- Mostly cloudy
ERLANGER, Ky. - Our airport was once a hub for travelers around the globe.
Now it's a hub for international smugglers.
US Customs and Border Protection allowed our cameras extraordinary access to the largest DHL facility in the western hemisphere. DHL is the world leader in international shipping, so it's no surprise smugglers from around the world have chosen the shipper to move their drugs and other contraband.
DHL and US Customs work together to intercept as many illegal shipments as possible during the four to five hours when the packages are on the ground at CVG.
"Anyone who wants to circumvent the system, obviously we don't want to do business with them," said Travis Cobb, DHL's vice president in charge of the Erlanger facility.
Even though fewer than 1 percent of all packages contain illegal cargo, customs officers are intercepting drugs every night.
In the last six months, they've seized more than 1 ton of illegal narcotics in Northern Kentucky:
- Cocaine - 90 pounds
- Heroin - 176 pounds
- Methamphetamines - 61 pounds
- Marijuana - 516 pounds
- Synthetic narcotics - 593 pounds
- Opium - 626 pounds
The smugglers do their best to conceal the illicit cargo, including drug money shipped from Mexico to Colombia. Customs officers seized $640,000 in cash they found hidden in the rollers of a tortilla press at the Erlanger facility last year.
"Blood diamonds, you name it," said Adam Vance, a Customs and Border Protection officer known for his keen eye detecting contraband. "Basically anything larger than a pencil can be used as a concealment device."
Smugglers often pack their drugs into the frames of paintings. They even printed Sponge Bob Square Pants posters on pure cocaine to avoid detection. Recently Customs officers found a huge shipment of heroin packed into individual tampons. For a full gallery of some items that contraband was hidden in, visit http://www.wcpo.com/gallery/news/news_photo_gallery/drugs-disguised-but-intercepted-at-cvg .
"They're changing their techniques all the time," said another customs officer, Todd Stead.
First Line of Defense
Officer Stead was giving us a tour of the flight line -- where 40 planes were being loaded and unloaded -- when a radiation alert was triggered. Each and every international package is scanned by a radiation detector, and this time a single package set off the alarm.
After using handheld devices to pinpoint the source of the radiation, customs officers and DHL workers emptied an entire shipping container to isolate the suspect parcel.
It turned out to be a tiny geode -- a collector's rock small enough to fit in Officer Stead's hand. The low-level, naturally-occurring radiation from the rock was enough to trigger the alarm.
"Our equipment is so sensitive that it will pick up the presence of radiation even in kitty litter," said Officer Stead. The clay used in kitty litter has a similarly small level of natural radioactivity.
Dangerous Things Come in Small Packages
When you think of international smuggling, you probably picture Miami or Southern California, not Northern Kentucky. Those other ports do see larger individual shipments of drugs, sometimes filling big shipping containers.
The ton of drugs seized at DHL in Erlanger since October came in much smaller packages.
"Things come in smaller sizes," said Officer Vance, "and it's more of a challenge to find the unique concealment methods."
Customs uses many techniques to detect hidden drugs and other contraband, including X-ray machines and drug-sniffing dogs.
Officer Vance is usually stationed at the X-ray machine, but his own experience is often better at detecting what's inside a package. He looks at the shipping label for the nation of origin, the destination, and the declared contents. Vance's coworkers say he appears to have a sixth sense for detecting drugs and other hidden items.
While we were with him, Vance focused on a shipment of carpet from Somalia. He decided it was worth a closer look.
The X-ray revealed something inside the rolls of carpet. Once the package was opened, officers discovered a shipment of khat, an illegal herb containing the stimulant cathinone. Users chew it to get high.
Even though the shipment was on its way from Somalia to Canada, U.S. Customs was able to intercept it.
"Once the freight's here we have full control over it, and we can seize it," Vance said.
Either the problem is getting worse, or customs officers are getting better at detecting contraband, because they've already seized more drugs in the last six months than they did the entire year before.
Copyright 2012 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
38-time Emmy winner Brendan Keefe was named Best Reporter by the Ohio Associated Press in 2011, and Best Photographer in 2012 and 2013. He serves as Anchor and Chief Investigator for 9 On Your Side.
Jason Law joined 9 On Your Side in January 2013 as a investigative reporter with the I-Team.