As Houston fights a growing wave of methamphetamine, "synthetic marijuana" and other illegal drugs, top law-enforcement officials on Thursday unveiled a network of Web sites aimed at potential crime tipsters and substance abusers.
The text, videos and links don't share old-school slogans - such as "Just Say No" - but an array of facts ranging from the number of Houston gangs connected to international cartels to what parents should look for if they suspect their children are using drugs.
The goal is to take a comprehensive approach to dismantle cartels and make Southeast Texas a safer place to live, U.S. Attorney Ken Magidson said at a news conference.
Tips from the public about grow houses, meth labs or cash smuggling here can add important details to a nexus of information - particularly about imported substances - that can help solve national problems.
"We are concerned about the heroin epidemic nationally," said Magidson, who oversees federal prosecutions for the Southern District of Texas. "We are concerned about the synthetic drugs that are taking over our communities."
StopDrugsHouston.org, StopDrugsMontgomeryCounty.org and StopDrugsPasadena.org are among six portals launched this week in English, Spanish and Vietnamese to target an area populated by nearly 6 million Texans. The new sites are being advertised through 19 donated Clear Channel Outdoor billboards in Harris and Montgomery counties along with ads on 100 Yellow Cab taxis.
The web portals are a project of the Houston High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area coalition, known as HIDTA, which is a collaboration of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in 17 counties. According to task force data, the joint effort in 2014 removed illicit drugs from the marketplace with a wholesale value of $503 million.
This new effort aims to reach people through their computers, tablets and smartphones.
Officials emphasized that tips are completely anonymous and that IP addresses (the digital fingerprints on devices) are not being tracked.
Mike McDaniel, the director of Houston's high intensity drug coalition, said that federal, state and local officers working together in the same building "combining databases, combining intelligence data ... reduces a duplication of efforts." The web sites add the public as a stronger partner.
The coalition's executive board members include leaders from the Houston and Corpus Christi police departments, the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service and the Texas Department of Public Safety as well as sheriff's offices in Harris, Montgomery, Fort Bend, Jefferson and Victoria counties.
"Most of the things that make our region a great place to live and work … also put us at the crossroads of the illegal drug trade and make our area ripe for exploitation by drug trafficking organizations, money launderers, criminal street gangs and other drug-related criminal actors," said Brian Moskowitz, special agent in charge of the Houston office of Homeland Security Investigations.
"We know that we cannot do it alone. We need and we want the help and support of the public in this shared fight and we want to empower them by giving them the tools to help us help them in a simple, safe and accessible way."
Pasadena Police Chief Michael Thaler said Thursday morning he passed one of the new billboards on Highway 225 on his way to work.
"We are in a war - we are in a battle - to try to maintain the safety of our citizens and to the extent we can diminish this problem, efforts like this will go a long way towards that," he said.