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NDIC seal linked to Home Page. National Drug Intelligence Center
Arizona Drug Threat Assessment
December 2003



Map of Arizona showing major transportation routes.

Note: This map displays features mentioned in the report.

Arizona ranks twentieth in the country in population with more than 5.1 million residents, of which 75 percent are Caucasian, 5 percent Native American, 3 percent African American, nearly 2 percent Asian, 11.6 percent some other race, and 2.9 percent two or more races. One-quarter of the state's population is of Hispanic or Latino descent. The state is sixth largest in the nation, encompassing a land area of 113,642 square miles. It is composed of forests, deserts, mountain ranges, and dry plains.

Fast Facts
Population (2000) 5,130,632
U.S. population ranking 20th
Median household income (2001) $42,704
Unemployment rate (October 2001) 5.2%
Land area 113,642 square miles
International border 370 miles
Capital Phoenix
Other principal cities Flagstaff, Mesa, Tucson, Yuma
Number of counties 15
Principal industries Commercial and industrial construction, high technology, retail trade, services, and tourism

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Arizona shares a 370-mile border with Mexico. This border area, a large portion of which is open and sparsely populated, cannot be continuously monitored by border enforcement agencies and is used extensively by drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) to smuggle illicit drugs into the United States. Significant quantities of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana are smuggled from Mexico into Arizona. Federal-wide Drug Seizure System (FDSS) data indicate that Arizona ranked second in the country behind Texas in the total quantity of illicit drugs seized in 2002. Arizona ranked second in the amount of marijuana seized, third in the amount of methamphetamine, sixth in the amount of cocaine, and fifteenth in the amount of heroin seized.

There are six land ports of entry (POEs) along the Arizona portion of the U.S.-Mexico border, including (from west to east) San Luis, Lukeville, Sasabe, Nogales, Naco, and Douglas. Nogales and Douglas operate 24 hours a day and are the busiest POEs in the state. There are numerous unofficial entry points (gates) located in remote areas along the border between Arizona and Mexico. In 2002 more than 10 million private vehicles, more than 9 million pedestrians, and 312,000 commercial trucks entered Arizona from Mexico. This volume of cross-border traffic facilitates illicit drug transportation and distribution into and throughout the state.

Arizona is a national-level distribution center for illicit drugs, largely due to its multifaceted transportation infrastructure. Drug traffickers commonly use private vehicles and commercial trucks to smuggle illicit drugs into and through the state. Couriers traveling aboard commercial aircraft, commercial buses, and passenger railcars and package delivery services also are used by traffickers, but to a lesser extent. DTOs and criminal groups generally use Interstates 8, 10, 17, 19, and 40 as well as U.S. Highways 85 and 86 as primary routes for transporting drugs throughout Arizona and from Arizona to other regions of the country. Interstate 8 extends from San Diego through Yuma and terminates at I-10, approximately midway between Phoenix and Tucson. Interstate 10 spans the entire country, connecting Arizona, particularly Phoenix and Tucson, with the West Coast at Los Angeles and the East Coast at Jacksonville, Florida. Interstate 17 connects Phoenix to Flagstaff and provides access to eastern and western states via I-40. Interstate 19 connects Nogales on the U.S.-Mexico border with I-10 at Tucson. Interstate 40 originates at I-15 in Barstow, California, passes through Arizona, and terminates at Wilmington, North Carolina. US 85 begins at the U.S.-Mexico border and ends in the Phoenix metropolitan area. US 86 splits from US 85 and extends eastward to Tucson.

Operation Pipeline

Operation Pipeline is a national highway interdiction program supported by the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC). Drug seizures are reported to Operation Pipeline by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies nationwide operating along highways and interstates most frequently used to transport illegal drugs and drug proceeds.


