The Press-Enterprise

The Temecula area has seen a spike in large cocaine seizures by the Border Patrol -- up to 80 pounds at a time -- over the past few months.

Agents have discovered cocaine stashed in secret compartments inside gas tanks, dashboards and back seats. In some cases, a heavy scent of cologne or air freshener wafted from the vehicles -- an apparent attempt to thwart drug-sniffing dogs.

In the five months since the Border Patrol's fiscal year began, agents in the sector that includes southwest Riverside County have seized 625 pounds of cocaine, including 388 pounds in and around Temecula alone. During the entire previous year, agents in the San Diego sector seized about 700 pounds. And the year before that, less than one pound was seized.

The cause of the increase isn't clear. Border Patrol officials presume the drugs are passing through on their way from Mexico. In most cases, the people found with the drugs are Mexican nationals, said Border Patrol spokesman Mark Endicott.

Most of the cocaine seized in the Temecula area has been uncovered during vehicle stops on Interstate 15 -- not at the Border Patrol checkpoint, which is just south of Temecula and operates only at certain times.

The Border Patrol does not reveal what prompts agents to pull over and search a particular vehicle. Disclosing that information could help smugglers avoid detection, Border Patrol officials say.

The 388 pounds of cocaine seized, worth about $3.5 million wholesale, came in a series of large discoveries in the past few months:

On Nov. 17, agents found 75 pounds of cocaine in a hidden compartment of an SUV they stopped at the Interstate 15 checkpoint.

On Jan. 26, agents pulled over a car south of the checkpoint that had more than 37 pounds of cocaine in a secret compartment in the gas tank.

On Feb. 10, agents stopped an SUV near the Temecula Parkway exit and found more than 72 pounds of cocaine, also in the gas tank.

On Feb. 13, agents stopped another SUV near the Temecula Parkway exit and found about 80 pounds of cocaine in the gas tank.

On Feb. 19, agents pulled over a pickup on Interstate 15 near the Murrieta Hot Springs exit and found 55 pounds of cocaine, this time hidden in a compartment in the dashboard.

On Feb. 26, agents stopped a car north of the checkpoint and found about 69 pounds of cocaine in the rear bumper and inside the back seat.


Whether more cocaine has been passing through the area or agents are simply catching a greater proportion of the drug runners is an open question.

Border Patrol officials say they have been beefing up enforcement. About 650 agents have been added in the San Diego sector in the past two years, Endicott said, and more drug-sniffing dogs have been added as well.

But Endicott could not say whether agents are pulling over more vehicles. He said the number of vehicle stops isn't tracked.

Another possibility, Border Patrol officials said, could be that smugglers have shifted their routes from farther east back to the Interstate 15 corridor.

In the Border Patrol's El Centro sector, which covers most of Imperial County as well as the eastern reaches of Riverside and San Bernardino counties, agents have seized less than a pound of cocaine since October. Last year, agents there seized 182 pounds of cocaine, and the year before that about 1,163 pounds. That peak in the El Centro sector coincided with the low in the San Diego sector.

El Centro Border Patrol spokesman Jerry Gonzalez said increased staffing and a new stretch of border fence farther inland may have made the area less enticing to narcotics smugglers.


According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, the demand for cocaine has gone down in recent years, as has the supply in Southern California.

"What we're actually seeing across the board is a decrease in availability," DEA spokeswoman Sarah Pullen said. "It's much harder to get cocaine here."

Along with that change have come an increase in price and a decrease in purity, Pullen said.

Right now, Pullen said, cocaine is selling for $18,000 to $22,000 per kilogram, compared with $11,000 to $13,000 per kilogram a few years ago. The purity of the cocaine being sold on the streets has gone from about 80 percent to 60 percent.

Even so, Pullen said, while there may be less cocaine making its way into the country, Southern California remains a transportation hub. Specific routes might shift back and forth, she said, but Inland California freeways are "the prime shipping areas."

Reach Sarah Burge at 951-375-3736 or
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