PHOENIX - Septic tanks, computer boxes and tires -- each year, drug smugglers get more inventive with places to hide their cargo.
Officer Harold Sanders, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Public Safety who was once in charge of his department's Drug Recognition Expert Training program, said criminals will stash drugs almost anywhere in an attempt to hide them from police.
"Door panels, side panels, inside of tires, dashboard, headliner, under the floorboard, under the carpeting," Sanders said. "Any place that possibly has more than an inch of space between physical parts of the vehicle."
Sanders explained that often, smugglers will try to hide their load in plain sight by disguising it as something else.
"The whole concept is to try to look like a tree in a forest, where you don't stand out of place," Sanders said, explaining how bales of marijuana might be wrapped in burlap to look like regular cargo or how ecstasy tablets could be loaded into breath mint containers.
Sanders also described one incident in which officers found a large container made from what looked like a stack of plywood. The layers had been stacked on top of each other and the center was hollowed out, and one sheet of plywood was placed on the top to hide the load.
Sanders said even the most elaborate methods of concealment can often be easily detected by trained officers.
"They're able to determine just through conversation with the driver, with the passengers that something is going on that's probably indicative of them transporting something illegal," Sanders said, "whether it's weapons, illegal drugs, (or) cash that has been derived from the proceeds of selling illegal items."
At that point, Sanders said, police dogs can help find the exact location of the hidden items.
Sanders also said the real trick to intercepting drug runners was to anticipate the criminals' next move.
"You have to put yourself in the mindset of the smuggler," he said. He later added, "We've got a lot of people thinking, 'how has it been done, how is it being done today, and how will it be done tomorrow."