Arizona has six international airports, which include Bisbee-Douglas International Airport, Laughlin/Bullhead International Airport, Nogales International Airport, Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, Tucson International Airport, and Yuma International Airport. The state also has over 75 smaller public airports, more than 200 private airports, and an estimated 600 abandoned airstrips. Drug traffickers often use these airports and airstrips to smuggle illicit drugs into the United States. Moreover, traffickers reportedly establish clandestine airstrips near the U.S.-Mexico border to further facilitate their drug smuggling efforts. Occasionally, pilots evade radar and land at remote locations in Arizona including abandoned airstrips or long stretches of highway. The Air and Marine Interdiction Coordination Center (AMICC), which uses radar to track aircraft approaching the U.S.-Mexico border, reports that aircraft often "fade" from radar near the border and appear to land at Mexican airports, airfields, and remote locations. Many fades are indicative of traffickers moving drugs to the border and offloading the shipments for smuggling overland into Arizona. Fade activity is greater in Sonora, the Mexican state bordering Arizona, than in any other bordering Mexican state. In 2002 nearly 54 percent of fades (534 of 990) along the U.S.-Mexico border occurred in the state of Sonora, Mexico.

Operation Jetway

Operation Jetway is an EPIC-supported domestic interdiction program. Drug seizures are reported to Operation Jetway by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies across the nation at airports, train stations, bus stations, package shipment facilities, U.S. Post Offices, and airport hotels and motels.


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Traffickers smuggle illicit drugs by rail across the Arizona portion of the U.S.-Mexico border; however, according to EPIC, the extent to which DTOs and criminal groups use freight railcars for smuggling drugs is a significant intelligence gap. According to the Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA), sophisticated hidden compartments reportedly have been installed in freight railcars at railroad repair facilities in Mexico, complicating the detection of illicit drugs at the two rail interchanges located in the state at the Douglas and Nogales POEs. In 2002 a railroad car x-ray machine became operational at the Nogales POE to facilitate freight railcar drug seizures. The U.S. Customs Service (USCS), now the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), reports that the amount of marijuana seized from freight railcars in Arizona is nominal but increasing. USCS inspectors seized 11 kilograms of marijuana from freight railcars in fiscal year (FY) 1998, 150 kilograms in FY1999, 231 kilograms in FY2000, and 364 kilograms in FY2001.

Traffickers often smuggle illicit drugs across the Arizona portion of the U.S.-Mexico border using couriers on horseback or backpackers who travel through remote areas between the POEs. Drug traffickers extensively use border areas such as the Tohono O'Odham Nation, Coronado National Forest, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument because the rugged terrain camouflages smuggling activity. According to EPIC, 50 percent of all illicit drugs seized within 150 miles of the Arizona portion of the U.S.-Mexico border in FY2002 were seized between the POEs.

Traffickers also smuggle illicit drugs into the state through tunnels that extend from Mexico into Arizona. Law enforcement officials discovered tunnels that originated in Mexico and terminated in houses or businesses in Douglas, Naco, and Nogales. From September 1995 through January 2003, 12 tunnels connecting Nogales, Arizona, with Nogales, Sonora, Mexico were discovered.

Mexican DTOs and criminal groups are the dominant transporters of illicit drugs into Arizona. They also control the wholesale, midlevel, and retail distribution of drugs in the state. These DTOs and criminal groups use familial ties and extensive connections between groups to transport and distribute significant quantities of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, and marijuana throughout Arizona.

According to the Treatment Episode Data Set (TEDS), substance abuse treatment admissions to publicly funded facilities in Arizona increased from 13,949 in 1998 to 14,127 in 2001, then decreased to 11,239 in 2002.

The number of drug-induced deaths in Arizona has increased. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, the number of drug-induced deaths increased 73 percent from 334 in 2000 to 577 in 2001. The rate of drug-induced deaths per 100,000 population in Arizona increased from 6.5 in 2000 to 11.2 in 2001.

Survey data indicate that the rate of illicit drug use in Arizona is comparable to the rate nationwide. According to combined data from the 1999 and the 2000 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (NHSDA), 6.1 percent of Arizona residents surveyed reported having abused an illicit drug in the month prior to the survey, compared to 6.3 percent nationwide.

According to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), the percentage of federal sentences in Arizona that were drug-related decreased from 36.2 in FY1997 to 28.3 in FY2001. Drug trafficking accounted for approximately 95 percent and drug possession for nearly 5 percent of drug-related sentences from FY1999 through FY2001, on average.

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