There is battle being waged on a 15-mile stretch of highway in Orange County and most people aren’t even aware it’s happening.
As thousands of cars rush by the county’s southern-most border, Orange County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Gino Rodriguez waits for his time to jump into the thick of it.
“(Everyone) has probably been traveling next to a car loaded with drugs or money without realizing it,” Rodriguez said. “There’s a whole secret war out here that nobody knows about.”
Rodriguez is part of the OCSD’s three-man Highway Interdiction Team, which was formed in 2007 to catch drug and weapons traffickers missed by federal agents at the Mexico border.
“They can’t scan everything; that would be impossible,” Rodriguez said of the border patrol. “We have a very tight relationship with the (U.S. Customs and Border Protection).”
So Rodriguez, along with K9 Deputy Rich Franco and Reserve K9 Deputy Scott Klappenback, serve as another line of defense in Orange County to bust people funneling drugs, money and, less frequently, firearms across the border.
Since January, the HIT has confiscated 240 pounds of methamphetamine, 60 pounds of cocaine, 15 pounds of heroin and 10,000 fentanyl pills, a heavy-duty painkiller that is gaining popularity on the street drug scene.
They’ve also collected more than $450,000 in cash believed to be part of a cartel trafficking operation, Rodriguez said.
His favorite kind of bust?
Heroin, by far.
“I see more and more of it every year, and it is such a disgusting drug,” said the deputy. “For every kilo I find, that’s one less kilo a dealer has to sell to some first-timer kid.”
How the traffickers hide their stashes and how the deputies find them is something that rivals a secondary plot line of a television crime series.
There was the man who claimed he was a priest only to backtrack on his story after a load of drugs was found in his car. There also was an innocent-looking 85-year-old who had stashed $1.1 million in drug money in a vehicle.
One driver secured 32 pounds of meth under his car using magnets, while another guy shoved $250,000 in drug money into laundry detergent bottles stored in his trunk.
There was a suspect who insisted he was Mormon and couldn’t possibly be a drug trafficker because, after all, there were bibles in his vehicle.
Rodriguez uncovered $117,000 in suspected drug money hidden in that car.
Then there was the couple driving up from San Diego who stashed meth in Costco-size boxes of instant potatoes and brownie mix.
Another of Rodriguez’s favorites was a man dressed in a camouflage getup, complete with a hat trimmed in neon orange, who claimed to be a hunter on his way back from Irvine.
“Irvine isn’t really known for its hunting,” the deputy quipped, recalling the man’s far-fetched tale. “The stories are just crazy.”
Getting to this part of Rodriguez’s job — the entertaining stuff — starts with a less glamorous assignment: watching and waiting.
“Some days are a little monotonous,” he said. “But it’s a nice view, right?”
It is a very nice, unobstructed ocean view from the 5 Freeway near Camp Pendleton where Rodriguez patrols.
After a stop on a recent Wednesday, it was impossible to ignore the steady breeze that ushered clouds along a backdrop of deep blue sky and the vibrant wild mustard plant that led down to where uninhabited beaches met the Pacific.
But Rodriguez had little time to soak in the serene landscape because his eyes must stay fixed on the freeway.
On any given shift, up to 16,000 cars pass him every minute, but Rodriguez doesn’t see a blur of traffic like the untrained eye might.
He sees the drivers and the moves they make when they notice an OCSD SUV parked smack dab in the middle of the freeway.
“We use a marked car on purpose,” he added. “We want them to see us. We want to see what they do when they see us.”
Rodriguez looks for anything strange — a car abruptly changing lanes or a driver ducking his face away.
“I mostly go by my gut,” he said. “I don’t care what a person looks like or what kind of car they’re driving, if I feel like something is off I will make a stop for a violation.”
Violations are easy to find on this stretch of freeway where motorists tend to ignore the 65-mile-an-hour posted speed limit.
When Rodriguez stops someone, his experience navigates what happens next.
He takes into account their tone, eye contact and even the pulse of their carotid artery, which tends to furiously beat when a person’s nerves kick up a notch, the deputy said.
If Rodriguez feels there’s enough to warrant a search of the vehicle, he’ll ask for the driver’s consent.
They rarely say no.
“They say yes and hope that we are not good enough to find the load,” he said. “If they say ‘no,’ my suspicion goes through the roof.
“At that point, we’ll get a K9 to come out and do a sniff of the vehicle. If the K9 hits, we have enough probable cause to do a search.”
On Wednesday, May 25, Rodriguez stopped four cars and searched three in a four-hour stretch.
One was driven by a man on parole for a 2009 drug trafficking conviction.
The man, whose car was found to have parts of a tracker (a device drug cartels use in some vehicles to monitor their loads), was clean this time, but the deputy’s suspicions were raised.
The man told deputies he had run drugs and money in his beat-up sedan in the past, but added he hasn’t been involved in illegal activity since his release.
While that Wednesday shift didn’t turn out any drugs or money, the HIT stays diligent because the right stop can mean a significant find.
This year so far they’ve made 16 big busts — the same amount they made in all of 2015.
Rodriguez believes part of the reason the number of busts they make goes up is because the team continues to get better at what they do.
When Rodriguez started, he was equipped with only a flashlight to check under cars and behind seats.
His SUV now is outfitted with more than 20 tools including wrenches, ratchets, saws and scopes.
Rodriguez knows every place to check for a possible hidden compartment storing illegal narcotics and money: door panels, behind the seats, under floor boards, in the dashboard, in the gas tank and even in the engine.
He has spent a decade studying cars and their parts to know when something has been altered.
“Nobody taught us how to do this,” he said. “We had to learn on our own.”
And traffickers get creative, he said, so the HIT must also regularly improve their tactics.
“These drug trafficking operations continue to adapt, so we have to adapt,” Rodriguez said. “Nothing stays the same for too long.”
But that’s what he loves most about his job — refining his skills to pull more drugs and money off Orange County’s streets.
“I look forward to going to work,” he said. “This makes you feel like you’re really doing something.”