Rural Northeast Alabama: A quiet haven for tourists and the drug traffickers who ride the back roads

Taking Action
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - North Alabama has some of the most scenic and rural country roads in the U.S. The area draws tourists, weekenders and drug traffickers. Law enforcement agencies around North Alabama know quiet doesn't necessarily mean peaceful. 

"We're right in between Chattanooga and Huntsville, both fairly large areas and when you have fairly large areas you have a lot of drug dealers in those areas," Jackson County Chief Deputy Rocky Harnen said.

It's not just Jackson County. DeKalb County Sheriff Nick Welden says it's a problem his deputies are fighting. 

"We're just a hub of routes from Tennessee, to Georgia, to all the way through Alabama. And so we're seeing a lot of drugs from Mexico and other places that are coming through here," Welden said. 

Huntsville's Strategic Anti-Drug Team (STAC) knows that traffickers are headed their way. A Huntsville STAC team member told WHNT News 19 they've seen a major increase in the amount of heroin and fentanyl coming to North Alabama. 

"Two years ago that drug was minimal, the STAC team seized about 1.9 pounds of heroin and fentanyl that year. One year later, seized almost 6 pounds of heroin and fentanyl, so that drug train has definitely gone up," Tony McElyea said. 

McElyea says Atlanta is a major source city for drugs coming to the Tennessee Valley. This means law enforcement agencies like Jackson and DeKalb counties are on the front lines combating drug trafficking. 

The Jackson County Chief Deputy tells WHNT News 19 traffickers generally choose two-lane back roads that wind through quiet communities. 

"They're backroad routes, not main roads but drug dealers and drug transporters want to use those routes to stay away from law enforcement," Harnen said. 

Sheriff Welden says those back roads are links to bigger areas and cities. 

"DeKalb is a very big county with a whole lot of major highways in it and you can go from here to Atlanta to Nashville to Chattanooga, Birmingham, northern states and come right through us to get to Florida, vice versa," Welden said. 

In 2019, the DeKalb County Sheriff's office reported it made 30 drug trafficking arrests, Jackson County arrested 13 people on trafficking charges, and Huntsville STAC agents busted 62 drug traffickers, according to figures provided to WHNT News 19.

"In this job you have to stay one step ahead of the bad guys because they are constantly trying to figure out how to outsmart you by getting their product through your county or your city," Welden said. 

Welden said when he took office in 2019, he decided to take a new approach to fight drug trafficking. His deputies are receiving more training, stopping more vehicles and conducting more driver's license checkpoints. 

"In a year's time, they increased the amount of drugs taken off the street by 500%. So I would say the training is working and the proactive law enforcement is definitely working here in DeKalb county," Welden said. 

And according to those on the front lines, the stakes couldn't be higher. 

"I would venture to say the overwhelming majority of criminal activity, especially violent criminal activity is somehow a derivative of a drug crime," McElyea said.       

The most recent FBI figures show 1.6 million people in the U.S. were arrested for drugs in 2018. Eighty-six percent of those arrests were for possession, a number that continues to grow. Less than 14 percent were arrested for selling or manufacturing drugs. 

"Drugs are the root of all crime. It ties into human smuggling, human trafficking and organizational. It's just tied all over or funded by drug money and drug trafficking," Welden said. 

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