Pubdate: Sun, 15 Jun 2014
Source: Arizona Republic (Phoenix, AZ)
Copyright: 2014 The Arizona Republic
Author: Paul Giblin


NOGALES, Ariz. -- The driver of a blue Dodge Durango appeared 
unusually nervous to a Customs and Border Protection officer working 
one of the eight lanes at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry, one of 
the busiest entrances into the U.S. from Mexico.

The officer directed the mud-streaked 1996 SUV with Arizona plates to 
an inspection area for a lengthy examination.

Mexican drug cartel figures operate sophisticated distribution 
systems that move narcotics into and across the U.S. But they 
typically don't work Holy Week in observance of the religious 
holiday. So on Easter Monday, officers were wary of smugglers trying 
to move extra loads of heroin and other drugs, said Joe 
Agosttini,assistant port director in Nogales.

An officer led the Durango's driver and three passengers into a 
locked holding area. Another guided a drug-sniffing dog around the 
truck. Ralph, a Belgian Malinois, smelled the engine compartment, the 
bumpers, the door handles, the tires. Nothing.

Officers popped the tailgate and opened the doors, glove compartment 
and tire-jack storage compartment. Ralph sniffed door panels, arm 
rests, seats, air-conditioning vents, glove box, side panels. Nothing.

Officers pulled three suitcases from the back and set them on the 
pavement. The dog walked across all three, smelling the handles and 
zippers. Still nothing.

Three officers reinspected the SUV, using flashlights and mirrors on 
long handles to peer into crevices, a heavy pole to thump surfaces 
and a hand-held electronic device to measure the density of areas 
hidden behind fabric, plastic or metal. Still nothing.

Finally convinced there were no hidden drugs, an officer retrieved 
the driver and passengers. A young woman and three 
elementary-school-aged kids climbed in and rejoined a line of 
vehicles entering the U.S.

Every vehicle and every person crossing the border is suspect, Agosttini said.

"We're catching people who are 82 years old that are bringing 
narcotics to the U.S.," Agosttini said. "Juveniles, young kids that 
are in middle school or high school."

Missing Pieces

Government studies put the number of U.S. heroin users at 330,000, up 
about 75 percent from five years ago. Officials say usage is nearing 
peak levels seen in the mid-1970s, with heroin and related opioid 
pain pills killing more than 125,000 people in the U.S. in the past decade.

Nearly all of the heroin fueling this U.S. resurgence enters the 
country over the 1,933-mile Mexico border, according to the U.S. Drug 
Enforcement Administration. Officials say the distribution networks 
are designed specifically to prevent law enforcement from working up 
the chain of command to top-level cartel commanders.

Last year, agents seized more than two tons of heroin entering via 
border states, records compiled by DEA's El Paso Intelligence Center 
show. That marked a 30 percent increase from 2001.Nearly half was 
confiscated in California, with roughly 34 percent taken in Texas and 
20 percent in Arizona. Less than 1percent of the total was taken in New Mexico.

Customs officers in Nogales, meanwhile, have seized more heroin in 
the first six months of fiscal 2014 than during each of the past 
three full fiscal years, Agosttini said.

Most is hidden in vehicles crossing through ports of entry like the 
Nogales gate, through which more than 3 million vehicles passed last 
year, making it the ninth busiest among 25 land ports of entry. 
Smaller amounts are carried in on foot by men called "mules," hiking 
established desert smuggling routes. Some is ferried in by plane or boat.

Most is taken to stash houses in cities near the international line - 
San Diego and Los Angeles; Tucson and Phoenix; and El Paso and 
Brownsville, Texas. From there, operatives drive loads along 
interstate freeways to destinations across the country.

The operations are highly compartmentalized, said Douglas Coleman, 
special agent in charge of the Phoenix Division of the DEA. Drivers 
and other low-level operatives are told almost nothing about their 
own smuggling networks, so that if they are caught, their arrests lead nowhere.

"Nobody knows each other," Coleman said. "Nobody knows anything. The 
transporters, they only know they're supposed to go to Detroit, and 
when they get to Detroit, they're supposed to call a phone number and 
await instructions."

Often, payments are handled by other operatives.

