Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Mexican drug cartels making inroads here, authorities say

Presence linked to more homicides, home invasions

Thirty-five bundles of marijuana were seized in July from a truck on Interstate 10 about 20 miles southeast of downtown Tucson.

Thirty-five bundles of marijuana were seized in July from a truck on Interstate 10 about 20 miles southeast of downtown Tucson.

Mexican drug cartels are supplying drug-dealing organizations here with marijuana and fueling an increase in drug-related violence including homicides, kidnappings and home invasions, authorities say.

“There is a tremendous impact on our crime,” said Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik.

According to a federal report, Mexican drug dealers here have forged alliances with two cartels known to be operating in Tucson – the Federation and the Juarez Cartel.

The cartels distribute some marijuana here and operate Tucson area stash houses, Dupnik said.

While the cartels also ship other drugs, marijuana is the most common, said Sheriff’s Bureau Chief Richard Kastigar.

“Based on our encounters with the smugglers we come across in the southern part of the county, the majority of the items smuggled is marijuana.

“But there is human cargo (illegal immigrants), cocaine, heroin and to a lesser extent methamphetamine,” Kastigar said. “It is proportional to the voracious demands of the (marijuana) users in North America.”

For the most part, cartel members are here to see that cartel drugs are shipped on to other markets across the United States, said Ritchie Martinez, a supervisory drug intelligence analyst with the Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

HIDTA is a federally funded organization that provides drug intelligence and analysis to law enforcement agencies.

“Tucson, Pima County, we are the biggest transportation route in the area,” said Sgt. Helen Ritz, a drug interdiction specialist with the multiagency Counter Narcotics Alliance.

While Martinez said cartels mostly ship through Tucson, Dupnik said they do sell some marijuana here, fueling competition for the profitable drug and fueling violence that goes along with the trade.

And that means an increasing level of crime such as home invasions, and kidnappings and homicides because of failure to pay drug debts over the cost of lost loads, Dupnik said. Statistics were not available.

Assistant Tucson police Chief Roberto Villaseñor said the increase in home invasions because of drug trafficking led to the creation last April of a special detective detail to investigate them.

From the time the unit was formed until March 25 there were 173 home invasions in the city, 75 percent of which were determined to be drug related, Villaseñor said.

“Residential robberies (home invasions) were rare five years ago, now they’re commonplace,” Villaseñor said.

The residential robberies and other drug violence in the Tucson area often is smuggler on smuggler, said David Denlinger, chief of the state Department of Public Safety’s Criminal Investigations Division.

“I think it is a continuing problem. Drugs continue to come across the border in alarming quantities,” said Pennie Gillette-Stroud, DPS deputy director.

Gillette-Stroud and Denlinger spoke about the area’s drug violence problem during a news conference Friday at DPS’ Tucson headquarters, 6401 S. Tucson Blvd.

High costs

Marijuana here wholesales for $350 to $600 a pound, depending on how much is being purchased, Ritz said.

Typically a 300-pound marijuana load, at $400 a pound, wholesales here for $120,000, Ritz said.

But Ritz said that same load on the East Coast or in a Midwest city such as Chicago can wholesale for as much as $1,500 a pound, or about $450,000 total.

The profit makes drug smuggling routes busy.

“Every day there are loads being taken off in the hundreds of pounds” by law enforcement officers, Ritz said.

Over the past three years federal and local law enforcement agencies in Arizona’s four border counties have seized at least 3 million pounds of marijuana, according to HIDTA.

Of that amount, HIDTA figures show, close to 1.5 million pounds of the drug were seized within Pima County.

National problem

Marijuana is sent to other cities via cars, vans, commercial trucks, commercial shipping companies and by U.S. mail, Ritz said.

How many drug trafficking organizations here have associated themselves with violent cartels is not outlined in the report issued last year by the National Drug Intelligence Center.

Maps included in the Intelligence Center’s “situation report” show the cartel affiliations of drug trafficking organizations in Tucson.

