By Patty Leon
Coastal Courier (Hinesville, GA) Staff Writer
It’s no secret drugs can be found in any community, regardless of its size or socio-economic status. It is a problem throughout the nation, and Liberty and Long counties are not immune to the growing epidemic.
The Multi Agency Crack Enforcement drug task force was created in the mid-1990s to help combat the problem locally.
“The drug issue is all across the board and in my opinion it is getting worse, not better,” MACE Commander Al Cato said. “We have made arrests everywhere from the low-income areas to our country club neighborhoods within the county.
“There are so many independents (dealers) these days on the streets and with the technology of cell phones, you can practically place your drug order over the phone and have it delivered with your pizza,” he said.
The MACE agents do not take the drug matter lightly.
Within the first three months of 2007, they seized drugs with a street value of $48,957, as well as $212,163 in cash.
The arrests are sometimes made in conjunction with other agencies from surrounding communities or the federal government.
Cato said maintaining open communication with partner agencies is vital when it comes to tracking offenders and placing them in custody.
“We have a great working relationship with other agencies such as DEA, ATF, FBI, and there is no set threshold as to when we would involve them in our arrests,” an agent said, who asked to remain anonymous. “We have worked together in arrests for as little as a couple of ounces all the way to multiple pounds. By having open communication and sharing information, we get better results and we get back just as much as we give.”
MACE agents are constantly taking specialized training provided by the state to ensure they stay up-to-date on the courses necessary to do their job.
“Our agents are sent all over the United States; and take specialized training in search-and-seizure procedures, search warrants, narcotics investigations and basic investigations,” Cato said.
The services provided by MACE are provided at no added expense to the community. Property and vehicles that are seized are auctioned off and the money used to pay for expenses associated with equipment, facilities and maintenance.
“We have an operational budget, but that has not increased in the last couple of years and our funding was actually cut down because the grant funds were being used more for homeland security and terrorism,” Cato said. “We can use the funds we receive from the sale of the seized property to cover any expense we need to maintain our operation except for salaries.”
He noted drugs are plentiful locally with crack, marijuana and the illegal sale and acquisition of prescriptions drugs topping the list.
“People sometimes have a misconception that labs (to make crack or meth) are these elaborate rooms in a house with beakers and hoses. The truth is small-time users can use a cup, place all the right ingredients in it, let it process, and then smoke it while driving down the road,” Cato said. “They call it ditch dope; they smoke it and then ditch it all out the window. The community has helped in the fact many of the local stores and pharmacies are making it more difficult to get some of the items that used to be readily available to make these drugs. They are either kept behind the pharmacy counter or you must sign for them making it traceable and that helps.”
The task force was formed back in 1995, with the help of the Edward Byrne Federal Grant, to help reduce the amount of crack cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines and illegally distributed prescription pills within its jurisdiction.
It is comprised of eight sworn agents and one support staff member who serve the area of Liberty, Long County and, with the cooperation of the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, Fort Stewart.
MACE directs its efforts to street-level sellers and lower-level drug suppliers.
Since its inception, MACE has seized numerous drugs, cars, homes, and weapons, to make neighborhoods safer and to get offenders off the streets.
MACE drug task force
Statistics for FY 2005-06
(Fifty-one percent were first time offenders)
Marijuana plants seized: 645
Total drugs seized (street value): $2,547,215
Drugs seized (cocaine): 173.16 grams
Drugs seized (crack): 757, grams 132.2
Drugs seized (prescription pills): 2,744
Drugs seized (cannabis) 156.6 ounces and 256.9 lbs.
Pending cases as of June 30, 2006: 837
Arrests by ethnicity/race
White juvenile male: 11
Black Juvenile male: 15
White juvenile female: 2
Black juvenile female: 1
Hispanic juvenile female: 1
Juvenile other female: 1
White adult male: 108
Black adult male: 347
White adult female: 31
Black adult female: 48
Hispanic adult male: 14
Hispanic adult female: 1
Hispanic other male: 4