Pubdate: Sun, 22 Jul 2007
Source: Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA)
Copyright: 2007 The Press-Enterprise Company
Author: Julia Glick, The Press-Enterprise


CALEXICO - U.S. Border Patrol agents in inland California are 
catching more and more drugs welded into gas tanks, secreted under 
upholstery or stacked brazenly in car trunks and driven across the desert.

The Border Patrol's El Centro Sector, which includes 72 miles of 
California's inland stretch of the border and areas north -- 
including sections of Riverside and San Bernardino counties -- has 
seized hundreds of more pounds of cocaine and thousands of more 
pounds of marijuana than neighboring sectors have since the current 
fiscal year began in October.

Border Patrol and other law enforcement officials say the federal 
government's unprecedented buildup of agents along the border, a 
greater focus on border enforcement in San Diego and Arizona, and 
grisly cartel wars in Mexico may all be driving the sector's 
exponential increase in confiscated drugs over the past few years. 
The trend may indicate a shift in international drug trafficking 
toward the inland region or just a larger dent in the vast amounts of 
undetected drugs flowing up from Mexico along inland routes.

"It is clear that your numbers of seizures of at least marijuana and 
cocaine are up, way up, but the problem is trying to explain that," 
said Scott Stewart, a senior terrorism and security expert with 
Strategic Forecasting. The Texas-based firm, known by the nickname 
Stratfor, provides geopolitical analysis to international companies.

Border Patrol agents say drugs that cross the border in El Centro 
Sector usually move at least partly through Riverside County as they 
head to distribution points in the Inland Empire and around the 
country. Agents catch traffickers driving north along one of two 
roads around the Salton Sea, on Highway S2 or off-roading over desert dunes.

The same factors for drug seizures may also be fueling a rise in 
violence along the inland border, with smugglers hurling rocks and 
Molotov cocktails at agents from across the fences, canals, river and 
sands that separate inland California from Mexico.

In March, an agent fatally shot a suspected immigrant smuggler in a 
scuffle near Calexico, and another suspected smuggler was killed 
struggling with a Border Patrol agent near Escondido in northern San 
Diego County in May. The growing violence and increase in drug stops 
could potentially create new risks for inland communities along 
drug-trafficking routes.

A Sharp Increase

In the first half of the current fiscal year, October through March, 
El Centro Sector snagged more than 800 pounds of cocaine. That's more 
than double the amount seized in all of the previous fiscal year and 
more than three times the amount found in fiscal year 2005, according 
to sector statistics.

Marijuana seizures also rose in the first half of this fiscal year. 
At 36,771 pounds, the combined haul almost equals what was seized in 
all of the preceding fiscal year.

Most of California's border with Mexico is the responsibility of two 
Border Patrol sectors, San Diego and El Centro. A sliver of eastern 
California falls in the Yuma Sector.

El Centro Sector's territory begins at the eastern edge of the Anza 
Borrego Desert and stretches eastward to the Imperial Sand Dunes near 
the Colorado River. It sprawls across 100,000 square miles of eastern 
California that extend northward to the Oregon state line.

San Diego Sector covers the 66 miles of the border that lie to the 
west as well as the state's more developed coastal area.

While El Centro Sector agents have been seizing more cocaine and 
marijuana, their counterparts in San Diego Sector have been taking in 
less of both drugs.

San Diego Sector agents seized less than a pound of cocaine in the 
first half of this fiscal year, down from about 167 pounds of the 
drug taken in during the same period of the preceding fiscal year. 
Marijuana seizures for the same six months were also down, about half 
what they were for the same period of the previous fiscal year.

Yuma Sector, which covers a swath of western Arizona as well as the 
sliver of eastern California, saw a slight bump in cocaine seizures 
and a small decrease in marijuana seizures in the first half of this 
fiscal year, statistics show.

"Smugglers will look for alternate routes, and they look for the 
routes where they think they are going to make it," said Senior 
Patrol Agent Enrique Lozano of El Centro Sector. "Some of the 
traffickers that go through San Diego and Yuma, they could be shifting here."

More Agents, New Tools

On a recent day, Lozano stood at the Highway 86 checkpoint about 40 
minutes south of Indio in the desert scrubland beside the Salton Sea. 
Agents working here and at the Highway 111 checkpoint on the other 
side of the saltwater lake use careful questioning, dogs and some new 
tools to catch drug traffickers and immigrant smugglers.