"When we arrest one, it's hard for us to get the entire picture, 
because everybody has a role in the organization, but nobody knows 
what the others' roles are," Coleman said. "When we catch a guy, he 
doesn't have anything to tell us. All he has is a number."

Drug traffic across the border is controlled by two Mexican crime 
organizations that have been fighting for years for trafficking 
routes and the drug trade, leaving more than 100,000 people dead in 
Mexico during the past five years, Coleman said.

The Sinaloa Cartel largely controls smuggling across the border into 
California, Arizona and New Mexico. The Juarez Cartel generally 
manages the trade through Texas.

Most heroin is packed in secret compartments built into private 
vehicles' door panels, seats, bumpers, drive shafts or tires. Heroin 
is even hidden in spaces inside gas tanks. Smugglers also conceal it 
in a variety of intricately altered objects: coolers, hollowed-out 
firewood, baby strollers, soda cans, fire extinguishers.

Last year, authorities found 117 pounds of heroin hidden in plastic 
irrigation pipes brought across the border with a load of 
construction materials.

Sometimes drivers, passengers or even pedestrians who walk across the 
border carry heroin on their bodies.

"People can tape packages to their legs, their thighs, their 
buttocks, to different parts of their bodies," Agosttini said.

"They're doing that in a way that they're shaping up the packages to 
the shape of their bodies. For instance, if it's on the upper torso, 
it's shaped like it's their chest," he said.

One morning earlier this spring, Pinal County sheriff's Lt. Matt 
Thomas pulled off Interstate 8 at the Sonoran Desert National 
Monument, a stretch of rocky mountains and valleys about 70 miles 
north of the international boundary in Arizona.

The 487,000-acre preserve is promoted as a prime location for 
backpacking, stargazing, hunting and horseback riding. But it's also 
a drug-smuggling corridor. Cartel operatives backpack loads of drugs 
from the border through the desert to I-8, which whisks motorists 
between California and Arizona.

"When you just look at this desert area, and people may even be 
driving by on I-8 headed to San Diego or wherever, when they look at 
this area, they just see open desert," Thomas said. "When I drive up, 
all I see are smuggling routes."

Cartel scouts hide in mountains overlooking smuggling routes and 
desert roads, coordinating movements of mules and the transport crews 
who pick them up along the freeway. Scouts also watch for Border 
Patrol agents and other authorities, telling mules when to proceed 
and when to hide.

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu estimates cartel operatives have 75 
to 100 mountain lookout posts in Pinal County, which is roughly the 
size of Connecticut. Support personnel ferry supplies to scouts, 
replenishing water, food, batteries and other supplies, allowing them 
to shelter among the rocks for days or weeks at a time.

A few miles away along I-8, Thomas stopped at a reflective roadside 
mile marker. Smugglers often use the markers for rendezvous points.

He climbed over a barbed-wire fence and stepped past a rattlesnake to 
a gully shrouded by mesquite trees providing a bit of shade. He found 
several discarded large homemade burlap backpacks and smaller 
store-bought knapsacks. Smugglers use the burlap backpacks to carry 
marijuana, and the knapsacks to carry heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine.

Carriers also had abandoned blankets, a sleeping bag, empty plastic 
water bottles and candy wrappers. The smell of human waste wafted in 
the hot air. Smugglers were nowhere to be seen. Transport vehicles 
likely had picked them up and driven them and their dope to a Phoenix 
stash house.

In February, deputies arrested a Mexican man driving a cargo van 
south of Casa Grande, Ariz. Inside were 600 pounds of food bundled in 
trash bags, cases of bottled water, a stockpile of 5-gallon jugs of 
water, and nearly a dozen cans of diesel fuel. He told deputies 
cartel figures paid him $4,000 to drive the van from Phoenix, deliver 
supplies to scouts, and pick up a load of marijuana to shuttle to a 
location his employers hadn't yet identified to him.

Marijuana remains the top drug smuggled through the region, but 
heroin is increasing and fast, Thomas said.

"A couple of years back, if you would find a pound of heroin, that 
would be a big load," he said. "Nowadays, it's common to interdict 50 
or 60 pounds, up to 100 pounds, of heroin."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom