DEA Agents Ambush Amtrak Passengers With Controversial Searches and Seizures

The pleasant trip ended at approximately 12:30 p.m. on July 7, 2008, when DEA Special Agent Mark Hyland and Stephen Surprenant de Garcia, an officer assigned to the DEA’s local interdiction task force, approached McKenzie as he smoked a cigarette in Albuquerque. Without realizing that the agents had already flagged his itinerary as suspicious, McKenzie opened his Louis Vuitton bag, revealing a cereal box at the bottom that the agents noticed was unusually heavy.

There are “a lot of people traveling on the train with something they don’t want the government knowing about,” McKenzie said in an interview with The Intercept, and law enforcement all along the route are aware of this fact as well.

At Chicago’s Union Station, the final destination for the eastbound Southwest Chief and a hub for other long distance lines, a Chicago interdiction task force group, made of DEA agents and officers from the Chicago and Amtrak police departments, are routinely on the hunt for what they call “drug proceed couriers,” or in other words, people carrying large sums of cash. An Amtrak Police Department canine in Chicago named Gander has detected the smell of narcotics on luggage that turned out to be carrying anywhere from a modest $20,040 to a whopping $830,000, according to asset forfeiture suits filed by the U.S. government within the past year and a half.

“Los Angeles is a known source city for illegal narcotics,” DEA Special Agent Ryan Marriott wrote in an arrest affidavit in January 2019, describing how he found a courier on the Southwest Chief in Kansas City, Missouri. The man was allegedly trying to smuggle crystal meth in size 18 shoes for someone he knew only as Big Pun. “Members of our squad have made numerous narcotic arrests and seizures from this train route,” Marriott wrote.

In Kansas City, DEA agents and local officers with the Missouri Western Interdiction and Narcotics Task Force await passengers on the train heading east. And in Galesburg, Illinois, population 32,193, officers from the Galesburg Police Department and the Knox County Sheriff’s Department have reportedly seized 191 pounds of cannabis from Amtrak passengers over a period of six years, in addition to some harder drugs. They’ve made the arrests in the short amount of time that the Southwest Chief is stopped at the station.

“I would say less than five minutes,” Knox County Detective Greg Jennings told the Register-Mail newspaper last year.

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