SPECIAL REPORT: Cartels thrive along ETX "drug superhighway"

NACOGDOCHES, TX (KTRE) - It's a multi-billion dollar industry traveling along Highway 59 daily. It's called drug trafficking.

"It is probably one of the most prominent highways in the United States, as far as drug enforcement goes. We have a very large problem," said Nacogdoches County Precinct 4 Constable Jason Bridges.

Law enforcement says it's a business so large that officers are working overtime to crack down on it.

"You know, used to, we could go out and make 2 or 3 loads a day on the highway. And now, we're making 1 to 2 a week. I think it has scaled down on some effect," said Bridges.

Highway 59 is the main route for cartels to bring drugs through the state to a hub in Houston. For cartels, the drugs have to stay in circulation.

"The product has to move," said Nacogdoches Police Department K-9 Unit officer Stephen Godfrey. "If the product doesn't move, then they're not making money."

Many times, products stop briefly in stash houses in Houston, waiting for distribution farther north. The Constable's office says traffic trends help them catch drugs in transit.

"Highway interdiction is a powerful tool. What people need to keep in mind is drug dealers have a product that they're trying to get somewhere," said Bridges. "To do that, they have to have transportation. Drugs have to flow either by mail, by plane, or by a vehicle."

The farther north the product goes, the more valuable it becomes, and the more successful the business is.

"It's greed, I think, is the root of majority of individual's problems, also with our society. It's easy money; it's tax free," said Godfrey.

This year alone, Nacogdoches police officers have seized over 425 thousand dollars in drug busts. NPD has taken a more aggressive approach to the drug war. The department received a grant 3 years ago, allowing them to purchase Godfrey's dog, Richtor. The canine not only helps fight crime, but also serves as Godfrey's protector.

"He's to keep me safe," said Godfrey. "He does have the ability to exit the vehicle. So, he's almost like having the best partner you can have."

There is no limit to the creativity placed into concealing drugs.

"I've always said if you give a cartel member a 10 speed bicycle and 50 pounds of marijuana and a roll of duct tape, it'll take you 3 days to find it," said Godfrey. They're just ingenious in their abilities, and when you have that kind of money at stake, you get intelligent people working for your organization."

Godfrey says it's that creativity that makes each drug bust different. Although probable cause and a traffic violation must occur before officers can stop a vehicle, it's usually body language that draws attention to illegal activity.

"You know, there's not one certain thing why you would want to search a car," said Godfrey. "It's the articulation of all the things together that you're seeing and hearing."

Officers say there's no limit to the types of busts they make, including smuggling at the Nacogdoches Kerville bus station, drugs hidden in false bumpers, spare tires, or even in loads of perishables on 18 wheelers. Cartels are always trying new tactics regardless of the risk because for many, the money they make outweighs consequences they face.

"Odds of getting caught are pretty slim," said Godfrey.

However, DPS says, often times, friends who were hired as "mules", earning money making a one way drug drop off, become scared and tip officers off to what's going on.

"At any time people start doing bad things, things that's illegal, their friends are going to get in trouble," said DPS Spokesman Greg Sanches. "They're going to start talking. And, that's how people get in trouble."

In just the last few months, officers have caught residents from seven different states, trafficking through Angelina and Nacogdoches counties. And, that's not just drugs.

"You get into weapons and smuggling and other things as well," said Sanches. "So anytime you got drugs, it's also got other elements attached to it."

Officers say the more they patrol, the larger the dent they're making in slowing down business on the drug super highway.

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