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25 Investigates: Drugs, sex and guns traveling through Central Texas daily on I-35

Posted: 8:23 AM, Feb 06, 2020
Updated: 2020-02-06 19:52:45-05

CENTRAL TEXAS — From Laredo, Texas to Duluth, Minnesota, I-35 is one of the most driven highways in the United States.

In Central Texas, it's not only the pathway that connects people to businesses, universities, homes, restaurants and charity organizations, but is also a major pipeline to the largest drug cartels that operate out of Mexico and Pan America.

So, is it a highway to sex, drugs, guns and money, or a sweet, innocent thoroughfare? Or, both?

25 Investigates asked several law enforcement officials, as well advocates in Central Texas like Susan Peters, Executive Director of Unbound.

When 25 Investigates met her for an interview, the first alarming statistic she told us that in 24 hours, there are 300 ads for sex off the I-35 corridor

And it's not just sex. Drugs and guns are also major money makers for drug and human traffickers operating in Central Texas - using I-35 as the backdrop to their criminal activity.

"They have to have this means to get their drugs from the border all the way to Dallas, Oklahoma, Kansas on up. So, it is a thoroughfare for the narcotics trade, unfortunately...but it's very valuable to them" says McLennan County Sheriff, Parnell McNamara.

According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, I-35 is one of eight drug transportation corridors in the U.S.

In Central Texas, that keeps DPS troopers busy monitoring 70 miles of highway that stretches from West to Salado.

DPS Sergeant Bryan Washko says for those running that route, it's about blending in.

"People ask what a drug courier looks like and on television they have a certain look, but in real life they look like your local librarian, they look like somebody's grandparents in an RV traveling, construction worker...they'll be disguised as a business person (man or woman) or even a student," Washko said.

Of course, criminal activity doesn't stop with just drug operations on I-35.

Waco Police Chief Ryan Holt believes the smuggling operations are linked to more dangerous elements.

"Certainly, organized crime uses the narcotics trade to fund some of their other illegal activities...and some of those other illegal activities can be both labor trafficking, can be sex trafficking, can be human smuggling operations...and so, that's really the tie in there with organized crime," Holt said.

Part of that organized crime - moving human trafficking victims from city to city in order to get more buyers.

Peters explains why human trafficking has become the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, with more than 40 million victims worldwide impacted.

"Human trafficking is a big money maker and so people who normally trade arms or drugs, they are turning to also human trafficking because drugs or guns you can sell one time, but a human being you can sell over and over again," Peters said.
And it's happening in Central Texas.
And it's happening in Central Texas.

From Jan. 4 of this year until Feb. 4, 51,503 sex ads were placed online along the I-35 corridor.

Emily Mills, founder of the organization Jesus Said Love, said that this is fueled by those working in the sex trade.

"40% of strip clubs in Texas are along the I-35 corridor, so when we started this ministry 16 years ago, we started just by going into strip clubs," Mills. "We had no idea what we were going to be encountering there. We didn't understand kind of the nuance between stripping and prostitution and human trafficking. So Waco's really strategic along this corridor."

Not just strategic in how smugglers and traffickers transport drugs, guns and money from the border of Mexico, but how local distributors go to great lengths to help those from outside the I-35 pipeline.

"So just in 2019 alone, the street crimes unit conducted several operations like that where they were able to not only get drugs, but also money that was being transported back. They were able to find just a vast number of wanted individuals from surrounding communities or even surrounding states," according to Waco Police Officer, Garen Bynum.

These wanted individuals in local Central Texas communities have become smarter in the way they distribute off I-35, making opioids like Hydrocodone, Hydrocodeine, Oxycontin, Vicodin and morphine more popular on the street.

A problem, according to Congressman Bill Flores, lawmakers in Washington D.C. have noticed.

"We've done done a lot when it comes to human trafficking. As far as the drug trade, we still continue to need to work with the states to let them know that the fact when you legalize certain categories of drugs, that you're putting more pressure on the system by increasing demand," Flores said.

The harder the criminals work, the harder law enforcement will continue to be encouraged in the battle against criminal activity pouring into Central Texas. The goal: to disrupt the criminal elements that are operating on I-35 and beyond, while also keeping families safe and secure says McNamara,

"We get a lot of tips, we solve crimes because our good citizens are observant. And if something doesn't look right, it's probably not...and that's what we tell them," McNamara said.