If you drive one of the major highways through the Central Valley, you could be right next to a car transporting drugs.
Interstate 5 is one of the four biggest drug trafficking corridors in the nation, and it's the busiest on the West Coast. The drugs are travelling through Kings, Fresno and Merced counties as they make their way from Mexico all the way to Canada.
CBS47s Kathryn Herr rode with the California Highway Patrol as they stopped some of those drugs from making it to their destination.
Interstate 5 stretches 800 miles through California and cuts through the western side of the Central Valley with millions using the freeway each year. But along side the truckers, the tourists, and other travelers... drive the drug traffickers, hiding in plain sight.
Any car that's pulled over for a traffic violation has the potential to lead to a discovery of drugs on this highway. Like one such car CBS47 observed being stopped by the California Highway Patrol near Coalinga. Tucked under the back seat of a Honda Accord was 3 pounds of crystal methamphetamine. "I stopped the vehicle; it's vehicle registration was suspended through the DMV," said Lloyd Pratt with the CHP.
The driver told the officer he was going from Fresno to Modesto. That was a red flag because most people would take Highway 99 not I-5, so the officer was already suspicious. There was something else about the driver too... "He was extremely nervous when he handed me his drivers license and registration. His hands were shaking, which really isn't routine. Most people are nervous on a traffic stop but to be overly nervous like that... it's an indicator," said Pratt.
The officer got his K-9 partner and the dog gave signs there were drugs in the car. Under the seat was $30,000 worth of crystal meth, which is not surprising to officers who patrol I-5 in the Central Valley.
Interstate five is the main drug transportation route in the west according to the Drug Enforcement Administration . It's one of four primary drug corridors in the country, which includes I-95, I-35, I-75. Because these routes are utilized again and again, drug smugglers will try different tactics to hide their marijuana, heroin, or meth. Back in November, officers discovered 15 tequila bottles in the trunk of a car near Coalinga. Upon investigation, the bottles did not contain tequila, they were filled with liquid methamphetamine worth half a million dollars. It's a volatile form of meth before it's turned into the final product. These officers see these kinds of tricks first hand, "Whatever they do, we try and counter, and whatever we do, they try and counter," said Jarrod Banta with the CHP.
Officers know drugs are on this highway and drug traffickers know officers are watching. "They just kinda roll the dice knowing that they're in the business that they're in, they know that there's risks with it," said Banta.
There's even a website for marijuana users that include tips to try and fool officers and drug sniffing dogs, with suggestions on where to conceal drugs and how to act, www.onlinepot.org
Officer Banta said, "Sometimes it's the behavior of the people in the car that gives officers a clue there are drugs in the car. Other times, it's an obvious smell." That's what prompted the search of a Mercedes that CBS47 observed being pulled over for speeding. "I automatically could smell the odor of marijuana emitting from within the car... obviously good indicator that they obviously had marijuana," said Banta. Officer Banta called in a K-9 to search and the dog found a small amount of marijuana in a suitcase. The marijuana was confiscated and the driver was given a speeding ticket.
Because so many drugs travel up and down I-5, the CHP has K-9s patrol the interstate. "The dog's sense of smell is much greater than a humans'. They can smell very small minute amounts of narcotics," said Officer Lloyd.
Banta and his K-9 partner have patrolled Interstate 5 and Highway 99 for the past three years. In that time, they've found close to a thousand pounds of cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine combined. They have also confiscated nearly one and a half million dollars in drug money.
So as long as drugs are passing through Central California, law enforcement will be there too, trying to put the brakes on drug smugglers.