A team of National Guardsmen helped operate a machine called the 
Mobile Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System, used to scan cars and 
trucks much the way luggage is X-rayed at an airport. Part of the 
federal government's recent push to bring more technology and 
manpower to the border, the machine and its operators locate 
irregularities in vehicles -- possible secret compartments in which 
people or drugs could be hidden.

The machine's negative imaging capabilities can also reveal human 
shapes. Agents have found people hiding in hollowed-out stacks of 
baled hay, surrounded by crates of lemons and hidden in the bodies of 
trucks. Story continues below

Along the border, sensors, night-vision cameras and floodlights 
illuminate some of the most remote areas. Guardsmen monitor the 
technology and tip off the field agents, who then chase down illegal 
border crossers and potential traffickers.

El Centro Sector has grown by about 110 agents and about 300 
guardsmen in less than two years, a significant increase but not as 
large as those in neighboring sectors, according to Border Patrol and 
California National Guard numbers. It now has about 800 agents.

About 900 guardsmen have been deployed to San Diego Sector, although 
many are administrators in the National Guard operation's state 
headquarters there or part of the helicopter units that are based 
there but patrol the San Diego and El Centro sectors, said Master 
Sgt. Michael Drake, a National Guard spokesman.

The sector also added almost 280 new agents in less than two years, 
bringing its staffing to about 1,840 in late May, according to Border 
Patrol figures.

Yuma has also seen a much larger increase in staffing than El Centro.

Sectors such as San Diego and Tucson in Arizona have received more 
manpower and upgraded technology and equipment, said Ramon Rivera, a 
national Border Patrol spokesman. Until very recently, officials 
considered San Diego a focus area, based on analysis of intelligence, 
a high number of illegal-immigrant apprehensions and other factors, 
Rivera said.

While El Centro Sector has seen a sharp rise in drug seizures, the 
overall volume of drugs seized is certainly higher in Texas' Rio 
Grande Valley Sector, another focus sector, and Tucson Sector 
consistently catches far more marijuana, he said.

"El Centro is not a focus sector so I would imagine the smugglers 
know this information, just like everyone else does," he said. "They 
know we are enforcing in the focus sectors so they might go to an 
area that is not being as heavily enforced."

Violence and Frustration

With the rise in border enforcement, illegal immigrants rely 
increasingly on organized networks of smugglers, who often use routes 
controlled by drug traffickers, said Stratfor's Stewart. These 
smugglers may pay off or work with drug cartels, even acting as 
decoys to distract agents from drug shipments elsewhere, he added.

While El Centro Sector has not beefed up as much as other sectors, 
Lozano said it's clear that heavier enforcement and new technology 
are hurting both drug and human smugglers. The growing violence 
against agents is evidence of that, he said.

Apprehensions of illegal immigrants appear to be declining in El 
Centro Sector just as they have nationwide within the past year or 
so, and Lozano said he also sees immigrants and smugglers fleeing 
back to Mexico when they note a heavy presence of agents and 
guardsmen. They flee, or sometimes they fight.

"They throw rocks, Molotov cocktails, anything they can get, to hurt 
the agents," Stewart said.

"The violence is increasing because of the smugglers' frustration at 
not being able to continue their activities," he added. "We are 
putting a big dent in their operations so they are resorting to this."

One of the sector's most dangerous spots is a tow lot and junkyard 
west of downtown Calexico.

Immigrant smugglers have been known to attack agents there in order 
to give their clients an opportunity to run or to hide in junked 
cars. During a violent skirmish with illegal border crossers there in 
March, an agent shot and killed a man, authorities said.

In the first half of this fiscal year, about 132 assaults were 
committed against El Centro Sector's agents, significantly more than 
the 79 the sector recorded for all of fiscal year 2006, let alone the 
35 in fiscal 2005.

Almost all of the attacks on agents have occurred at the border, 
Rivera said. Still, there is always the danger that the flow of drug 
shipments and smuggled people along roads in Riverside County or 
other points north could explode into violence as they have in other 
busy sectors, Lozano said.

