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Production

Most methamphetamine production that occurs in the HIDTA region is limited to small-scale laboratories that generate personal use quantities. The number of methamphetamine laboratory seizures in the Arizona HIDTA region has fallen over the past several years as a result of legislation regulating the sale of precursor chemicals and the wide availability of Mexican ice methamphetamine. Local methamphetamine producers typically obtain precursor chemicals through smurfinge activity, which they conduct in the counties where they reside; however, some producers travel throughout the state to avoid law enforcement detection.

Some marijuana is produced locally from cannabis cultivated 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 Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program, 10,204 cannabis plants were eradicated in Arizona in 2009; the plants were confiscated from 22 outdoor and 69 indoor grow sites.

 

Transportation

The Nogales corridor is the most active corridor for marijuana smuggling activity into and throughout Arizona. While much of this activity was previously centered in an area from Lukeville to Tucson, traffickers have shifted their smuggling activity west from Lukeville to Yuma. Drug smuggling activity has also increased through the eastern portions of the region from the New Mexico state line to Naco, Arizona. Large quantities of marijuana are also smuggled through the Tohono O'odham Reservation, which covers more than 2.8 million acres in southern Arizona between Lukeville and Sasabe and straddles the border with Mexico for 75 miles. Much of the border area is open to allow unimpeded travel for residents on the reservation. These vast stretches of remote and sparsely populated desert are mostly unprotected and difficult for law enforcement to adequately patrol. Seizure statistics indicate that drug traffickers have historically smuggled far greater quantities of marijuana through the Tohono O'odham Reservation than through the nearby Lukeville and Sasabe POEs on either side of the reservation. For example, more than 416,000 kilograms of marijuana were seized on the Tohono O'odham Reservation from 2004 through 2008, while less than 19,000 kilograms were seized at the Lukeville POE and less than 2,000 kilograms at the Sasabe POE during that same period.

According to the Arizona HIDTA, Mexican nationals carrying backpack loads up to 100 pounds smuggle most drugs, particularly marijuana, across the Arizona-Mexico border. The backpackers hike to remote, predetermined locations and either transfer the backpacks to a waiting trafficker or hide them for later retrieval. This activity frequently takes 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 to determine the best times to conduct drug smuggling operations.

Operation Los Tusa Takes Down Major Marijuana Trafficking Organization

In October 2009, DEA and Pinal County officials announced Operation Los Tusa, which resulted in the dismantling of a cross-border marijuana trafficking organization. Investigators believe that the organization had operated for at least 3 years and was responsible for smuggling hundreds of thousands of pounds of marijuana, which were distributed nationwide from local stash houses. The investigation revealed that the organization brought marijuana across the border through the Tohono O'odham Reservation, using a network of backpackers and load vehicles. Backpackers walked bundles of 50 to 100 pounds of marijuana across the border to southern Pinal County, where vehicles met them to pick up and transport the drugs to stash houses in the area for later distribution.

Source: Drug Enforcement Administration.

Mexican DTOs use ultralightf aircraft as alternative modes for transporting marijuana into Arizona. Many of the flights take place late at night, when radar and other law enforcement surveillance are limited. Often, the radar tracking is incomplete; many incidents are logged as "fades," or images that suddenly drop off the radar. Many of these images represent ultralight flights.

Border Patrol Agents Seize Scuba Gear, Marijuana in Sewer System

In February 2010, Douglas, Arizona, Border Patrol agents observed several individuals illegally crossing the border fence near a sewer outlet. One individual appeared to be carrying bundles. As officers approached, the individuals fled toward Mexico. As the agents neared the sewer outlet, they observed an individual in the drain, wearing a wet suit and scuba gear and carrying the bundles. Upon discovering the agents, the individual dropped the bundles and scuba gear, and fled toward Mexico. The agents recovered an oxygen tank, a scuba mask, and 55 pounds of marijuana.

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Mexican traffickers also use 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 in any other Southwest Border state. During the first 10 months of fiscal year (FY) 2009, 22 tunnels were discovered by the USBP; all but two were discovered in the Nogales area, an increase from FY2008, when 15 tunnels were discovered in Arizona, all but one in the Nogales area. Many tunnels discovered in Nogales used existing underground drainage tunnels and sewage and irrigation systems.

Mexican DTOs often use clonedg commercial or government vehicles to transport illicit drugs through the region. For example, in January 2010, Arizona DPS personnel seized over 700 pounds of marijuana from a cloned septic service tanker truck on Interstate 19 near Tubac. The vehicle appeared to be an innocuous commercial vehicle, but officers stopped the truck because of an invalid license plate. Further scrutiny revealed counterfeit Department of Transportation markings on the truck; an inspection yielded marijuana concealed in the tank.

According to the Arizona HIDTA, Mexican pharmacies, primarily those in the Nogales, Sonora, area are potentially significant sources for CPDs distributed in Arizona. CPD abusers and distributors in Arizona can readily purchase drugs from the large number of pharmacies located in Mexican communities just across the border from Arizona. Once CPDs have been purchased in Mexico, they are smuggled into Arizona for further distribution within the state.

 

Distribution

Mexican DTOs dominate the wholesale distribution of illicit drugs within the Arizona HIDTA region. They use Tucson and Phoenix as transshipment hubs for drugs supplied in the region and throughout much of the country. Mexican DTOs frequently use stash locations within the HIDTA region to store and consolidate shipments prior to forwarding them to the final destination. Within the Arizona HIDTA region, Hispanic street gangs, most often subsets or associates of Hispanic prison gangs such as Mexican Mafia, are the principal retail-level distributors of illicit drugs, primarily marijuana. However, other criminal groups, including outlaw motorcycle gangs, and African American, Caucasian, and Native American gangs distribute retail quantities of marijuana, methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin in the region.


Footnotes

e. 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 tablets.
f. Ultralights are relatively inexpensive, hard to detect using radar, and capable of transporting relatively small amounts of cargo per trip.
g. Cloned vehicles are those disguised to look like official government or commercial vehicles to deflect law enforcement attention.


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