Every year, about $12 billion in drug profits returns to Mexico from the U.S., the world’s largest narcotics market. Law enforcement pursues that drug money and is then allowed to keep a portion as an incentive to fight crime. In the first in a series, National Public Radio reports that the amount of drug dollars flowing into local police budgets is staggering. Justice Department figures show that in the past four years, the amount of assets seized by federal law enforcement agencies –most of it cash – has tripled, from $567 million to $1.6 billion. That doesn’t include tens of millions more the agencies got from state asset forfeiture programs. In Texas, public safety agencies seized more than $125 million last year.
While drug-related asset forfeitures expand police budgets, critics say the flow of money distorts law enforcement – that some cops have become more interested in seizing money than drugs, more interested in working southbound than northbound lanes. “If a cop stops a car going north with a trunk full of cocaine, that makes great press coverage, makes a great photo. Then they destroy the cocaine,” says Jack Fishman, an ex-IRS agent now a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta. “If they catch ’em going south with a suitcase full of cash, the police department just paid for its budget for the year.”