Drug Trafficking Gets Intense?

Feds designate Austin as high-intensity drug trafficking zone

Drug Trafficking Gets Intense?

According to Drug Enforcement Agency Agent Gregory Thrash, Austin has recently been designated a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a moniker bestowed on drug distribution hubs or cities along major drug trafficking routes, and which comes with additional federal resources to fight drug crime.

Thrash told the city's Public Safety Commission on Monday that the HIDTA designation (which he said has been approved by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, but has not yet been funded) will bring resources to the county and will help law enforcement agencies better work together to combat drug trafficking. Austin is a so-called "tier two" city for the drug trade, meaning in part that because the city sits along the IH-35 corridor it has developed as a "command and control center" for the four main Mexican cartels (La Familia, the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa, and Los Zetas) that move drugs (mostly cocaine and methamphetamine, he said) through Texas and to other states. There are "decisions being made here" about drug transportation and distribution, Thrash told the PSC, and the "area is being used as a transit port" for moving drugs to the northern part of the country.

Thrash was among a panel of witnesses called before the PSC to discuss how drug trafficking issues in Mexico are affecting, or may affect, Austin. Notably, no one had any particular evidence that Austin would be seeing more violence as a result of the increase in violence in Mexico over the last decade – though Commission member Mike Levy pressed the representatives from DEA, FBI and the Texas Dept. of Public Safety to try to give some sense of what they believe the future will hold for the city and state. None took the bait – valiant effort though, Levy! (Though during his presentation Thrash did take the opportunity to touch on the issue of drug legalization. Not surprisingly, he doesn't think its such a great idea. The reason? Well, DEA wouldn't be able effectively regulate the business, he says. Currently DEA is in charge not only of drug-law enforcement, but also of regulating the prescription drug industry. More people die every year from the improper use of those drugs than from all other illegal drugs combined. In other words, DEA is in charged of regulating an "industry that kills people" every day. If that's the case, "how could we even think we could regulate cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine?" he asked.)

But both FBI Agent Royce Curtain and the DPS' Tom Ruocco said that communication among law enforcement agencies in the area is good – and, said Ruocco, the addition of a local Austin Regional Intelligence Center (a.k.a. a "fusion center") would be an asset to getting information needed to detect if there is an increase in local drug trafficking activity. Getting involved in the fusion center is "proactive on the city's part," said Ruocco. When there are trends "coming forward" the city will be in a "better position to react."

The creation of the center, a clearinghouse of sorts that would allow local law enforcement agencies, and those in surrounding counties, to gather and share intelligence, has been fairly controversial and has caused many, including the state ACLU, to raise concerns about privacy issues. So far, it would seem those concerns have not fazed the city, with is going forward with its creation. (Austin Police Chief of Staff David Carter said council will be presented with a proposed interlocal agreement in late May that, if signed by the city, would establish the ARIC.)

A call to the ONDCP regarding the designation of Austin as HIDTA was not immediately returned. Generally, HIDTAs are designated in areas with "serious trafficking problems," according to ONDCP, and provides "additional federal resources to those areas to help eliminate or reduce drug trafficking and its harmful consequences." There are currently HIDTAs in 45 states; in 2008, the HIDTA program provided $230 million in support to law enforcement.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Drugs, Police, Public Safety Commission, PSC, David Carter, HIDTA, Gregory Thrash, FBI, DEA, Royce Curtain, APD, Mike Levy, DPS, Tom Ruocco, ARIC, Austin Regional Intelligence Center, fusion center, Reefer Madness, drug trafficking, ONDCP

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