Local News

US 27 seen as trafficking route for drugs

SEBRING - Every day there are thousands of cars traveling on U.S. 27, which is a direct route between Sebring and the Miami area.

Some drivers are tourists; some are residents; and some are delivering products to various businesses.

But Capt. Randy LaBelle of the Highlands County Sheriff's Office said he has no doubt that other drivers use the road for other illicit purposes, such as transporting illegal drugs and weapons.

"I think there's a ton of it (illegal drugs) being transported," said LaBelle, who is a direct supervisor over the office's drug operations. "We know there is a major amount of dope and money on U.S. 27."

Information obtained by investigators and circumstantial information lead LaBelle to that conclusion, he said.

One factor is that only three major north-south corridors exist in Florida, he said. Those include Interstates 75 and 95 and U.S. 27 in the middle.

Typically, he said, the drugs head north and the money to buy the drugs heads south.

The advantage of the interstates is that traffickers can travel fast without having to stop at traffic lights, he said.

But, at the same time, the disadvantage for the criminals is that law enforcement agencies target resources on interstates and at times find huge shipments, he said.

On U.S. 27, there's a lot of traffic lights and the speed limits are lower, but there are fewer officers assigned to the route, LaBelle said.

Between Highlands County and where U.S. 27 goes through Miami-Dade County, LaBelle said, enforcement is limited.

There's very little development in Hendry and Glades County, he said. Palm Beach County most likely puts its resources into the more populated areas to the east and Interstate 75, he said.

In Broward County, much of the land is used for growing sugar cane, he said.

The drugs would typically be transported north from Miami in tractor-trailers, cars and buses, he said. A large portion of those drugs may originate in Miami, the Bahamas or other places in the Caribbean, LaBelle said.

LaBelle said he's never noticed any drug interdiction efforts while traveling to the south on U.S. 27. To the north, Polk County likely focuses on Interstate 4, he said.

Increasing drug detection efforts in Highlands County is currently not possible, he said.

That's because of a lack of money and personnel, he said.

Highlands County has worked to get a federal designation of U.S. 27 as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, but so far the federal money isn't available, LaBelle said.

That involves various agencies working together and some federal funding, he said.

As Highlands County Sheriff's Office trains more drug dogs and is able to hire some additional personnel, efforts on U.S. 27 will increase, he said.

Deputies know some things to look for in the efforts to stop vehicles carrying drugs, but luck plays a role in finding major shipments of drugs, as well, he said.


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