KIRO 7 goes behind the scenes as officers work to catch drug smugglers at Sea-Tac Airport

SEATAC, Wash. — Every time you’re ticketed on a plane departing SEA International Airport, as you wind through a swarm of departing masses, you know your suitcase will soon be targeted for an exam by TSA agents.

TSA’s focus is looking for security threats. TSA’s directive is not to search for illegal drugs.

But far beyond where you’re legally allowed to go, where your screened bag roars through a routing roller coaster at blinding speed, KIRO-7 cameras were given rare security clearance for an inside look. We were shown where your suitcase could be pulled for a second secret sniff exam.

In this area, drug-sniffing dogs and detectives work behind the scenes to find out if you’re smuggling drugs in your luggage.

“Sometimes we’ll go and sniff a lineup of bags, looking for any narcotics coming through,” said Det. Darin Beam with the Port of Seattle Police Drug Interdiction Team.

Beam relies on a network of intelligence to quietly intercept drugs from smugglers hauling astonishing amounts of fentanyl, methamphetamine, heroin, and even mind-blowing amounts of illegally packaged marijuana.

Beam told KIRO-7 that many of the smugglers they arrested had been paid to pose as everyday passengers. As KIRO-7 reported last May, Homeland Security agents believe this kind of drug smuggling in checked luggage was the source of a million pills per month being trafficked in the Seattle area.

Recently, the interdiction team was tipped about a woman who had booked a one-way ticket. Dogs alerted to the presence of drugs in her checked bag. Inside, they found 150,000 fentanyl pills.

Detectives say often, drug couriers buy last-minute one-way tickets with cash. They track people who do that, with the goal of stopping drugs from being relayed out of SEA to other airports.

Beam said a 26-year-old man was recently stopped after landing at SEA. Inside his luggage, a search warrant revealed a box packed with nearly 34 lbs. of fentanyl pills.

Another woman flying one-way from SEA to Alaska was tracked by the Interdiction team. After she landed, she was arrested for hauling tens of thousands of fentanyl pills, along with meth in her luggage. Police records show the woman later admitted to jailers that she had a large amount of heroin also hidden in her rectum.

“A lot of times we see people who are paid just to transport bags,” Beam said. “Some people will even do it for a friend.”

Beam added that drug mules often would not fit any typical profile.

“There’s an 86-year-old male who had two suitcases with 50 lbs. of methamphetamine in it,’’ Beam said.

The senior’s suitcases appeared to be something a teen might use. A Betty Boop suitcase and a suitcase emblazoned with the logo from the show “Friends.” All of it was sniffed out by highly trained dogs.

Beam said Mexican drug cartels are fueling this deadly industry, ultimately luring couriers with cash to be discreet delivery agents, and often moving vast amounts of drugs into Seattle from Phoenix. From here, there are often attempts to relay the drugs to other states plagued with opioid addictions, like Alaska.

Several suspects from Washington State were arrested in Anchorage and Juneau for transporting fentanyl.

“Essentially, people from Washington State are being utilized to transport, with their bodies and their luggage, large amounts of drugs that could be very damaging,” Ketchikan Police Lt. Andy Berntson said.

The Interdiction team’s dogs are trained to sit when they smell narcotics. Detective Beam said they’re trained to react the same way, whether they smell a single fentanyl pill or a vast amount of marijuana.

If you think weed is legal and overlooked, it’s not at SEA. In one recent case, 84 lbs. were sniffed out of two suitcases headed for states where cannabis is not legal, and Beam said it can sell for double what legal marijuana sells for in Washington.

Beam said a recent tip led to the discovery of an enormous shipment of heavy cargo ticketed for St. Louis, where pot is not legal. In stacks of boxes, the drug dogs revealed a staggering 934 lbs. of illegally grown vacuum-sealed bags of marijuana.

Beam said the Interdiction team has a network of intel. They follow tips, types of ticketing, and little tells - helping them weed out the drug smugglers from everyone else.

“That’s our goal,” Beam said. “Our goal is to stop the drugs going through Sea-Tac airport and, find out who’s doing it. Any day that you can take drugs off the street is successful.”