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Marijuana is produced locally from cannabis cultivated most commonly on public lands in and around the Arizona HIDTA region. Many of these grow sites are located within the Tonto, Coconino, and Prescott National Forests. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP) reports the eradication of 35,227 cannabis plants in the region during calendar year 2007; the plants were confiscated from 30 outdoor and 43 indoor grow sites. Of the total number of plants eradicated in 2007, 23,593 were eradicated from federal public lands.4

Methamphetamine production occurs in the HIDTA region, but it is generally limited to personal use quantities. The number of methamphetamine laboratories in the Arizona HIDTA region has been trending downward for the past several years as a result of legislation regulating the sale of precursor chemicals and the wide availability of Mexican ice methamphetamine. (See Table 1.) Small powder methamphetamine laboratories are occasionally seized by law enforcement officials in the Arizona HIDTA region, but most are capable of producing only an ounce or two per production cycle. In addition to limited local powder methamphetamine production, isolated incidents involving seizures of liquid methamphetamine intended for further processing in the region have been reported by law enforcement. In December 2006, CBP, in conjunction with the DEA Tucson District Office, seized liquid methamphetamine from the gas tank of a private vehicle. In September 2007, CBP effected another seizure of liquid methamphetamine from the gas tank of a private vehicle. CBP officials believe that the liquid methamphetamine was being smuggled from Mexico to the HIDTA region, where it was going to be separated, mixed with hydrogen chloride (HCl), "bubbled," and then crystallized into ice methamphetamine.

Table 1. Methamphetamine Laboratories Seized in the Arizona HIDTA Region, 2002-2008*

Year 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008*
Number Seized 203 109 97 51 24 10 4

Source: El Paso Intelligence Center National Seizure System.
* Data current as of May 15, 2008.

Crack cocaine is regularly converted from powder cocaine by retail-level distributors in urban areas of the region, particularly Phoenix. Distributors convert most crack cocaine at or near distribution sites on an as-needed basis in an attempt to minimize their exposure to the severe penalties mandated for the possession and distribution of crack cocaine.5

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Mexican DTOs control the smuggling of cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, and Mexican black tar heroin (MBT) from Mexico into Arizona and continually challenge U.S. law enforcement officers responsible for safeguarding the border. Gatekeepers6 regulate the drug flow from Mexico across the U.S.-Mexico border into the United States by controlling drug smugglers' access to areas along the border. Gatekeepers collect "taxes" from smugglers on all illicit shipments, including drugs and illegal aliens, moved through these areas. The taxes are generally paid to the DTO that controls the area; the DTO then launders the tax proceeds. Gatekeepers sometimes resort to extortion, intimidation, and acts of violence to collect taxes from smugglers. Gatekeepers also reportedly bribe corrupt Mexican police and military personnel in order to ensure that smuggling activities occur without interruption.

According to CBP officials, Mexican DTOs smuggle cocaine, methamphetamine, and MBT into Arizona from Mexico through POEs (see Table 2); they generally smuggle marijuana between POEs. (See Table 3.) Once traffickers have smuggled illicit drug shipments into the United States, across the U.S.-Mexico border into Arizona, they often transport them in the HIDTA region on I-9, which connects directly with Mexican Federal Highway 15 at the Nogales POE.

Table 2. Illicit Drug Seizures at POEs in Arizona, by Drug , FY2002-FY2007

Year Cocaine Heroin Marijuana Methamphetamine
  Number Pounds Number Pounds Number Pounds Number Pounds
2002 97 4,943 4 10 640 119,622 25 704
2003 91 5,861 1 11 827 132,353 56 2,529
2004 156 10,905 10 294 710 135,308 83 3,304
2005 159 4,597 12 75 521 54,710 100 1,781
2006 153 5,584 27 189 412 47,709 57 884
2007 129 3,966 9 68 566 73,818 51 554

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Table 3. Illicit Drug Seizures Between POEs in Arizona, by Drug , FY2002-FY2007*

Year Cocaine Heroin Marijuana Methamphetamine Firearms**
  Number Pounds Number Pounds Number Pounds Number Pounds Number
2002 28 113 5 24 1,198 277,269 33 1 25
2003 40 116 7 17 1,840 383,599 89 29 63
2004 53 882 7 37 2,161 459,328 86 9 52
2005 66 1,206 7 2 2,264 523,816 82 17 54
2006 83 106 6 1 3,876 661,985 142 8 84
2007 47 177 2 42 3,245 874,384 50* 65 65

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
* All data (from the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) National Seizure System (NSS), CBP, and Arizona HIDTA Operation COBIJA reporting) consistently indicate a decrease in the amount of methamphetamine seized with the exception of CBP data between POEs. One explanation for this anomaly may be that methamphetamine seizures between POEs are occurring within the high-number marijuana shipments rather than single seizures of methamphetamine loads, resulting in an increased volume of methamphetamine seized.
** Seized in same event.

