Citizens in Bethel are weighing a decision on a proposal for the first liquor store in decades. In the shadow of the debate is a powerful and elaborate bootlegging economy across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. A small team of federal law enforcement agents with the United States Postal Inspection Service is working to keep alcohol out of the mail. It’s one of the oldest law enforcement agency in the country, a group with a unique mission that chases after each suspicious package.
This is the third installment profiling efforts to stem the flow of illegal alcohol to local option communities in the YK Delta.
Transporting alcohol by boat, truck, or snow machine is the choice of most bootleggers trying to import alcohol into dry villages. But for people who live in more distant communities, or in times when river conditions make travel impossible, the United States Postal Service can be a tempting way for many to ship illegal cargo directly to the post office box of the recipient. It doesn’t always arrive as planned.
Anchorage-based Postal Inspector Alan Damron spends his waking hours trying to stop bottles from reaching places where they will do harm. It’s completely illegal to send alcohol through US mail.
“Sometimes it’s really obvious when something is, for instance, leaking whiskey or vodka and you can smell it a mile away. Those are the easy ones to find,” said Damron.
Records of alcohol seizures over the past four years show dozens of shipments per year to local option communities intercepted by the Anchorage team. More are discovered by troopers in regional hubs. While a few broken microbrews or wine make the list, the vast majority sent to local option communities are vodka and whiskey. Many are a just few bottles, but shipments as large as 36 bottles of vodka or two dozen bottles of Rich & Rare whiskey were intercepted. Depending on the final destination, that can be worth thousands of dollars on the black market.
Veteran Inspector Ron Zielinski is in an interim supervisor in Anchorage and spent eight years working the state’s alcohol cases. He says people try, with varying success, to hide liquor.
“They burp the bottles, the plastic bottles that have air in them, they will break the seal, release the air, close them up and duct tape them. That was going on 15 years ago, it’s still going on today. Hiding it in anything… dog food. Switching it into apple juice bottles,” said Zielinski.
Damron says their success relies more on people than it does on fancy technology or dogs that are used in drug enforcement.
“With alcohol it’s different, the main way we get into the packages is talking to people, getting their side of the story. That’s usually talking to the people the packages are going to,” said Damron.
The inspectors have eyes and ears on the ground in local contacts who give them tips. Damron spent time on the Kuskokwim River ice road this winter and also travels to bush communities.
“We develop intelligence to find out who’s doing this, a lot of these the communities are so small, they know what’s going on in town,” said Damron.
And as US mail is a highly protected federal service, they’ve trained and authorized deputized troopers in a unique program to do postal sorts and build cases, what they call force multipliers. For Damron, the connection between public safety and the alcohol and drugs he searches for is clear.
“When we find a bottle of alcohol, it could be one less rape, one less assault or person abusing a child. It’s a huge motivation because I’m from here, born and raised in Alaska, during my whole life I’ve heard about the effects of alcohol in communities,” said Damron.
Although it’s a federal misdemeanor to ship alcohol, the inspector’s cases are most often prosecuted at the state level where bootleggers can face felony level charges. Damron doesn’t know how many gallons elude inspectors and travel hundred of miles to illegally arrive in mailboxes, but he says every bottle is worth the effort.
“You do the best you can do, you go to work every day and do your duties to the best of your abilities, but there’ definitely going to be stuff you don’t find,” said Damron. “But we’re not going to give up, we’re going to keep pushing and keeping finding and work with the state to hold people accountable for what they’re doing.”
And as millions of parcels travel across the country, it’s going to happen package by package.