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Seized Drug Assets Pad Police Budgets

Cpl. Mark Frost of the Kingsville Police Department in Texas inspects the rear deck of a pickup for smuggled currency.
John Burnett/NPR
Cpl. Mark Frost of the Kingsville Police Department in Texas inspects the rear deck of a pickup for smuggled currency.
Tamez searches an engine compartment for hidden drug money.
John Burnett/NPR /
Tamez searches an engine compartment for hidden drug money.

Every year, about $12 billion in drug profits returns to Mexico from the world's largest narcotics market — the United States. As a tactic in the war on drugs, law enforcement pursues that drug money and is then allowed to keep a portion as an incentive to fight crime.

As a result, the amount of drug dollars flowing into local police budgets is staggering. Justice Department figures show that in the past four years alone, the amount of assets seized by local law enforcement agencies across the nation enrolled in the federal program—the vast majority of it cash—has tripled, from $567 million to $1.6 billion. And that doesn't include tens of millions more the agencies got from state asset forfeiture programs.

In Texas, with its smuggling corridors to Mexico, public safety agencies seized more than $125 million last year.

While drug-related asset forfeitures have expanded police budgets, critics say the flow of money distorts law enforcement — that some cops have become more interested in seizing money than drugs, more interested in working southbound than northbound lanes.

"If a cop stops a car going north with a trunk full of cocaine, that makes great press coverage, makes a great photo. Then they destroy the cocaine," says Jack Fishman, an IRS special agent for 25 years who is now a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta. "If they catch 'em going south with a suitcase full of cash, the police department just paid for its budget for the year."

'We have To Be Prepared'

U.S. Highway 77 follows the coastal bend of South Texas past mesquite thickets, grapefruit stands and vast historic ranches on its way to the Mexican border.

Drug agents say Highway 77 is one of the busiest smuggling corridors in the world. Think of it as a great two-way river — drugs flow north, drug money flows south. For the impoverished cities and counties situated along 77, it is like a river of gold.

On one 15-mile section that runs through Texas' Kleberg County, the southbound lanes have become a "piggy bank," according to the local sheriff. In the past four years, combined seizures have surpassed $7 million.

It starts with a traffic stop.

"Look at this hose. Look on this side. So that tells me somebody has messed with it. I have fingerprints right here," says officer Mike Tamez of the Kingsville Police Department, as he inspects the engine of a gray Ford pickup truck that was headed south. He's looking for clues to where the driver might have hidden drug money.

"Come over and look at [the] air filter housing? Look how clean these are compared to the other parts of the vehicle," he says. After searching for 20 minutes, Tamez and the other officers crawling over the truck don't find anything, and they send the motorists on their way.

There's always tomorrow.

In January, Tamez — a gung-ho former Marine with a buzz cut — stopped a white Land Rover for changing lanes without using a blinker. The driver's story was inconsistent. Then Tamez noticed fresh silicone under the rear deck. A density meter showed something bulky inside. He brought it into the shop to investigate.

"When I pulled the drill bit out there was pieces of money on it, currency. Inside the compartments we discovered 80 bundles of U.S. currency. He disavowed knowledge of everything," Tamez says.

The bundles contained $1 million. According to the law, 80 percent of that will go to the Kingsville Police Department. So that one afternoon's work will boost the department's budget by 25 percent.

"Law enforcement has become a business, and where best to hit these narcotics organizations other than in the pocketbook? That's where it's going to hurt the most. And then to be able to turn around and use those same assets to benefit our department, that's a win-win situation as far as we're concerned," says Kingsville Police Chief Ricardo Torres.

In this sleepy city of 25,000 people, with its enviable low crime rate, police officers drive high-performance Dodge Chargers and use $40,000 digital ticket writers. They'll soon carry military-style assault rifles, and the SWAT team recently acquired sniper rifles.

When asked why the Kingsville Police Department needs sniper rifles, Torres says, "With homeland security, we all hear about where best to hit than ... Middle America. This can be considered that sort of area. We have to be prepared."

'Addicted to Drug Money'

Federal and state rules governing asset forfeiture explicitly discourage law enforcement agencies from becoming dependent on seized drug money or allowing the prospect of those funds to influence law enforcement decisions.

There is a law enforcement culture — particularly in the South — in which police agencies have grown, in the words of one state senator from South Texas, "addicted to drug money."

Part of the problem lies with governing bodies that count on the dirty money and, in essence, force public safety departments to freelance their own funding.

In Kleberg County, where Kingsville is the county seat, Sheriff Ed Mata drives a gleaming new police-package Ford Expedition bought with drug funds. This year, he went to his commissioners to ask for more new vehicles.

"They said, 'Well, there ain't no money, use your assets,' " he says. He says his office needs the money "to continue to operate on the magnitude we need."

Another county agency, the Kingsville Specialized Crimes and Narcotics Task Force, survives solely on seized cash. Said one neighboring lawman, "They eat what they kill." A review by NPR shows at least three other Texas task forces that also are funded exclusively by confiscated drug assets.

The concern here is that allowing sworn peace officers — who are entrusted with enormous powers — to make money off police work distorts criminal justice.

"We're not going to sidestep the law and seize people's money just for the financial gains of the department," Tamez says. "It's not going to happen."

This series was produced for broadcast by Marisa Penaloza.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John Burnett
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.