Move That Dope: How Drug Smugglers Use Hidden Car Traps

There’s no part of the drug trade that isn’t dangerous, but transporting drugs can be one of the most risky stages of the process. On the season premiere of Drugs, Inc., the crew exposes the veins of Salt Lake City’s drug trade from the viewpoint of a DEA agent, an addict, a smuggler and a distributor. The episode highlight distribution’s vulnerability: even as the drug trade has gotten more sophisticated, the most efficient way to move drugs around will always be in a personal automobile.

drug bust

This is your Car with Drugs

Although cartels go to great and varied lengths to avoid detection during trans-continental smuggling, using private aircraft, disguised casing, human drug mules, tunnels and even submarines, once inside the U.S. few vehicles are granted more privacy rights than the personal automobile. Boats offshore can be regularly searched by the Coast Guard without a warrant and even non-commercial air-traffic are monitored and heavily scrutinized by various law-enforcement agencies (though they have the same rights as cars, post-9/11 regulation and relative scarcity increase their visibility). Low-level street dealers in some major cities are subject to stop and frisk laws, where they can be randomly searched for drugs.

Considering these factors, once the drugs enter the U.S. and arrive at covert distribution facilities, personal cars are the only inconspicuous way to ferry drugs to their destinations.

Once the U.S. launched the War on Drugs in earnest during the 70s’, many smugglers began devising ways to slip past officials during vehicle searches. Thus arose the car trap, a hidden compartment in a car invisible from a visible search. Today, different kids of traps and hidden compartments exist to service different needs. The most expensive – and infamous – of these are the traps mastered by makers such as Claude Marceau, who engineered traps at the height of the French Connection. This process requires actually dismantling much of the vehicle in order to discover the drugs which have been welded or stored in compartments not easily searched during traffic stops.

As Wired notes, this technique is often used in getting the drugs into the U.S. But it’s far too costly and inefficient for smaller gangs and distributors that are closer to the street-level dealer and have a smaller cut or the profits, yet must move drugs between locations. So in the 80s’, mechanics and auto-body specialists commissioned by drug dealers began building “urban traps,” or small compartments where drugs could be stashed and only revealed using after-market mechanized switches. These evolved into more sophisticated compartments which utilized a car’s internal electric system, allowing drug smugglers to hide drug compartments behind customized combinations of built-in signals (compartments that could only open if all of the doors were closed became common; some flashier dealers now use voice-activated controls).

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Springing the Trap

When encountering a car that a law-enforcement officer suspects possesses drugs, the officer’s goal is to verify whether or not there’s probable cause to search the vehicle. This can be shockingly easy to obtain, so long as there’s evidence: police can acquire warrants from their squad cars, as long as a magistrate agrees that there is probable cause.

When a car trap is involved, the process can be more complicated for officers. One of the only ways to legally uncover a car trap without a search are drug-detection dogs, utilized by most law-enforcement agencies with enthusiasm. Thousands of dogs are trained specifically to sniff for drugs – many breeds’ noses are so sensitive, they can detect residue of drugs long after the drugs themselves are gone.

However, recently the judgement of drug sniffing dogs has come into question. Drug detection dogs can be responding to an officer’s signals intentionally or unintentionally, thereby compromising the dog’s evidence. This can be abusive: in 2011, the Chicago Tribune reported that drug-sniffing dogs were unfairly targeting hispanics (Chicago is a major site of the Sinola Cartel’s U.S. distribution of narcotics). And although the Supreme Court last year ruled in favor of the legality of warrantless use of drug-detection dogs on the roads, their use and reliability remain controversial.


  1. […] As long as the U.S. demand for legal drugs holds firm, drug trafficking organizations will continue to find new ways to get drugs into the country. Of course, it’s once they’re inside the U.S. that many traffickers get really creative. […]