WASHINGTON — At 9 a.m. on Tuesday a uniformed UPS deliveryman dropped off a package at the Washington bureau of The Christian Science Monitor.
It was addressed to the building cleaning service via the Monitor, but an office worker mistakenly opened it.
Inside, she discovered nearly six pounds of marijuana pressed into two dense bricks. Police estimate the street value at $11,000.
Law-enforcement officials say the discovery illustrates a nation-wide problem of drug traffickers using the United States mail and private courier services to help distribute illicit narcotics.
In the past three years, authorities have arrested 6,170 suspects attempting to deliver or receive drugs through the mail.
In 1995, more than 19,680 pounds of marijuana were seized by Post Office authorities. Postal inspectors also confiscated more than 700 pounds of cocaine, 118,000 doses of LSD, 93,000 vials of steroids, 39 pounds of heroin, 26 pounds of opium, and more than $20 million in cash.
"It is simpler, quicker, and cheaper than sending a courier across the country," says John Brugger, a spokesman for the Postal Inspection Service in Washington.
It is safer, too. If a package is intercepted, traffickers can avoid arrest and simply write off the seizure as a cost of doing business.
That's what police believe happened with the marijuana delivered to the Monitor. "Someone sent it there to intercept it," says Washington Police Detective David Nutter. But the perpetrator missed the delivery, he said, and the package made it through to the office.
The detective says he traced the package to San Diego, but has been unable to link it to any person or business there. He says no one in Washington has come forward to claim the package.
Police and postal inspectors have a better chance of cracking a drugs-by-mail ring if the drugs are intercepted while en route.
Because all US mail customers have a right of privacy, federal authorities are required to obtain a search warrant from a federal magistrate before opening any suspect packages. If drugs are found, the contraband is repacked and sent on its way to help investigators identify the receiving end of the smuggling network.
Mr. Brugger says postal inspectors rely on a combination of informant tips, K-9 sniffer dogs, and profiling techniques to identify suspect packages.
But with millions of pieces of mail moving through the system each day, agents are under no illusion that all - or even most - contraband is being caught. "Whether we are getting the tip of the iceberg is anyone's guess," says Brugger. "We only know what we trap and identify."
Many of the trafficking groups rely on overnight mail services, in part because they know how difficult it is for federal investigators to obtain search warrants on short notice. If an overnight package is delayed, the traffickers take that as a sign that they may be set up for a sting operation. They abandon the package.
Private shipping companies are less willing than the Postal Service to discuss the problem of drug smugglers who use their services.
A spokesman at Federal Express said his company had "no comment."
At UPS, spokesman John Flick says, "Obviously it is an industry-wide problem. We do have measures in place to guard against these kinds of substances in the system, but we do not want to talk about it."
Law-enforcement officials say drugs-by-mail groups are largely based in US cities near the Mexican border or port cities. From there, the drugs are sent across the country.