go onto the dark web, into these online market places and purchase pills or any other type of drug and have them delivered right to their house,” Besser said. “That is what has changed and that is what has made the threat all the more real.”

Solutions

Besser acknowledged little will change in the big picture without a complex, community-based solution.

“As long as Americans keep using illegal drugs, the cartels will still have a job,” Besser said. “The solutions for this opioid epidemic have to be holistic in nature. The community has to come together, and in my opinion, wipe away the stigma of shame.”

Besser noted law enforcement agencies are making a “significant dent.”

UHP’s interdiction team makes over 200 seizures per year with a mostly part-time interdiction team.

Riches said the unit has two full-time sergeants, but the other 13 troopers have additional responsibilities.

“230, 250 seizures a year—we could double that or even triple that with a full-time team,” Riches said. “We’d love to have a full-time criminal interdiction team, but with the current staffing and the manpower, we’re just not able to do that.”

For now, law enforcement agencies continue to patiently wait and watch in hopes of making a deeper dent in the cartels’ business.

“You can go an entire day, stop 30 or 40 cars a day and you may not come across somebody involved in the criminal activity,” Riches said. “Our troopers remain persistent, they come out the following day and just keep at it.”

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