Sky Harbor Airport Narcotics Team has Seized $3.4 Million in Cash This Year

The young woman seemed nervous as she checked in at the airport gate on July 26, and officers could see her hand shake as she held her ticket.

Abril Save of Tucson had just flown to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport from New York and was preparing to take a connecting flight to her hometown, court records show. But cops had received a tip about her and, after a subsequent computer check told them Save had been busted in 2008 for possessing marijuana for sale, decided to detain her for a moment.

Save admitted she was carrying a load of cash and removed two plastic bags from her purse. Inside them were 982 ten-dollar bills.

Following more questions by investigators, police seized the money -- adding it to a total of $3.4 million confiscated at the airport so far this year.

The Phoenix narcotics team aims to  "dismantle and disrupt as many drug organizations as we can," and seizing money is a great way to accomplish that goal, says Sergeant Jim Cope, who runs the commercial interdiction unit of the department's drug enforcement bureau.

As you've probably heard, the Valley is considered a hub of smuggling for the nation, with drugs and illegal immigrants going out and money coming in. Dealers and smuggling organizations, whether small- or large-scale, often use couriers to bring in money, then export marijuana or hard drugs like cocaine and heroin from Arizona with mail-delivery services or by driving it across the country.

In his eight years stationed at the airport with his street-clothes-wearing team, Cope has seen numerous cases like Save's. Other cases involve air travelers carrying $100,000 or more.

Many couriers don't even know they're carrying large amounts of cash. They're paid by a higher-up in the smuggling organization to take a bag somewhere; the less the courier knows, the better.

"There's people totally shaken when we find money in the lining of a bag," Cope says. "We give them a receipt that they had $100,000, and they're blown away."

Others know too well where the money is: Cope describes one case in which a suspicious traveler was questioned, but cops didn't feel they had enough of a reason to strip-search him. The narcotics officers are usually conservative in their approach, he explains, and try to avoid accusations that they've violated someone's rights for no good reason. When they watched the man walk away, though, Cope says he noticed the guy had an awkward gait.

They took the suspect to a private room and soon found $96,000 in two tightly packed rolls tucked into his butt cheeks.

Phoenix PD doesn't keep all the money that officers find at the airport. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office takes 20 percent off the top of every seizure, and paying off informants comes second. Phoenix police deposit the remainder or split it with out-of-state police departments or federal agencies that participated in the intelligence-gathering process, Cope says.

Phoenix routinely ends up with 55 to 60 percent of the gross total seizures, and the money helps fund new enforcement operations.

While Cope hopes his team's effort reduces both the amount of drugs on the street and the violence that too-often accompanies the illegal drug trade, the seizures sometimes cause violence.

Four-to-six suspects a year are believed to be killed or hurt by members of the smuggling organizations in connection with an airport cash seizure, Cope says. Police believe those people (or victims, as might be the case), had previously been suspected by crime bosses of stealing money.

More commonly, the seizures help provide information. There's no law against carrying a huge amount of cash on an airplane, so the suspects aren't usually arrested. Police interview and may conduct surveillance on those folks, though, which leads to bigger and better busts.

Cope's got no illusions of ridding the world of drugs. He avoids worrying about the politics of, say, marijuana legalization, and concentrates on doing his work, he says.

If he can make drug dealers believe the airport is too risky, it might cause them take their business elsewhere, he figures.

"If we weren't here, what would it be like?" Cope asks rhetorically. "We're keeping it at bay."

Mistakes are made every now and then. Cops understand that not every person hauling money across the country plans to use it for a drug deal. A couple of years ago, Cope says, two Mexican dudes carrying almost $100,000 in cash were questioned by the airport narcotics team. They turned out to be construction workers who had come to Phoenix to look at a used cement truck they wanted to buy. The deal didn't work out, so they were taking their money home.

In that case, the men showed cops the ad for the truck and had other documentation that backed up their tale. Most drug couriers have no such back-story.

Save, for example, told officers in July that she had gone to New York to buy "knick knacks and purses," but could provide no firm details. She admitted she only made $25,000 last year in her job as a waitress, but implied she'd gotten the cash by selling stuff on the Internet and from receiving $4,000 a friend had owed her.

The officers didn't buy her excuses. They took the money and turned her loose.

Save filed a petition to get the money back the next month, but the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office launched a forfeiture action to keep it. (The federal Drug Enforcement Agency was also involved in the case.)
Cope and Phoenix police spokesman Sergeant Tommy Thompson, who worked the narcotics detail for years, tell New Times that the seized cash is a "byproduct" of the over-arching goal to reduce trafficking, and not the focus.

Police use caution to avoid violating the rights of air travelers and coming under suspicion themselves for being too money-hungry, they say. No random searches of passenger manifests are conducted -- their info most often comes from tips by informants or other police agencies.

Once cops draw a bead on someone, though, the rest is easy money.