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That's Not Soda: Cartels step up effort to move heroin into US

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Pinal County, AZ (CNN) - Drug smugglers are getting creative when it comes to getting their cargo across the US-Mexican border.

What appears to be a shipment of Coca-Cola is a cover for a different commodity with broad consumer appeal: heroin. The soda shipment scheme is one of the latest smuggling attempts foiled by border agents at the Nogales Port of Entry.


Joe Agosttini - Assistant Port Director, Nogales, Arizona: "You know they're always ahead of us. They're very innovative"

They are determined to push heroin north. Assistant Port Director Joe Agosttini says just halfway through this fiscal year, his agents have already seized more heroin than what was seized during the last three years. Those acting as mules for Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel try every tactic possible, including packing it on their bodies and walking it through as day visitors.

Joe Agosttini: "Now we're catching people that are 82-years-old. Here comes grandma coming through the Port of Entry."

Or they hide heroin in family mini vans and commercial trucks and hope to avoid often meticulous inspections.

Joe Agosttini: "The gas tank very common. It's becoming more sophisticated; The tires, they basically built a donut that's made out of metal. It's a compartment within a compartment; The air conditioning, the ducts. Can you tell that a vehicle is loaded with drugs in the driveshaft? It’s very difficult."

Heroin's dominance in the drug trade is also evident about 100 miles north of the Nogales Port of Entry in the Vekol Valley, where you'll find Pinal County Sheriff's Lieutenant Matthew Thomas patrolling the desert.

Lieutenant Matthew Thomas - Pinal County Sheriff's Office: "So a couple years back, if you found a pound of heroin, that was a lot, now and days, you can find a load of 50 or 60 pounds or 100 pounds of heroin"

Thomas often comes across backpackers hauling their expensive cargo.

Lieutenant Matthew Thomas: "They'll come in and sit down and rest and wait for their ride to get here. In the high points you have scouts. Their role is to observe and report via radio or phone to their bosses whether they can or cannot move in that area."

If smugglers are successful, they make it to metro Phoenix, a major distribution hub for the nation.  The DEA says within three days the heroin ends up on streets in the east and midwest

The shipments are dispersed in cities big and small; hot spots include Chicago, Atlanta, New York City, Topeka Kansas, Dayton Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky. Thomas says it's difficult to say how much of an impact law enforcement are making against the heroin trade. It's an endeavor he describes as a cat and mouse game that's constantly evolving. 

Lieutenant Matthew Thomas: "However we caught them, they'll switch up how they do business. It's constant back and forth, our tactics, their counter-tactics"