Chairman Souder and members of the Subcommittee, thank you for the invitation to testify today. My name is Sandalio Gonzalez, and I am the Special Agent in Charge of the El Paso Field Division. On behalf of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Administrator Karen P. Tandy and the men and women of the DEA, thank you for your continued support of our mission.
The Scope of Drug Trafficking in New Mexico
The DEA El Paso Division has 132 agents to cover 778 miles in west Texas and New Mexico, roughly 40% of the United States and Mexico border. This territory has 18 ports of entry and a minimum of 80 illegal crossing points.
In New Mexico, the DEA Las Cruces Resident Office is responsible for 180 miles of the international border from New Mexico to Texas. We do this with only 17 Special Agents, supported by 7 state and local Task Force Officers, 2 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Agents, 6 administrative personnel, a National Guard analyst, and one DEA Intelligence Analyst.
The Las Cruces office concentrates on border response and investigations of priority drug trafficking organizations. We also respond to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) checkpoint seizures and arrests, as well as New Mexico Department of Motor Vehicle Port seizures. These referrals arise from drugs seized during vehicle inspections at checkpoint sites and abandoned at ports of entry. DEA agents responding to abandoned drug referrals can spend anywhere from 14 to 48 hours processing the drugs, while checkpoint seizures take an average of 110 hours each.
In fiscal year 2003, DEA agents in Las Cruces responded to 52 abandoned drug referrals and 219 checkpoint drug seizures, which consumed approximately 60% of their time. Heightened border security will continue to increase the number of drug seizures and arrests, even while we must maintain attention to our primary mission of identifying, targeting, and dismantling priority drug trafficking organizations.
The New Mexico geography and the border itself are the biggest factors in importing drug trafficking. The open border areas between multiple ports of entry, the Boot Heel area of southwest New Mexico, and easy border access to major road networks all combine to make this area highly vulnerable to drug smugglers. The Deming/Palomas Point of Entry requires special attention because of the volume of vehicular traffic traveling through it, and the open terrain on both sides of the border around it. Highways I-10 and I-40 are critical east-west lines of communication that connect New Mexico to both Arizona and West Texas. They provide passageways for traffickers smuggling drugs into New Mexico or moving drug proceeds through the state.
Law Enforcement Cooperation
In New Mexico, the DEA works closely and energetically with our local law enforcement partners. Building strong interagency partnerships is central to Administrator Tandy’s vision. One of the cornerstones of that cooperation is intelligence sharing, and it has brought us terrific results. In addition to our individual partnerships, the Las Cruces office actively participates in the New Mexico Southwest Border HIDTA and its Intelligence Center. The Intelligence Center is a local forum for the interagency exchange of information that influences not only New Mexico, but also other jurisdictions across the United States. We consider this to be so important that I have assigned our only intelligence analyst there full time.
A recent example of successful cooperation between the DEA Las Cruces Office and its law enforcement counterparts in southern New Mexico was the recent investigation and disruption of a local cocaine trafficking organization operating in Las Cruces and Dona Ana County. In the fall of 2002, the DEA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the New Mexico State Police, and the Las Cruces-Dona Ana Metro Narcotics Unit, identified a significant cocaine trafficking organization based in Michoacan, Mexico. This group was responsible for providing the majority of cocaine to Las Cruces and Dona Ana County. We quickly realized that we were targeting the same organization through our shared intelligence, and we immediately pooled all our resources. Using HIDTA, OCDETF, and Special Operations Division resources, law enforcement collectively targeted the organization, and six months later 37 federal and 71 state indictments were filed. This operation had a demonstrable local impact. In the months following the takedown, cocaine availability and purity dropped significantly. A recent analysis of cocaine purity levels in Dona Ana County showed the average purity level to be just below 20% - half of what it was before the arrests. None of the participating agencies would have achieved this success on their own.
The DEA also passes intelligence information gleaned from border referrals to our offices throughout the United States to further other investigations, often facilitating controlled deliveries of seized narcotics shipments. For example, the DEA and Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently conducted a controlled delivery of cocaine to Colorado Springs, Colorado that resulted in the arrest of several defendants and the seizure of $300,000. ICE’s participation and the use of its Airwing was instrumental to the case’s success and has also helped identify a nexus to a different border investigation within the past month.
We also share information that may have value to other agencies outside of drug investigations, including terrorism and border security threats. DEA has established protocols to ensure that time-sensitive information is forwarded to other law enforcement agencies immediately. Working with other agencies makes us all stronger and more effective than working individually.
The primary conduit for intelligence sharing within the region is the New Mexico Investigative Support Center (NMISC). The NMISC is a HIDTA-funded initiative, and its most important function is case deconfliction for southern New Mexico. All DEA operational activities, from surveillance to execution of search and arrest warrants, must be entered into its “Safe-T-Net” deconfliction system. This system provides immediate feedback to the participating agencies regarding potential operational conflicts. If a conflict arises, the system provides a point of contact for coordination. Use of this system is mandatory for all participating HIDTA agencies. The NMISC also serves as the central depository for all drug seizure intelligence in Southern New Mexico. Once a drug seizure is made, the seizing agency provides the NMISC with seizure information for the NMISC’s internal database. The data is compared with other state, local, and federal databases, and puts investigations with common objectives together.
The DEA also uses a significant amount of evidence developed from individuals arrested at Border Patrol checkpoints such as copies of vehicle registrations, telephone numbers, log books, pocket trash, and post-arrest statements made by defendants. Previously, this information was retrievable only in DEA’s Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Information System (NADDIS). We now provide copies of evidence to the NMISC for analysis and inclusion into the HIDTA database, allowing it to be checked against other state, local, and federal databases as well as the NMISC’s internal database. It also helps law enforcement to take investigations a step further by following up on links to other cases as provided in post-seizure analysis.
The NMISC is presently in the process of gaining more robust connectivity to other HIDTA Intelligence Centers throughout the United States. The Office of National Drug Control Policy has spearheaded an effort to connect the internal databases of HIDTA Intelligence Centers throughout the U.S. in accordance with the General Counterdrug Intelligence Plan. The DEA has been working with the El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) to establish protocols to receive and share information on drug movement developed by the HIDTA ISCs and ensure that relevant EPIC database inquiries become a standard part of appropriate HIDTA operational protocols. The current NMISC internal database provides a platform which should seamlessly integrate this process.
Drug trafficking in New Mexico is not merely a local concern. It clearly impacts the rest of the United States. An overwhelming majority of the border referral and conspiracy investigations I described are linked to distribution organizations throughout the United States and Mexico. The national and international impact of these investigations demands enhanced cooperation and intelligence sharing within southern New Mexico and more broadly across the United States and the Republic of Mexico.