Advertisement

You will be redirected to the page you want to view in  seconds.

Drugs were found in this modified Coca-Cola can coming from Mexico at the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales, Ariz. Heroin has been coming over the U.S.-Mexico border in record amounts. / Michael Chow, The Arizona Republic

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, among 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 Easter week in observance of the religious holiday. So the Monday morning after Easter, 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 laid 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 ... bringing narcotics to the U.S.," he said. "Juveniles, young kids that are in middle school or high school."

Nearly all of the heroin fueling a U.S. resurgence enters the country over the 1,933-mile Mexico border, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Customs officers in Nogales 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 bustling Nogales gate. Smaller amounts are carried in on foot by men dubbed "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, Laredo, McAllen 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.

"Nobody knows each other. 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," he said.

Often, payments are handled by other operatives. DEA officials concentrate on identifying and apprehending top-level cartel commanders, but the smuggling networks are specifically engineered to thwart law enforcement.

"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, Coleman said.

The Sinaloa Cartel largely controls smuggling across the border into California, Arizona and New Mexico. The Juárez 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 built 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 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 carry by backpack loads of drugs from the border through the desert to Interstate 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 homemade burlap backpacks and smaller store-bought knapsacks. Smugglers use them 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 was 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."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Heroin's hidden journey

More In

test

Real Deals

Flip, shop and save on specials from your favorite retailers in central Ohio.

GET DEALS | COUPONS

Things To Do

FRI
24
SAT
25
SUN
26
MON
27
TUE
28
WED
29
THU
30

CLASSIFIEDS

Classifieds from across Central Ohio
Lancaster
Chillicothe
Newark
Marion
Bucyrus
Mansfield
Zanesville
Coshocton

Weeklies & Shoppers

10TV Headlines

Dispatch Headlines

METROMIX