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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

American law enforcement officials are collecting millions of dollars in transactions that may begin about like this:

Unidentified Man #1: Hello. Good afternoon. Okay. Where are you coming from, sir?

Unidentified Man #2: From Georgia.

Unidentified Man #1: From Georgia? Atlanta, Georgia?

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, sir.

Unidentified Man #1: Okay. What's the purpose of your trip to Mexico today?

INSKEEP: That's a federal officer questioning the driver of a battered, brown Suburban. The vehicle was bound to cross the International Bridge from Laredo, Texas to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and we're listening because over the next three days NPR News will be following the money - the drug money.

Unidentified Man #1: At this time are you traveling with more than $10,000?

Unidentified Man #2: No, sir.

Unidentified Man #1: How much are you traveling with, sir?

Unidentified Man #2: I have with me around 2,800.

Unidentified Man #1: Twenty-eight hundred?

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, sir.

INSKEEP: Notice that the vehicle is heading south - that's the direction the drug money goes. It's the profit from the world's largest narcotics market, the United States of America. Authorities estimate that every year $12 billion in drug profits returns to Mexico. Law enforcement can confiscate those drug dollars and keep a portion of the swag to fight crime. It is a major drug fighting tactic, and NPR News has found that it also leads to abuses.

As we'll hear this week, some police have grown dependent on seizing drug money. Some agencies become more interested in confiscating cash than drugs. They misspend the money. And in extreme cases, officers take money from drivers without any evidence of drug trafficking.

NPR's John Burnett has the first of four reports on dirty money.

(Soundbite of car moving)

JOHN BURNETT: 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.

Counter drug agents say this highway 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 a river of gold.

We're going to look at one 15-mile section that runs through rural Kleberg County. The southbound lanes have become, according to the sheriff, a piggy bank. In the last four years, combined seizures by law enforcement have surpassed $7 million.

It starts with a traffic stop.

Mr. MIKE TAMEZ (Officer, Kingsville Police Department): Look right here. Look at this hose. Look on this side. So that tells me somebody has messed with it. I have fingerprints right here, right here, right here.

BURNETT: Officer Mike Tamez of the Kingsville, Texas Police Department, is inspecting the engine of a gray Ford pickup that was headed south. He's looking for clues where the driver might have hidden drug money.

Mr. TAMEZ: Come over and look at this. This air filter housing? Look how clean this is compared to this.

BURNETT: After searching for 20 minutes, he and the other officers don't find anything, and they send the motorists on their way.

Mr. TAMEZ: Okay. He's going to go ahead and cut him. Let's go ahead and take off.

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

Mr. TAMEZ: 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.

BURNETT: The bundles contained a million dollars. According to the law, 80 percent of that will go to the Kingsville Police Department. For one afternoon's work its budget will jump 25 percent.

Mr. RICARDO TORRES (Police Chief, Kingsville Police Department): Law enforcement has become a business.

BURNETT: Ricardo Torres is the police chief of Kingsville.

Mr. TORRES: 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, I think that's a win-win situation as far as we're concerned.

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

Why does the Kingsville Police Department need a sniper rifles?

Mr. TORRES: With homeland security, we all hear about where best to hit than really in the Middle America. You know, this can be considered that sort of area. We have to be prepared.

BURNETT: When asset forfeiture laws were passed in the 1980s, no one anticipated the astonishing volume of drug money that would become available. According to the U.S. Justice Department, in the past four years the amount of assets seized has tripled from $567 million to 1.6 billion. Almost all of it is cash, and that doesn't include tens of millions more that went through state asset forfeiture programs.

In Texas alone, with its rich smuggling arteries, public safety agencies seized more than $125 million last year. Asset forfeitures have becomes such a lucrative stream of income, there are concerns it is distorting law enforcement; that some cops have become more interested in seizing money than drugs.

Mr. JACK FISHMAN (IRS Special Agent): 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.

BURNETT: Jack Fishman was an IRS special agent for 25 years; he's now a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta.

Mr. FISHMAN: If they catch them going south with a suitcase full of cash, the police department just paid for its budget for the year.

BURNETT: Federal and state rules governing asset forfeiture explicitly discourage law enforcement agencies from supplanting their budgets with seized drug money because of its unpredictability, nor does the government want the prospect of those funds to influence law enforcement priorities.

But in the reporting for this series, NPR has found a law enforcement culture — particularly in the South — where police agencies have grown, in the words of one state senator from South Texas, addicted to drug money. Some governing bodies have come to count on drug money, in essence, forcing public safety departments to freelance their own funding.

Kleberg County Sheriff Ed Mata drives a gleaming new police-package Ford Expedition bought with drug funds. When he went to his commissioners court this year to ask for more new vehicles…

Mr. ED MATA (Sheriff, Kleberg County): They said, well, you know, there ain't no money here, use your assets.

BURNETT: What you're telling me is that law enforcement agencies really do depend on seized drug money.

Mr. MATA: Yes, sir. We have to have it for the purpose of us to continue to operate and on the magnitude that we need.

BURNETT: Another county agency, the Kingsville Specialized Crimes and Narcotics Task Force, in fact, 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 fund themselves exclusively with confiscated drug assets.

The deeper concern here, is that allowing sworn peace officers — who are entrusted with enormous power — to make money off of police work, distorts criminal justice. Mike Tamez, of the Kingsville Police, adamantly disagrees.

Mr. TAMEZ: I believe in my heart, that what we're doing - this team, us three out on the highways - it's righteous. We're not going to sidestep the law and seize people's money just for the financial gains of the department. It's not going to happen.

BURNETT: But what about law enforcement officers who abuse the power of asset forfeiture? This afternoon on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED we'll tell you about two cases in which the drivers are seemingly victims of highway robbery.

Unidentified Man #3: We've got officers that took our cash. We've got officers that told us that we can't get an attorney. So I'm thinking, are these guys officers of the law? Did I just get robbed for my money?

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And you can read more about the drug asset seizure process by going to NPR.org.

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