U.S., Amtrak: The Reality Of Transporting Illegal Drugs By Train Burst Into Public View

By J. Bruce Richardson, Corridor Rail Development Corporation; October 5, 2021

Another Amtrak long distance/inter-regional train was in the national news this week, and not for a good reason. The eastbound Sunset Limited, Train No. 2, during a routine station stop at Tucson, Arizona suddenly became the scene of a gun battle between an alleged drug courier and Drug Enforcement Agency officers. The scene became a horror with deaths. Millions of Americans saw and heard video of the incident through the news media, including multiple gunshots being fired inside of a Superliner.

Some have expressed surprise at drug couriers using Amtrak as a way of transporting illegal drugs.

Newsflash: it’s been going on since the earliest days of Amtrak.

Drug dealers aren’t particularly interested in how their drugs get to market, they only care the great majority of the drugs reach their destination. Amtrak trains traditionally are perfect for the job.

There is no baggage inspection when boarding a train and no security for passengers to pass through before boarding, such as at an airport. Historically, the chances of drug couriers being caught on a train have been lower than being caught driving a vehicle down an interstate highway.

In the early days of Amtrak, a college student bereft of a conscience living in Washington used to brag that he would regularly travel up the Northeast Corridor in a cozy Amtrak roomette to meet his drug connection in New York City, make his purchase, and travel back to Washington in another roomette. He said he always looked respectable and carried a briefcase to use for his drug haul. He thought he just “blended in” as another NEC passenger riding in a sleeping car.

One of the virtues of Amtrak is the wide diversity of passengers Amtrak attracts to all of its trains. There is a “little bit of everything” in the Amtrak demographics so no particular ethnicity stands out, and the denizens of the trains include everyone from children to teens to adults to senior citizens. Everybody blends in.

While these days passengers do have to provide proof of identity to board a train, that is a relatively new requirement. During the first three or more decades of Amtrak there was no requirement for personal identification to either purchase a ticket or board a train. Today, of course, that has changed, but, from a drug courier standpoint, so what? If you have a novice courier or even a seasoned courier who no one is aware of, what difference does it make if there is no criminal record? For that matter, Amtrak does not make a criminal background check for any passenger purchasing a ticket (nor, should they), so any name is just another name on a manifest.

The long distance trains are particularly good for drug couriers. A passenger can board either a sleeping car or coach, settle in, and just wait for their detraining station to arrive.

For the Sunset Limited, there was a history of New Orleans Police Department drug-sniffing canines taking a walk through the train during the long layover when the train traveled its full route to Florida. The K-9 deputy handler was actually a nice guy and his dog was pleasantly friendly. When chatting with him on the station platform he always kept an eye open for any suspicious activity and the K-9 always had his nose in the air, but the deputy always carried on an enlightening conversation.

More than once he had stories told by sleeping car attendants when, after the train backing into the station, a passenger seeing the K-9 on the platform, then the passenger would discreetly detrain and disappear into the mist of New Orleans, leaving behind his luggage.

For the Southwest Chief, Albuquerque has always been a favorite spot for DEA agents to board the train during the station dwell time and walk the train. More than once a drug courier had their trip interrupted.

There have also been times when this has not worked well. A few years ago there was a young male who agents thought was a drug courier in Albuquerque and he was removed from the train, along with his possessions. In his possession was a very large amount of cash, which was confiscated by the agents as potential drug money.

While the man was released without any charges, the government, under some of our less-than-stellar drug laws, kept the money, proclaiming it was potentially for criminal use. The last news article about the incident some years ago said the man had sued the government to try and reclaim his lawful money, but the government was fighting the lawsuit.

In Richmond, Virginia one sunny midday the Staples Mill Road Amtrak station was crawling with DEA and other law enforcement officers apparently acting on prior knowledge some sort of alleged criminal was on one of the many daily Amtrak trains passing through the station. Much hubbub ensued, but no visible arrest was made. The excitement, however, provided entertainment value for those of us waiting outside the station for our train to arrive.

The bottom line is Amtrak trains have been drug courier routes for decades and Amtrak knows it, the Amtrak Police Department knows it, and the DEA knows it. The only reasonable thing which can be done is to have an active drug enforcement presence to deter drug couriers from thinking this is a “safe” way to transport their goods to market.

We all know illegal drug entrepreneurs constantly are seeking ways to transport their goods from one location to another in ways they won’t be caught. We also know there is an almost endless supply of gullible couriers, looking to make a big payday for hauling the drugs, who are willing to take a chance they won’t be detected.

The sad and unfortunate deadly scene in Tucson is just an example of the height of lawlessness some are willing to go to so they can complete their mission. The lives of bystanders and other passengers are not important to these people, only the completion of their journey matters.

All good people are appreciative of what the DEA and law enforcement do to confront the tidal wave of illicit drugs. For many of us, it hits close to home when the confrontation takes place with real bullets flying on a passenger train.

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