‘A million pills a month’: KIRO 7 investigates how drugs could slip past airport security

SEATTLE — Late last year, a massive years-long federal sting operation revealed that Mexican-based drug cartels had been using checked luggage as a pipeline to ship large amounts of fentanyl into the Seattle area. Five months later, KIRO 7 undertook an investigation where we tested whether airport security would notice large amounts of pills in checked baggage.

The Transportation Security Administration has stopped fentanyl couriers before. In October, a man at LAX was found to have 12,000 fentanyl pills stashed in candy packs. But the January federal bust of couriers packing pills in checked luggage at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport amounted to more than 40 times that amount.

“In this one investigation we estimated they were bringing in a million pills a month into the Seattle region,” said Robert Hammer, Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security in the Pacific Northwest. “A million pills every month.”

Hammer added that suitcases carried by drug couriers were only one of many methods “in a daily deluge of fentanyl into this region” transported by cartels.

The TSA’s website indicates its screening procedures are designed to detect potential threats, and not necessarily illegal drugs. It goes on to say that security officers “do not search for illegal drugs, but if any illegal substance is discovered during security screening, TSA will refer the matter to a law enforcement officer.”

To see if that would happen, KIRO 7 producer Julie Berg packed more than 3,000 legal over-the-counter pain pills into clear plastic bags, and then into checked luggage for a series of experimental test flights. At a glance, the pills appeared similar to packaging containing fentanyl-laced pills, which had been confiscated and tested by federal agents in the past.

Berg checked the bag at SEA for a flight to Spokane, and separate flights to Portland and back to SEA. The TSA told KIRO 7 they screen every bag with a series of X-rays showing agents what’s inside. If an agent checks anything out by hand, they have to leave a tag inside, alerting the bag’s owner to the extra attention.

After each flight, the pills were right where she put them, and there was no security tag suggesting a second, closer look from an agent.

U.S. Attorney Nick Brown said the TSA alone is limited when it comes to detecting drugs on flights.

“I know that TSA and the ports of entry do stop some of it,” he said. “They are principally focused on explosives and firearms anything that can be an immediate harm to other people on the plane.”

KIRO 7 asked Port of Seattle police how much fentanyl they’ve tested and confiscated in luggage, and the numbers of arrests related to fentanyl seizures. The Port indicated the records could take several weeks to compile.

“The Port is unable to search only for fentanyl-based drug seizures and must search all drug-related seizures in an attempt to locate the records you are seeking,” they stated in an email to KIRO 7.

KIRO 7 asked Brown if catching every fentanyl pill being carried through SEA would make an impact on the amount of the dangerous opioid flowing into our region.

“It would not get to the principal points of entry that we deal with,” he said. “We stopped large RVs full of meth and pills in a big case last year.”

Both Brown and Hammer told KIRO 7 other cartels are shipping the pills here by the car and truckload, and even by boats, in a hailstorm of never-ending supply to keep up with the dark demands of addiction on Seattle’s streets.

“Not a week goes by in my office that I’m not getting briefed by one of my teams across the Pacific Northwest where we’re taking 30 to 40,000 fentanyl pills off the streets,” Hammer said.

“People are overdosing, and lots of kids are dying and they’re dying because of these pills,” Brown added. “I’m concerned that there are lots of opportunity for cartels to bring it into our district and we’ve just got to do more to try to stop it.”