Celebrating 50 Years of Service: HIDTA Program Bridges War on Drugs

Mike McDaniel (foreground) and Bryan Smith lead Houston HIDTA.

When Mike McDaniel started as a DEA Agent in 1987, it would take him two months to gather data and call his contacts at local, state and federal agencies to get a narcotics investigation underway.

Now, as Director of the Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), McDaniel and the investigators of the HIDTA task forces have 36 law enforcement agencies in 18 counties at their disposal to accomplish the same task in about 30 minutes. As part of a unique partnership with Sam Houston State University, the program also trains and employs 24 intelligence analysts to gather information to guide the coordinated attack against drug trafficking organizations.

X-ray of a truck carrying drugs.
X-ray of a truck carrying drugs.
“The agencies are all co-located and co-mingled in task forces to target cartels around the world,” said McDaniel. “We identify strategies that augment the efforts of each agency. We have been extremely successful, and the program has greatly exceeded our expectations.”

In 2013, Houston HIDTA is credited with dismantling 75 international, 41 interstate and 29 local drug trafficking organizations and seizing more than $231 million in drugs, cash and assets. As a result of its success, it was named “2013 HIDTA of the Year” among 33 similar programs nationwide, and earned accolades for Outstanding IT for its use of technology and Outstanding Investigative Initiative for its Texas Coastal Corridor Initiative (TCCI), a multi-agency task force that targets drug trafficking organizations in and around Corpus Christi through intelligence developed by arrests by Border Patrol and investigative information from money seizures in the area.

Houston HIDTA teams seize cash, guns and drugs.
Houston HIDTA teams seize cash, guns and drugs.
Houston HIDTA, funded through a $10 million grant from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, is one of the successful partnerships that the College of Criminal Justice has engaged in over the last five decades. It allows the College to assist outside agencies with resources and provides opportunities for graduates to get experience in the field. For the last 10 years, SHSU graduates who began with the Houston HIDTA program have often gone on to become valued analysts for federal agencies.

“It is a symbiotic relationship,” said Bryan Smith, Deputy Director of Houston HIDTA. “We get eager motivated candidates for intelligence analyst positions, and SHSU knows they have employment opportunities here. It really helps to build the image of SHSU among the local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and helps strengthen law enforcement connections.”

A marijuana seized along the roadways.
Marijuana seized by HIDTA teams along the roadways.
Houston HIDTA covers the Texas Gulf Coast areas around Houston and Corpus Christi and includes 431 miles of coastline. The area includes the fourth largest city in the country, home to six million people; four of the top 10 ranked ports in the U.S.; the sixth largest airport in the country, and sophisticated rail and highways systems. It also includes long-standing, international business relationships, making it a prime target for drug trafficking.

Houston HIDTA operates through task forces and programs through Southeast Texas, which target cartels using 500 representatives from local, county, state and federal agencies, including the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; Drug Enforcement Administration; Federal Bureau of Investigation; Homeland Security Investigations; U.S. Attorneys’ Offices; the U.S. Marshals Service; Texas Department of Public Safety; Houston, Pasadena and Corpus Christi Police Departments; Harris County, Fort Bend County, Jefferson County, and Montgomery County Sheriffs’ Offices, and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

Houston HIDTA board represents 19 law enforcement agencies.
Houston was recently recognized for being the outstanding HIDTA agency, investigative initiative and IT.
“The goals and objectives of the Houston HIDTA are established by a 19 member board of directors, consisting of agency heads from the participating federal, state and local law enforcement agencies,” McDaniel said.

In addition to the award-winning TCCI task force in the Corpus Christi area, the initiatives include:

  • The Fort Bend Enforcement Team, which handles drug enforcement in the suburban and rural county
  • Gangs And Non-traditional Gang Squads (GANGS), which identify, monitor, disrupt and displace activities and membership of traditional and non-traditional gangs in the Houston area using the Gang Tracker software program
  • money seized from drug operations.
  • Houston Investigative Support Center, which provides timely strategic, operational and tactical intelligence to direct drug control activities
  • Houston Money Laundering Initiative, a multi-jurisdictional task force that focuses on money laundering and their organizations, especially new trends and methods, which are shared through major federal databases
  • Major Drug Squads, which conduct complex investigations to bring down drug cartels at the local, regional and international levels by targeting high-level operatives
  • The Methamphetamine Initiative Group, which targets local clandestine labs and the import of products from Mexico
  • Marijuana grow house.
  • Narcotics Operation Control Center, which coordinates narcotics operations for all agencies involved in drug enforcement to prevent overlap or conflict and promote officer safety.
  • Targeted Narcotics Enforcement Team, addresses mid-level drug trafficking groups, stash houses and informant development using state and federal prosecutions, building code violations and varied enforcement opportunities
  • The Texas Narcotic Information System, which provides intelligence, databases, tactical and case support for all agencies.
  • Truck, Air, Rail and Port, which interdicts drugs at transportation hubs, including airports, seaports, rail stations, bus station, and express mail couriers.

Smith (foreground)and McDaniel in the classrom where analysts and officers are trained.
Smith (foreground) and McDaniel in the classrom where analysts and officers are trained.
Key to many of the operations are the intelligence analysts, who track activities in reports and through the internet. The analysts and law enforcement are trained by Houston HIDTA to identify and document leads and links between cartels and their various members.

“The analysts add so much value to the work that one good analyst can be worth several officers,” said Smith. “They are turning data into actionable information that is useful and relevant. A database is useless; you need a trained mind to glean data for it to make a difference.”

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