While most of the Tri-State sleeps, the DHL super-hub at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport is humming.
Packages fly by on tilting conveyer belts as hundreds of DHL employees worked in tandem with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.
Customs officers are on the hunt on illegal items hidden in pieces of mail shipped from around the world.
"We're looking for that needle in the pile of needles in a needle factory, if you will," said Richard Gillespie, the CVG Port Director, U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "We're looking for that one tainted package, that one package of fentanyl, that one package of heroin, or those illegal documents."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection granted FOX19 NOW exclusive access to their operations at DHL Cincinnati. The facility is one of three global mega-hubs. The other two are located in Germany and Hong Kong.
FOX19 NOW spent one busy night, trailing customs officers as they targeted and searched suspect pieces of mail.
Within minutes of our arrival on floor, the CBP drug dog, Freddy, alerted on a package.
When officers opened it up, they found books with thick, laminated pages. But officers say a tip-off was the weight of the item; It was too heavy.
Using a razor blade, an officer sliced a piece of one page open and discovered a white substance. An instant on-site chemical test showed as cocaine. Each subsequent page contained the drug.
"Whether its cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, ecstasy, fentanyl, it goes on and on," Gillespie said.
A Virtual Midwest Border
"Even though we're not at the border, we're at the equivalent of the border in the Midwest," said Michael Finley, Chief Supervisory U.S. Customs and Border Protection Officer.
About 200,000 pieces of mail are sorted and re-directed in a typical night. All packages are scanned for radiation, some are x-rayed and officers target some for further inspection.
"Seeing what's happening around the globe, knowing the locations of where the commodities are coming from and staying on top of social and political activity around the globe," said Finley.
While officers are trained to inspect all packages, after years of experience, some have developed keen areas of expertise. One officer is a great "targeter" of potential smuggled antiquities.
The night FOX19 NOW tagged along, officers showed potential illegal antiquities, including Egyptian statutes and bowls. Anything that could later be ruled an antiquity was set aside for inspection by experts.
If they're determined to be contraband, the items are be returned to their home countries.
One officer spotted a concerning tribal, ceremonial mask in a shipment from Africa. It was determined later to be an ornamental mask made from an infant skull.
Another officer, an expert in phony documents, spotted fake credit cards hidden in books from Africa, as well as fake passports and driver's licenses.
Some of the smuggled items are still alive.
Animals, plants and food are handled by agricultural specialists.
"You learn to read Chinese really well," said Supervisory Agricultural Specialist Barbara Hassan, eluding to the large amount of restricted items that arrive from Asian countries.
Her team works to spot prohibited items that could bring unwanted disease and pests into the country.
Hassan pulled out a bag that looked like tea.
"But I don't know of any tea that looks bumpy to me, but when you open it up, there's seed," she said. The seeds inside are prohibited.
Hassan also showed FOX19 NOW some crazy agricultural contraband including full-grown Bonsai trees, toasted rats and large seeds called "Suicide pills" used in Indonesia to commit suicide. All of the prohibited items were confiscated and removed from the marketplace.
Public and Private Sector Partnership
"In my opinion, it's the epitome of the public sector and the private sector working together," said Craig Healy, DHL's head of security.
With packages coming from 220 countries – Healy and his team work closely with Customs officials. With the increase in dangerous synthetic drugs like Carfentanyl, two years ago DHL spent millions of dollars building an on-site lab for Customs to identify unknown substances.
"This way we're able facilitate legitimate trade and trade that we might have issues with, contraband, etc., can be dealt with accordingly," said Healy.
It's an orchestrated dance of commerce and national security that plays out every night in giant warehouse by the airport.
To learn more about the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, visit their website. https://www.cbp.gov/