Threat assessments issued by the Intelligence Center say Mexican drug trafficking organizations have moved into 230 U.S. cities and drug trafficking organizations in at least 129 of those cities have forged ties with one or more of four major Mexican drug cartels.

There are two other major cartels, the Gulf Coast Cartel and the Tijuana Cartel, operating in the U.S. besides the Federation and Juarez cartels.

Drug trafficking organizations have formed ties with the Gulf Coast Cartel in 17 other states, from Texas to New York, and trafficking organizations have formed alliances with the Tijuana Cartel in 10 other states, mostly in the Midwest and Northeast, the situation reports’ maps show.

Law enforcement authorities here agree that none of the cartels has set up operations with cartel leadership based in the Tucson area and cartels are unlikely to launch attacks against U.S. “assets,” such as state, local or federal officers or buildings, as they have in Mexico.

Dupnik said he expects cartels will not launch violent attacks here because of the “deadly” response it would elicit from the U.S.

But drug violence in northern Mexico has skyrocketed, with more than 6,000 homicides since January 2008.

Villaseñor agrees Tucson won’t see the same problems.

“The corruption that Mexican law enforcement experiences doesn’t exist here and that’s what the cartels need to operate,” Villaseñor said.

Dupnik credits Mexico President Felipe Calderon with doing all he can to fight the drug cartels, many of which are heavily armed with military-style weaponry shipped to them from the United States.

On Wednesday Mexican authorities detained one of the country’s most wanted drug suspects, Vicente Carrillo Leyva, 32, who allegedly was the second in command of the powerful Juarez cartel, the Mexican federal Attorney General’s Office said.

The next step

Meanwhile, as cartel operations develop here, the Obama administration said it would send more than 100 federal agents to the border as well as high-tech surveillance gear and drug-sniffing dogs to keep Mexican drug violence from spilling over into the United States and to stop the flow of firearms south into Mexico.

The administration also will send money and equipment to Mexico to battle the cartels, including five helicopters for the Mexican Army and Air Force and a surveillance aircraft for the Mexican Navy, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration announcement.

The aircraft are being supplied under $700 million in funding to Mexico approved by Congress as part of the Merida Initiative to help combat drug cartels.

Administration efforts also include adding 16 DEA special agents to the Southwest border area, as well as 100 personnel from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who will be tasked with helping to stem the flow of firearms from the United States to Mexico, according to the DEA.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Tuesday told the Gannett Washington Bureau that now is the time to strike at the cartels.

“We have a unique opportunity now in time because of the priority this has taken with the president of Mexico to break up these cartels,” said Napolitano, a former Arizona governor and federal prosecutor.

The chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., and the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, introduced legislation Tuesday to provide an additional $550 million to fight drug violence along the border.

Their budget amendment includes $260 million for Customs and Border Protection to hire, equip, train and deploy 1,600 officers and 400 canine teams to the border to increase the number of inspections of vehicles heading south into Mexico.

Inspections would aim to stop cartels from smuggling weapons and drug money out of the United States.

The legislation also would provide $130 million to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for 350 investigators to target weapons smuggling and money laundering.

Dupnik and Villaseñor said they do not yet know how much federal money or other resources their agencies will get out of the administration’s border violence initiative.

“No one knows what anyone will get out of this,” Villaseñor said.

Gannett News Service and The Associated Press contributed to this article.

A U.S. Border Patrol K-9 handler works his dog through vehicles at a checkpoint near Tubac.

A U.S. Border Patrol K-9 handler works his dog through vehicles at a checkpoint near Tubac.



The National Drug Intelligence Center at www.usdoj.gov/ndic

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration at www.usdoj.gov/dea

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives at www.atf.gov

The federal Office of National Drug Control Policy at www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov


Border violence summit

What: Border violence summit hosted by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.

When: 4 p.m. Tuesday, open to the public. Closed meeting held before. Those at the closed summit will discuss ways to combat the rise in border violence caused by Mexican drug cartels, according to a news statement from Giffords’ office.

Where: Evo A. DeConcini U.S. Courthouse, 405 W. Congress St.

Details: 881-3588.

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