National Drug Intelligence Center
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. According to the Arizona HIDTA, 12,822 cannabis plants were eradicated in the region during calendar year 2008; the plants were confiscated from 26 outdoor and 29 indoor grow sites. Of the total number of plants eradicated in 2008, 11,933 were eradicated from federal public lands. (See Figure 2.) Hydroponically grown cannabis is increasingly being seized throughout the Arizona HIDTA region.
Figure 2. Cannabis Eradication Sites in Arizona HIDTA Region, 2008
Source: Arizona HIDTA; Counternarcotics Alliance, Drug Enforcement Administration Phoenix; Gila County Drug, Gang, and Violent Crime Task Force; Maricopa County Sheriff's Office; Partners Against Narcotics Trafficking Task Force; Phoenix Police Department; Santa Cruz County Metro Task Force; U.S. Department of the Interior, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
Methamphetamine production occurs in the HIDTA region but 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 2.) Local methamphetamine producers typically obtain required precursor chemicals through smurfing4 activity, which they generally conduct in the county where they reside; however, some producers travel throughout the state to avoid law enforcement detection.
Table 2. Methamphetamine Laboratories Seized in the Arizona HIDTA Region, 2004-2008
Source: National Seizure System, data as of January 13, 2009.
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 (MBT) heroin 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 that are moved through these areas, including drugs and illegal aliens. 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 heroin into Arizona from Mexico through POEs (see Table 3); they generally smuggle marijuana between POEs. (See Table 4.) Once traffickers have smuggled illicit drug shipments across the U.S.-Mexico border into Arizona, they often transport them in the HIDTA region on Interstate 19, which connects directly with Mexican Federal Highway 15 at the Nogales POE. CBP agents seized more than 30,000 pounds of marijuana at checkpoints throughout the Tucson Sector in 2008; most of it (18,000 pounds) was seized at the I-19 checkpoint north of Tubac. 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.
Table 3. Illicit Drug Seizures at POEs in Arizona, by Drug, FY2004-FY2008
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, data as of January 14, 2009.
Table 4. Illicit Drug and Firearm Seizures Between POEs in Arizona, by Drug, Fiscal Year 2004-Fiscal Year 2008*
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, data as of March 12,
* 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.
The USBP Tucson Sector reports that Mexican DTOs are increasingly using alternate routes and less-traveled roads in an attempt to avoid the increasing number of law enforcement patrols. For instance, DTOs are increasingly using other Arizona highways, including State Routes 80, 82, 85, 86, 90, and 92, to transport illicit drug shipments from the border area to Phoenix and Tucson. (See Figure 3.) Recently law enforcement officials report that Mexican DTOs have also increased their use of State Routes 77, 79, and 60 from Tucson north to I-40 to avoid heavy interdiction efforts along I-10 between Tucson and Flagstaff, Arizona.
Figure 3. Arizona HIDTA Transportation Infrastructure
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According to USBP officials, the Nogales corridor is the most active corridor for marijuana smuggling activity into and throughout Arizona. Vehicular smuggling activity in the West Desert corridor has increased slightly (from Sasabe to an area west of Lukeville). Traffickers use vehicle platforms or car carriers retrofitted with ramps that can extend over the border fence to allow vehicles to cross into the HIDTA region. The ramps are set up in less than a minute, providing agents with a very small window of time in which to interdict these types of smuggling attempts. Drug smuggling activity has also increased through the Tucson Sector east corridor, which extends from the New Mexico state line to Naco. USBP officials also report that smuggling of drugs and illegal aliens over the high ranges of the Perilla and Mule Mountains west of Douglas has increased, as these areas are difficult for agents to patrol.
Traffickers use various methods to avoid counterdrug operations in Arizona and Mexico. Mexican DTOs use cloned7 commercial or government vehicles to transport illicit drugs. For example, in December 2008 Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) troopers/officers seized over 2,000 pounds of marijuana from a cloned United Parcel Service (UPS) delivery truck. The vehicle was disguised to resemble a UPS truck, including the use of reflective UPS decals, an authentic vehicle number, and paint. In recent years Arizona law enforcement officers have seized illicit drugs from cloned Federal Express, U.S. Postal Service, Forest Service, and USBP vehicles. In addition, Mexican DTOs appear to be testing the viability of ultralight8 and Cessna aircraft as alternative modes for transporting wholesale quantities of illicit drugs into Arizona. CBP reported three incidents involving ultralight aircraft transporting small amounts (between 100 and 350 pounds) of marijuana across the U.S.-Mexico border between October and December 2008 from airstrips in the Mexican state of Sonora. (See text box.)
Ultralight Aircraft Used in Marijuana Smuggling Attempts
In October 2008 CBP Air and Marine Operations in Riverside, California, detected an unidentified, northbound, low-flying aircraft 12 miles west of Nogales, Arizona, just north of the border. A CBP surveillance helicopter was launched from Tucson. The low-flying aircraft was identified as an ultralight. The pilot landed southwest of Marana, Arizona, with 223 pounds of marijuana on board; an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) was waiting to transport the pilot and the marijuana to another location. The pilot, aircraft, ATV, and the marijuana were turned over to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials for further investigation. In November 2008, near the Arizona border town of San Luis, field workers arriving for work discovered a crashed ultralight, a dead pilot, and 141 pounds of marijuana. In December 2008 the pilot of an ultralight collided with power lines and crashed southwest of Tucson. The pilot had been carrying 350 pounds of marijuana when he crashed.
Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Mexican DTOs also smuggle drugs, particularly marijuana, across the U.S.-Mexico border into Arizona by hiring Mexican nationals to carry smaller loads in backpacks that weigh 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 USBP and CBP patrol patterns and determine the best times to conduct illicit drug smuggling operations.
Operation Tumbleweed Reveals Details of Drug Transportation Operations
Operation Tumbleweed, a multiagency investigation that culminated in December 2008, identified and dismantled a well-organized Mexican DTO operation that smuggled and distributed up to 400,000 pounds of marijuana annually from Mexico into southern Arizona and beyond. Members of the organizations stole load vehicles in the United States and modified them to carry 2,000 to 2,500 pounds of bundled marijuana per trip. Each shipment involved from one to four load vehicles, which were covertly sent at approximately 1-week intervals from Sonoyta, Mexico, through the desert of the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation. (See Figure 4.) In order to avoid law enforcement detection while crossing the desert, drivers were equipped with tarps to conceal the vehicles from aircraft detection and were outfitted with night vision equipment for night travel. In addition, scouts were deployed in the high ground of the U.S. desert to alert the drivers to any law enforcement presence. Other DTO members dropped off food and supplies for the scouts, enabling them to stay in place for extended periods of time. As many as 20 individuals were involved in various aspects of each operation, from departure in Mexico to arrival at the final destination at a stash house outside Phoenix. Other organization members at the stash house immediately broke down the drug shipments into smaller loads that were later transported by different drivers who drove inconspicuous sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) and pickup trucks to Phoenix, where the drugs were distributed.
Source: Arizona Attorney General's Office.
Figure 4. Federal and Tribal Lands in Arizona
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Significant quantities of illicit drugs are regularly seized by law enforcement officials in the Arizona HIDTA region. (See Table 5.) Forty-two percent of all marijuana seizures that occurred along the Southwest Border took place in the Arizona HIDTA region during 2008, making the Arizona HIDTA region one of the primary arrival zones for marijuana entering the United States from Mexico. Cocaine and methamphetamine also are smuggled through the region in large quantities; however, National Seizure System (NSS) data reveal that cocaine seizures in Arizona HIDTA counties decreased approximately 17 percent, and methamphetamine seizures decreased approximately 16 percent between 2007 and 2008. 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 in the HIDTA region may indicate a decreased flow of the drug from Mexico into the region that can be attributed to stronger precursor chemical control regulations and increased drug interdiction efforts in Mexico.
Table 5. Drugs Seized in Arizona HIDTA Counties, in Pounds, 2005-2008
|Change from 2007 through 2008||-17%||+84%||-23%||-16%|
Source: El Paso Intelligence Center National Seizure System, data as of January 13, 2009.
NSS seizure data reveal an increase in heroin seizures between 2007 and 2008. This increase is likely caused by an apparent increase in demand for MBT heroin in East Coast and Great Lakes regions' drug markets rather than an increasing demand for heroin within the HIDTA region. Increased heroin seizures can also be attributed in part to a decrease in aerial eradication of opium poppy plantations in Mexico since December 2006, as noted by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, 2008 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR). (See Table 6.) Counterdrug operations in Mexico and other foreign countries have not been as effective against heroin trafficking networks as they have been with other drug trafficking networks. The INCSR indicates that control of heroin trafficking networks is dispersed and fragmented, unlike cocaine trafficking networks. Heroin trafficking involves opium farmers, heroin processors, and small-scale trafficking groups that operate independently or through mutually supportive businesses. In many instances farmers sell their opium harvest to traffickers with access to heroin processors and distribution networks.
Table 6. Drug Eradication in Mexico, 2005-2007, in Hectares*
|2005||2006||Percent Change 2005-2006||2007||Percent Change 2006-2007|
Source: PGR National Center for Analysis, Planning, and Intelligence
Against Organized Crime statistics as reported in the Department of State Bureau
of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs 2008, International Narcotics
Control Strategy Report.
* Data as of October 25, 2007 (data referenced are the latest available).
Traffickers employ subterranean tunnels in their smuggling operations within the HIDTA region, particularly in the Nogales metropolitan area; 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. During FY2008, 14 tunnels were discovered by the USBP; 10 tunnels have been discovered since October 1, 2008. In November 2008 the Yuma Sector Border Patrol agents discovered an elaborate tunnel under construction in San Luis, Arizona, and arrested the Mexico City engineer responsible for its construction.
Table 7. Tunnels Discovered Within the Arizona HIDTA Region, Fiscal Year 2005-2009*
|Total seized in Arizona||3||4||11||14||10|
Source: Department of Homeland Security.
* Data as of December 31, 2008, (data referenced are the latest available).
Pseudoephedrine smurfing is a method used by some
methamphetamine traffickers to acquire large quantities of precursor chemicals.
Traffickers using this method make numerous small-quantity purchases of cold tablets
from multiple retail locations and extract pseudoephedrine or ephedrine from the
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 drug trafficking organization (DTO) and enforce the will of the organization through bribery, intimidation, extortion, beatings, and murder.
7. Cloned vehicles are vehicles disguised to look like official government or commercial vehicles to deflect law enforcement attention.
8. Ultralights are relatively inexpensive, hard to detect using radar, and capable of transporting relatively small amounts of cargo per trip.
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