Interstate 20 is a key artery transporting drivers and goods across northern Louisiana.
Though only two lanes in each direction, it has also proven to be a major thoroughfare for drug trafficking between the Southeast, Texas and Mexico.
While large quantities of marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine flow through the area, Capt. Jay Ellerman of the Metro Narcotics Unit in Monroe said drugs that pass through on I-20 rarely are earmarked for delivery in the region.
In the case of methamphetamine and cocaine, high-quality product from Mexico is generally trafficked to Dallas and Houston. From there, drivers often transport the illegal substances into other states across the Deep South and Southeast.
Ellerman said officers can tell by the quality of drugs seized if they originated in Mexican “superlabs” — a type of drug factory where cocaine and methamphetamine are manufactured in quantities that can reach tons.
Louisiana State Police Trooper Albert Paxton said smugglers can often be revealed by something as innocuous as speeding or a broken or burnt-out taillight.
“There may be some cases when [officers] have tips, but for the most part, they’re just doing their jobs, looking and talking to people,” Paxton said, adding that drug traffickers frequently become nervous during such encounters and will confess to the illegal activities on their own volition.
“You start talking to people, asking them questions, and their story doesn’t match up,” he said. “You’d be surprised at what they’ll tell you.”
Many troopers are specially trained to pinpoint false stories and talk their way to the truth.
Before the Combat Methamphetamine Act of 2005 limiting nationwide the sale and purchase of pseudoephedrine — an ingredient found in now behind-the-counter cold medicines that can also be used as a chemical precursor in the manufacture of meth — the majority of methamphetamine seized in the region was produced in northeastern Louisiana, Ellerman said.
Since about 2008, however, he also said an increasing number of users travel to Texas to purchase the drug.
The majority of meth labs discovered in the region now are not cooking in bulk — they produce the drug with a “one pot, shake ’n’ bake” method, Ellerman said. These techniques result in a smaller amount of meth for personal use. But Ellerman said the process is more volatile than what is produced in bulk.Metro Narcotics has seen multiple fatalities as a result.
Marijuana in the mail
Paxton said Louisiana State Police are “starting to see trends of more marijuana coming from other states out west where it’s legal.”
High-grade marijuana found in northeastern Louisiana typically originates in California, where medical patients and caregivers may possess marijuana with a physician’s approval. For all other California residents, possession of one ounce or less of marijuana is punishable only by a maximum $100 fine, without the infraction appearing on a criminal record.
For more than a decade, Colorado has had a law on the books regarding the use of medical marijuana. On Jan. 1, the first retail recreational marijuana shops opened in Colorado to much fanfare. In-state residents can buy up to one ounce for recreational use while out-of-state residents are limited to a quarter-ounce.
Northeastern Louisiana drug users with contacts in California have marijuana shipped to them via the U.S. Postal Service or order the drug off the Internet. Ellerman said the post offices sometimes contact Metro Narcotics regarding suspicious packages. The unit will then bring detection dogs to the post offices. Depending on the dogs’ responses, officers will either obtain a search warrant for the package or allow it to be delivered in an attempt to locate the recipient.
That’s not to say I-20 isn’t used to bring pot through the region. In November, two men from the Houston area were caught by Louisiana State Police at eastbound mile marker 103 transporting 54 pounds of suspected marijuana. The driver told LSP that they were headed to Malone Stadium to see a University of Louisiana at Monroe football game; however, the Warhawks played two nights earlier in Troy, Ala.
Prescription drugs, primarily painkillers like Oxycodone, also present a problem in the region given the pervasive availability of such medications. Ellerman described the practice of “doctor shopping,” where drug users visit multiple physicians for the same ailment and obtain prescriptions for medication from them all. Once such people become known for this, Ellerman said they will travel to Texas for the “super pain clinics,” establishments where doctors will often prescribe higher dosages.
Ellerman is sure of one thing: Approximately 75 to 80 percent of crime — violent, property or otherwise — relates back to the usage and trafficking of drugs.
Paxton said drugs pass through the area constantly, and Ellerman said that eliminating drug trafficking is “next to impossible because of the rampant availability and amount of people that use it.”
Ellerman’s most eye-opening experience as a narcotics officer has been the realization that “it’s always around. It doesn’t discriminate.” He said that regardless of the race, wealth or class of residents, illegal substances can be found in any neighborhood.