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Mexican DTOs primarily transport wholesale quantities of illicit drugs into Arizona using private and commercial vehicles, often equipped with hidden compartments, using heavily traveled roadways, such as I-10 and I-40. However, Mexican DTOs are increasingly using alternate routes and less traveled roads in an attempt to avoid law enforcement patrols. Traffickers also commonly use other major Arizona highways, including State Routes 80, 82, 85, 90, 92, and 86 to transport illicit drug shipments from the border area to Phoenix and Tucson. (See Figure 2.) Moreover, Mexican traffickers smuggling wholesale quantities of marijuana from Sonora into the Arizona HIDTA region through the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation (see Figure 3 in Phoenix and Tucson Market Areas section.) typically transport illicit drugs north on US 93 to Phoenix for distribution; they also further transport the drugs to Las Vegas, Nevada, and other market areas throughout the country. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2. Arizona HIDTA transportation infrastructure.

Map showing the Arizona HIDTA region transportation infrastructure.

Tucson is a primary transshipment area, followed by Phoenix, for illicit drugs because of its proximity to Mexico and its extensive highway system, which connects to I-8 and I-10, major east-west interstates. Mexican DTOs transport large quantities of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and ice methamphetamine from Sonora into Tucson and Phoenix, often storing the drugs at stash sites. Most illicit drugs transported into Tucson and Phoenix are destined for distribution to markets throughout the nation; however, some are offloaded in either city for local distribution. Mexican traffickers also commonly use national parks, national monuments, and national forests as well as tribal lands located along the U.S.-Mexico border to smuggle illicit drugs into and through the Tucson area.

In addition to smuggling illicit drugs by vehicle, Mexican DTOs smuggle drugs, particularly marijuana, across the U.S.-Mexico border into Arizona by hiring Mexican nationals to carry smaller loads in backpacks, weighing approximately 50 pounds. The backpackers hike to remote, predetermined locations and either transfer the backpacks to an awaiting trafficker or hide them for later retrieval. The backpackers sometimes hike several days to arrive at predetermined points along the highways. Smuggling attempts frequently take place at night or during periods of limited visibility. DTO scouts or individuals who reside on either side of the border monitor U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) and CBP patrol patterns and determine the best times to conduct illicit drug smuggling operations.

Significant quantities of illicit drugs are regularly seized by law enforcement officials in the Arizona HIDTA region (See Table 4). Arizona is the primary arrival zone along the Southwest Border for Mexican marijuana; 42 percent of all marijuana seizures that occurred along the Southwest border took place in the state during 2007. Cocaine and methamphetamine also are smuggled through the region in large quantities; however, NSS data reveal that cocaine seizures in Arizona HIDTA counties decreased approximately 21 percent, and methamphetamine seizures decreased approximately 27 percent between 2006 and 2007. Moreover, seizure data from Operation COBIJA7 indicate cocaine seizures decreased approximately 27 percent and methamphetamine seizures decreased roughly 6 percent during the same time period. The decrease in the amount of cocaine seized most likely can be attributed to large seizures of the drug while in transit toward Mexico as well as law enforcement operations against Mexican DTOs operating within and outside the United States, including extraditions of key members of Mexican DTOs. The decrease in the amount of methamphetamine seized can most likely be attributed to a decrease in methamphetamine production in Mexico--the probable result of decreases in the availability of pseudoephedrine, the primary precursor chemical used in methamphetamine production. Additionally, NSS and COBIJA seizure data both reveal an increase in heroin seizures between 2006 and 2007; this increase is likely occasioned by an apparent increase in demand for MBT heroin in East Coast and Great Lakes drug markets rather than an increasing demand for heroin within the HIDTA region.

Table 4. Drugs Seized in Arizona HIDTA Counties, in Pounds, 2005-2007

Year Cocaine Heroin Marijuana Methamphetamine
2005 7,750 96 856,836 1,564
2006 6,479 153 897,916 1,229
2007 5,135 157 1,243,189 941
Change from 2006 through 2007 -21% +2% +38% -27%

Source: El Paso Intelligence Center National Seizure System.

Traffickers employ subterranean tunnels in their smuggling operations within the HIDTA region, particularly in the Nogales metropolitan area (see Appendix A); the number of tunnels discovered in Arizona is higher than the number discovered in any other Southwest Border state. According to law enforcement officials, many tunnels discovered in the Nogales area utilized the area's intricate system of underground drainage tunnels and sewage and irrigation systems.

The Arizona HIDTA region plays a significant role in the transportation and distribution of illicit drugs from Mexico into and throughout the United States. The Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas are national-level transportation and distribution centers for drug trafficking and drug availability within the southwest region, such as California and Texas, as well as throughout the nation, including the New England, Mid-Atlantic, and West Central regions. In addition, smaller border communities such as Douglas, Nogales, and Yuma are significant transshipment and distribution areas for illicit drug shipments primarily destined for the Phoenix and Tucson drug market areas.

End Notes

4. Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (DCE/SP) reporting for 2007 will become the baseline data for the upcoming years. A different methodology was used to collect the State Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program (SCE/SP) this year, and the data from previous years cannot be compared with the 2007 data.
5. Possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine carries a mandatory minimum sentence, whereas powder cocaine must weigh 500 grams before the mandatory minimum sentence can be imposed.
6. Gatekeepers are smuggling organizations that oversee the transportation of drugs into the United States from Mexico. Gatekeepers generally operate at the behest of a Mexican DTO and enforce the will of the organization through bribery, intimidation, extortion, beatings, and murder.
7. Operation COBIJA (Spanish for blanket) is an enhanced countersmuggling and drug interdiction effort involving personnel from federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.

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