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Catching contraband: Illegal drugs at America's 'hidden borders'

We were given rare access to America's "hidden border" (Photo: Eric Frisbee)
We were given rare access to America's "hidden border" (Photo: Eric Frisbee)
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CINCINNATI (SBG) — America has "hidden borders" across the country where, each night, millions of packages arrive from and depart to countries around the world. In the age of e-commerce, the world of air freight is becoming increasingly important and congested. And increasingly, some of the deliveries disguise shipments of illegal drugs.

Spotlight on America’s investigative correspondent Duane Pohlman gained unprecedented access to one of the country’s largest air freight hubs to witness how officers from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or CPB, are searching for and finding those illegal drugs.

Editor’s Note: U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) asked us not to identify the air cargo facility in Cincinnati where we were granted permission to document CBP’s efforts.


As darkness descends, planes filled with cargo from around the world begin to touch down at the nation’s airports.

At three of the nation’s larger air hubs located in Memphis, Louisville and Cincinnati, millions of packages of air freight arrive each night to be off-loaded, scanned, sorted and sent off to far-flung destinations. In the middle of the buzz of conveyer belts, officers of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection are working on America’s hidden front lines for freight.

“This is the border,” CBP’s Cincinnati Port Director Richard Gillespie said, making it clear that many of the packages arriving each night are coming to America for the first time.


Around the hub in Cincinnati, highly trained CBP officers employ experience, intelligence, and high-tech machinery to catch the contraband hiding inside some of the packages that flow on the belts.

“You're kind of playing a game of hide and seek out there with the bad guys,” Eric Zizelman Chief Supervisory Officer at the Port of Cincinnati noted.

Pictures taken by CBP after seizures reveal the “bad guys” are getting better at hiding illegal drugs in the shipments.

From liquid heroin hidden inside shampoo bottles to containers of fentanyl melted inside candles, and methamphetamine molded into cell phone cases, CBP officers are seeing smugglers resorting to increasingly creative ways to smuggle their drugs.

I never cease to be amazed by the ingenuity of the drug traffickers and the way they try to conceal the narcotics,” Gillespie told us.


It’s just after 1 a.m. and a highly trained K-9 named Bruno on top of the conveyer line, sniffs, then sits next to a box that’s being shipped from the U.S. to Australia. It’s a clear cue that drugs are inside.

A quick trip over to a half-million-dollar scanning X-ray machine reveals a picture of some substance tucked inside a crockpot.

CBP officers waste no time opening the package and in seconds begin pulling out plastic bags, full of sparkling white crystals.

“That’s meth,” CBP Supervisory Officer Jeremy Clark said.

To be sure, we headed to a mobile home-looking structure in the middle of the massive hub, home to CBP’s lab.

Inside, CBP Officer Neil Lageman grabs a tiny bag called the test kit, containing tiny glass capsules filled with chemicals to test the substance.

“We're going to break this first. ampoule first,” Officer Lageman explains, adding that if the crystals turn purple, it’s meth.

It doesn’t take long after the crack of the capsule before a dark purple appears.

“So that's positive, right?” Pohlman asks.

Lageman confirms it, adding, “That is a hard, yes!”

Several bags of the meth that were tucked inside a crockpot now sit on a digital scale.

“That’s a kilo of meth?” Pohlman asks.

“Yep,” Lageman answers, adding “You have 2.2 pounds of it.”

According to figures provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, officers across the country seized more than14,000 pounds of meth hidden in 1,188 packages of air freight in two years, 2021 and 2022.


Back at the x-ray machine, officers are taking a close look at a shipment from Ecuador. It’s labeled as coconut oil and when officers open the box, small bottles that look like other consumer brands of coconut oil emerge.

But the officers have information to be on the lookout for the shipment and they decide to test it.

The field test reveals light purple this time, positive, according to a CBP officer that the liquid is actually the dangerous drug ketamine, a powerful anesthetic and hallucinogen that is sometimes used to knock out victims of sexual assaults.

“This is a date rape drug?” Pohlman asks.

CBP officers don’t hesitate to answer, “Yes.”

There are hundreds of ounces of it in the batch that CBP just captured.

In the last two years, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have seized more than 6,941 pounds of ketamine in 961 seizures across the country.

The full list of drugs confiscated by CBP across the country in 2021 and 2021 is stunning. In just two years, officers seized a total of 124,605 pounds of illegal drugs, hidden in 18,145 packages.


While the shipping labels identify who sent the drugs and who was supposed to receive them, CBP’s mission is limited to capturing contraband inside air freight hubs.

The information, including names and addresses of those tied to the packages of illegal drugs, is passed on to other federal agencies, primarily the Department of Homeland Security, to investigate and track down the people behind the shipments.


At the X-ray machine, another box that is being shipped to the U.S. from the Caribbean now has the full attention of officers.

The photo on the display reveals what you’d expect, electronic components, a speaker, and wires. But hidden behind that, envelope-like packages are tucked inside.

When the karaoke machine is removed from the box, Lageman wastes no prying the plastic shell open, revealing a pound of high-grade pot hiding inside vacuum-packed bags.

Marijuana is number one on the list of CBP seizures, with more than 32,000 pounds of pot uncovered inside 18,145 air freight packages in 2021 and 2022.


U.S. Customs and Border Protection is proud of its record of catching contraband inside the country’s hidden borders.

We’re meeting the threat at the front lines,” CBP Branch Chief Sean Cowie said during a recent Zoom interview.

But even with the best efforts of these highly trained officers, Chief Cowie acknowledged, “It's impossible to catch everything.”

For officers working the front lines, that fact motivates them to work smarter.

“It drives you to find the next shipment,” Officer Clark noted.

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It’s a drive that doesn’t stop in Clark and the other officers’ never-ending quest to discover hidden drugs before the packages fly away.

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