DEKALB COUNTY, Ala. (WAFF) - A crackdown is underway on some of northeast Alabama’s most heavily traveled roads to catch criminals trafficking drugs and smuggling people into the United States.
DeKalb County Sheriff Nick Welden says Interstate 59 is a pipeline criminal organizations are using more and more.
This week, his deputies stopped an SUV full of people being smuggled into the U.S. They busted another group being smuggled in last month as well.
“People are being charged to get them into this county. They owe these people a debt and they’ll take them somewhere and work them doing them God knows what to pay them back, whether it be a trade or sex slave,” the sheriff explained.
His agency just formed a Criminal Interdiction Team- a highly trained group that works on major highways and interstates.
“They go beyond routine patrols. Our interdiction team is highly trained to observe anything that could lead to busting drug trafficking or smuggling people, or anything illegal,” Weldon stated.
The county has roughly 40 miles of interstate.
In the group discovered this week included people from El Salvador, Ecuador, and Guatemala.
“There were men and women, all different ages, from juveniles to adults. They’re taking a big risk and gamble on their health and safety,” Sheriff Welden said. “These people were in the same clothing they were in since they crossed into our country and they hadn’t eaten so we fed them. They were struggling at this point.”
This is the first month the agency's new Criminal Interdiction Team has been out on major highways and they're already seeing results- the two major smuggling busts and 3/4 lb. of cocaine that would have supplied 250 people with a street value of $25,000. They've also had more than a dozen other arrests.
The sheriff explained that a large percentage of those coming from south of the border needing access to the East Coast will come through DeKalb County, highlighting the importance of the agency's interdiction efforts.
"This is something that's going to be growing because it's getting harder to get drugs into this country at the border and that's why we put this interdiction team into place to prevent more drugs from coming into or through our county and in this case, catching another group of smugglers in less than a month," Sheriff Welden added.
Last month on I-59, a DeKalb County Patrol Sergeant and K-9 Deputy conducted a traffic stop on a vehicle from Texas.
Nine people were inside the SUV. After a further investigation, it was determined that the occupants were in the United States illegally and it was a human smuggling operation to transport them into the country from the Southern Border, the sheriff's office said.
This week, the interdiction team intercepted another human smuggling operation. They conducted a traffic stop on an SUV near the 218 mile marker of I-59. After searching the vehicle, ten people were found inside- nine people trying to come into the U.S. and the coyote, or person they paid to bring them on the trip.
When asked about the difference between human trafficking and human smuggling, agency officials explained that someone is “trafficked” against their will. It is involuntary. It is for someone else’s benefit. Someone is “smuggled” voluntarily, knowingly, it is his/her will and to his/her benefit. But Welden says coyotes charge huge amounts of money and many people can’t pay up front so they end up working off their debt.
"Those people really want to get here and they're looking for a better future in their eyes, but they're paying a high price- anything from slavery, to sex crimes to working for a drug trafficker that ties back to the cartel," the sheriff said.
Last week, the interdiction team also interrupted a Kratom trafficking operation on Interstate 59.
A deputy conducted a traffic stop and noticed that an open container of alcohol was inside the vehicle.
After a search, deputies found more than six ounces of the banned substance Kratom. 62 illegally possessed Vyvanse pills (Schedule 2 Narcotic), drug paraphernalia, and marijuana.
After an investigation, it was determined the narcotics were headed from Texas to New York, a press release said.
The driver, Christopher Bailey (34 of Round Rock, Texas) was charged with Trafficking in Any Illegal Drug, Possession of Drug Paraphernalia, and Open Container. The passenger, Patrick Tisdale (35 of Austin,Texas) was charged with Possession of Controlled Substance, Possession of Marijuana 2nd, Possession of Drug Paraphernalia, and Open Container.
As for the smuggling busts, Homeland Security took over the cases and took custody of the people being illegally transported into the United States. They're investigating the smuggling rings. Federal charges are pending.
"We're just going to stay after it and our guys are going to do what they do best. They're going to get out there and our interdiction team is going to continue to work and we're going to continue to fight hard to keep things like this from coming into our county and through our county," Sheriff Welden stated about his interdiction team, applauding their efforts.
The sheriff’s office sees the new unit as a proactive step to protect their community, as well as other cities and towns.