In May, San Diego Sector agents fatally shot a Sun City man, who they 
suspect was an immigrant smuggler, in a park-and-ride lot just off 
Interstate 15 near Escondido, about 50 miles north of the border. 
Agents said the man fled authorities and then fought them, reaching 
for an agent's gun.

"Every time there is illegal activity passing through a town, it is 
going to do damage," Lozano said. "The drugs can stay in those towns, 
be distributed in those towns. And there's the risk of having those 
people there. They can flee authorities and put the community at risk 
as well as bringing in drugs."

Power Struggle in Mexico

Some experts believe increasingly violent cartel wars in Mexico may 
be prompting traffickers to shift their routes through the Mexicali 
area, a calm spot compared with the brutality on disputed turf to the 
east and the west.

"When you have violence, even traffickers themselves take note, and 
the traffickers may say, 'I don't need to battle law enforcement and 
every other trafficker in Tijuana so maybe I'll just move east,' " 
said U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Dan Simmons.

Traffickers south of Tijuana have been fighting to fill the power 
vacuum left after Mexican and U.S. authorities decimated the Arellano 
Felix cartel, which had once dominated the drug trade in Tijuana and 
Mexicali, he said.

East of Mexicali, two powerful drug-trafficking organizations, the 
Gulf and Sinaloa cartels, are battling each other, and the Mexican 
government has stepped up its campaign against them, said Stratfor's Stewart.

Bloody turf wars and conflicts with Mexican law enforcement have 
flared up in Nuevo Laredo and Juarez, across the Rio Grande from 
Texas, and also in areas south of Arizona, including the mining town 
of Cananea, where a kidnapping-turned-shootout killed 23 people in 
May, he said.

Mexicali and the border with inland California may be relatively 
peaceful, because they are under the control of a "gatekeeper," a 
dominant drug lord who takes a cut of most everything smuggled across 
the border, Stewart said.

"One thing is, if you have a dominant cartel, it puts the lid on the 
violence," he said. "The drugs will keep flowing, the corruption will 
keep simmering in Mexico, but the violence will abate."

A federal grand jury in San Diego issued an indictment made public 
this year that named the man who may be the gatekeeper, Victor Emilio 
Cazares-Gastellum, suspected of being the head of a vast 
multinational cocaine-trafficking organization affiliated with the 
Sinaloa Cartel, according to federal court documents.

In February, the DEA announced the results of its more than 20-month 
Operation Imperial Emperor. The investigation of Cazares' 
organization netted more than 400 arrests across the United States as 
well as more than $45 million in cash, nearly 5 tons of cocaine, well 
over 13 tons of marijuana, caches of weapons, cars and other assets, 
including a home in El Centro, according to the DEA.

In June, President Bush named Cazares as one of six international 
"drug kingpins" that will be the target of financial sanctions 
intended to cut him off from the U.S. financial system and all trade 
with American companies. U.S. Justice Department spokeswomen declined 
to comment on whether the United States is seeking his extradition from Mexico.

Cazares' organization is accused of transporting multiple-ton 
shipments of cocaine and other drugs flown and driven in from 
Colombia and Venezuela. His lieutenants, tough men with ill-fitting 
nicknames, such as "Mickey Mouse," Shrek" and "Casper," then smuggled 
the shipments from Mexicali into the United States, according to the 
federal indictment.

The Border Patrol doesn't count big seizures coordinated by other 
agencies, such as Operation Imperial Emperor, in its statistics, 
Lozano said. Its figures reflect mainly piecemeal seizures that 
agents make when they catch illegal border crossers or smugglers at 
and around checkpoints, he said.

If the federal government succeeds in completely dissolving the 
Cazares-Gastellum cartel operating in Mexicali, that could cause more 
violence as smuggling honchos struggle for supremacy, Stewart said.

For John Carnevale, a top strategist and budget official under four 
drug czars and three presidents, fighting traffickers and bringing 
down drug kingpins is not enough to achieve lasting success in the 
war on drugs. Carnevale, who served in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush 
and Clinton administrations, now runs a public policy firm in Maryland.

The Bush administration should not let its focus on sealing borders 
and battling the drug traffickers eclipse prevention programs, 
Carnevale said. Programs to discourage and treat substance abuse in 
the United States deserve equal funding and attention, he said.

"The heart of the problem is demand," Carnevale said. "As long as 
there is demand, there will always be supply."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom