FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- South Florida drug smugglers increasingly are using an alternative method of sending their shipments: the mail.
As bloody drug wars rage at the Mexican border and police efforts are stepped up to stop drug trafficking by the trailer load, the mail -- both the U.S. Mail and commercial carriers -- seems a less-risky way for drug dealers to ship their packages, authorities say.
"As the Border Patrol increases security on the border, it leads to smugglers using different tactics," said Miramar-based Postal Inspector Blad Rojo. "You know you can put it in the mail and it's going to get there. But we don't want the criminals to exploit the efficiency of our postal services."
Many of the marijuana and cocaine shipments to South Florida are coming from the Southwest region of the country, Rojo said, because Mexican drug dealers are crossing the border to mail their shipments.
Nationally, intercepted shipments of marijuana in the U.S. mail have been steady, if not decreasing, since 2009. But in Florida, more shipments are being stopped.
Nationally, there was 43,564 pounds of marijuana intercepted in the mail in 2009; 35,773 pounds confiscated last year; and 23,758 pounds confiscated through June this year, records show. In Florida, that was 2,158 pounds in 2009; 2,789 pounds last year; and 3,368 pounds through June.
Cocaine interceptions are on the rise both nationally and in Florida, records show. Nationally, there were 506 pounds intercepted in 2009; 657 pounds last year; and 434 through June. In Florida, there was 37 pounds of intercepted in both 2009 and 2010, and 44 pounds through June.
The packages typically contain 20-30 pounds of marijuana or a kilo or two of cocaine, Rojo said.
As Mexican drug lords get stronger, they no longer have to rely on Colombians, who typically shipped their drugs via the Caribbean, said Jim Hall, director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Substance Abuse at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.
As the quality of Mexican drugs has improved, the quantity has increased along the U.S. border, he said.
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U.S. mail statistics for Broward and Palm Beach counties were unavailable. But records for private carriers inspected by sheriff's deputies -- show spikes in drug interceptions.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office reported 130 drug packages intercepted in 2009; 220 last year and 100 through June. The Sheriff's Office would not release what types of drugs were stopped.
Broward County has seen increases mainly in cocaine and prescription pill interceptions, the Sheriff's Office said.
In 2009, deputies intercepted 80 kilos of cocaine and 21,512 oxycodone pills; 276 kilos of cocaine and 53,819 oxy pills in 2010 and 13 kilos of cocaine and 28,057 pills through June, records show.
Both sheriffs' offices declined to be interviewed for this article, citing security issues.
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Officials of FedEx and UPS said they have security programs in place but declined to discuss what would lead them to deem a package suspicious.
Public and private carriers, and law enforcement officers, need a warrant to open and search a package.
"We do a good job identifying suspicious packages," FedEx spokesman Jim McCluskey said.
Drugs usually come tightly packed in boxes, wrapped several times in plastic. When they contain pungent marijuana, that plastic often is covered in axle grease or fabric softener sheets to disguise the smell, inspectors said.
With the increase in drug interceptions comes an increase in drug arrests, authorities said.
"We are here to investigate and get big convictions so we discourage other people from doing it," Rojo said.
That's what happened to Charles Clayton, 39, of North Lauderdale, who was sentenced last year to 30 years in federal prison for having a kilo of cocaine shipped to him, court documents show.
Clayton's long criminal history contributed to his stiff sentence, Rojo said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in San Juan, Puerto Rico, intercepted a package labeled "Legal Documents," coming from St. Thomas and headed to Clayton's home, court records show.
The kilo was sent to the Postal Inspection office in Miramar and an undercover agent delivered it to Clayton.
Disguised as a postal carrier, the undercover agent asked Clayton if the package was his. Clayton said yes, signed for it, and when he tried to take the package, he was arrested.
(Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.)
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