The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has a network of informants alerting it to suspicious travel activity, and though it seizes lots of cash, it rarely makes arrests, USA Today reports.
The DEA pays employees of airlines and Amtrak to report suspicious itineraries, such as one-way tickets to California, or passengers buying tickets with cash, according to the report.
The purpose is to seize cash and hurt drug cartels, though typically, arrests are rare, as are attempts to talk to suspects to find people higher up the chain.
"We want the cash. Good agents chase cash," George Hood, who was in charge of a drug task force at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago before he retired in 2007, told USA Today. "It was just easier to get the asset, and that's where you make a dent in the criminal organization."
But critics argue against the practice.
"Going after someone's property has nothing to do with protecting them and it has everything to do with going after the money," Renée Flaherty, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, told the newspaper.
It is usually not clear that those who have their money seized are actually couriers for drug cartels or that they have committed any crime for which they could be prosecuted.
In one case, a woman who was questioned by agents said she had been given money by her boyfriend from his retirement account to buy a car. Her story ended up checking out, and her $25,000 was returned – minus $4,000 that the DEA kept.
The money is used to fund anti-drug operations, and much is given to local law enforcement agencies which lend officers in the operations.
"They count on this as part of the budget," Louis Weiss, a former DEA supervisor at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, said. "Basically, you’ve got to feed the monster."
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