Pubdate: Wed, 21 Nov 2007
Source: Tucson Citizen (AZ)
Copyright: 2007 Tucson Citizen
Author: Ryn Gargulinski, Tucson Citizen
Note: Arizona Republic reporter Sean Holstege contributed to this article.
Bookmark: (Cannabis)


City Has Become 'Major, Major Stash House Area'

You may be living next to a stash house and not know it.

With a record 1.2 million pounds of marijuana confiscated in Arizona from 
Oct. 1, 2006, to Sept. 30 - nearly half of it in Pima County - Tucson has 
developed a thriving business as a distribution hub.

The area is a way station where marijuana is stashed until it is moved to 
its ultimate destination, often on the East Coast.

"It's just a major, major stash house area," Counter Narcotics Alliance 
Sgt. Helen Hritz said of the Tucson area. "There can be 11,000 pounds in 
one house."

The alliance is made up of local and federal law enforcement agencies.

Smuggling has also become more constant, with no major spike in activity 
during harvest season and no lulls in between, Hritz said. The only 
difference harvest season makes is that the buds are fresher.

"There's no break in the action anymore," she said. "It's no longer 
seasonal. It's very much flowing year-round."

One of the Sheriff Department's recent seizures, on Oct. 22, included 
11,000 pounds discovered in a home in the 1000 block of East Orange Grove Road.

One of the largest single busts in the history of the Pima County Sheriff's 
Department was 32,000 pounds - that's 16 tons - found in a house in the 
11000 block of East Speedway Boulevard in 1984.

Stash houses are not confined to downtrodden neighborhoods. They can be 
found throughout the city and county, Tucson police Sgt. Mark Robinson 
said. He said they are almost always rental homes.

He said those running stash houses tend to be transient types because if 
they don't own the house, it is not seized by authorities.

"They have nothing to lose," Robinson said, "except their load."

Even if the drug does not stick around the house for long, its temporary 
presence can make for some perilous living.

Robinson said stash houses can be dangerous for neighborhoods because they 
become the target for home invasions by drug dealers or other criminals.

"They very often invade the wrong house," Robinson said. "Innocent people 
often become the victims."

He said the extreme level of violence of the invasions, coupled with 
high-powered weapons, can lead to hazardous conditions.

"They often have assault rifles," Robinson said. "The only thing that can 
stop that ammunition is a brick. It can go through wood frame, windows, doors."

Other drug smuggling activity can lead to high-speed chases when suspects 
flee the police, another situation that puts innocents at risk.

The Tucson area is especially suitedfor stash houses because of its network 
of roadways, Hritz said. In addition to a maze of backroads, two major 
interstates help smugglers.

Interstate 19 makes a beeline from Mexico directly to Tucson. Midvale Park, 
an area just west of I-19 and north of Valencia Road, was riddled with 
stash houses, home invasions and drug-induced violence until residents 
formed a watch group and took back their neighborhood last year, Robinson said.

Interstate 10 stretches from the Pacific Ocean to Jacksonville, Fla., and 
connects with a series of northbound routes along the way.

Arizona is a major drug-smuggling corridor for many of the same reasons it 
is the nation's busiest corridor for illegal immigration. Wide-open areas, 
rugged terrain and decoy loads give smugglers the openings they need to get 
drugs through the desert.

Even much of Florida's marijuana smuggling, which had its heyday in the 
late 1970s and early 1980s, has moved to southern Arizona.

"We had well-established routes, not necessarily for drugs, but for human 
smuggling," said Counter Narcotics Alliance Sgt. Ramon Delatorre. "It 
wasn't like they had to make a new route. Now there is smuggling of 
undocumented aliens and narcotics at the same time."

Of the illegal drugs shuttled through the desert, marijuana is king.

"It's the largest type of narcotic we see and seize," Hritz said. "In the 
desert areas they blaze their own trails, carry the bundles for miles and 

The desert is also a place brimming with Mexican drug cartels.

Now allied with Colombian cartels, Mexican smuggling rings rake in enough 
cash to purchase superior weaponry, bribe police or hire well-trained 
Mexican army deserters.

Mexican cartels earned an estimated $8 billion to $23 billion from U.S. 
drug sales in 2005 and run street distribution gangs in "almost every 
region of the United States," the Government Accountability Office reported.

"The only thing that holds the cartels back is their imagination," said 
Ramona Sanchez, Drug Enforcement Administration spokeswoman.

Drug smugglers in Arizona have been found carrying assault rifles or 
shoulder-fired rocket launchers.

When the National Guard built steel vehicle barriers on the Tohono O'odham 
Nation, smugglers built a ramp to drive over them.

Also, numerous tunnels have been dug under border fences to get drugs to 
the U.S. side.

In addition to the wide range of smuggling operations and the year-round 
availability of pot, the increase in pot seizures can also be attributed to 
an increase in law-enforcement manpower, said Border Patrol Agent Sean King.

He said the Border Patrol confiscated 305,390 pounds of marijuana in fiscal 
year 2002 in southern Arizona, when 1,800 agents guarded the border.

In the first 11 months of fiscal 2007, the Border Patrol, now expanded to 
2,900 agents in southern Arizona, seized 754,298 pounds

A recent series of busts over a four-day period netted Border Patrol agents 
more than 9,000 pounds of marijuana.

The largest haul in that series included nearly 3,000 pounds found in two 
stolen vehicles abandoned after an off-road pursuit on the Tohono O'odham 
Nation on Nov. 12.

"There's a lot more area we can cover," King said. "In the past, we could 
cover the major smuggling routes. Now we can cover all the major routes and 
a lot of other routes."

In cities, one of the best ways to protect a neighborhood is to take part 
in a neighborhood watch, Robinson said.

"You should know your neighbors," he said. "You never know who's living 
next door."

Courtesy of Tucson Police Department

Arizona Republic reporter Sean Holstege contributed to this article.

*HIDTA collects information from federal, state and local agencies. All 
numbers are for federal fiscal years from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. Past data for 
Pima County was not immediately available.

*Through first 11 months of county's fiscal year, which ended June 30

*Through first 11 months of the federal fiscal year
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D