ARCHIVED Skip nagivation.To Contents     To Previous Page     To Next Page     To Publications Page     To Home Page
To Home Page. National Drug Intelligence Center
Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Drug Market Analysis
May 2007


Mexican DTOs exercise substantial control over the smuggling of cocaine, methamphetamine, and Mexican black tar heroin into Arizona from Mexico and pose formidable challenges to U.S. law enforcement officers who secure border areas. According to law enforcement reporting and intelligence, relatively few traffickers smuggle illicit drugs through plazas2 along the Arizona-Mexico border without Mexican DTO knowledge, approval, and financial remuneration. In addition, approximately 50 percent of all U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) illicit drug seizures along the Southwest Border occur in Arizona; most also involve Mexican DTOs or those working with them or on their behalf. In addition, Mexican DTOs have started to work more closely with U.S.-based gangs and Mexican groups that smuggle illegal aliens. Most of the prison and street gangs with which Mexican DTOs associate serve as distributors, surrogates, and enforcers for the DTOs. Some of the illegal alien smuggling groups reportedly transport individuals from special-interest countries--countries that harbor terrorists or promote terrorism--into the United States. USBP agents in Arizona report that they interdict hundreds of illegal aliens from special-interest countries each year. Many others, especially those with professionally manufactured false identification records, enter the country unimpeded; some quite likely are also drug traffickers.

Mexican DTOs transport wholesale quantities of illicit drugs into Arizona using private and commercial vehicles, often equipped with hidden compartments. Traffickers transport illicit drug shipments on U.S. Interstate 19, which connects directly with Mexican Federal Highway 15 and other major highways in Sonora, Mexico. They also commonly use other major Arizona highways, including State Routes 80, 82, 85, 86, 90, and 92, which are easily accessed by Mexican Federal Highway 2 directly across the Arizona-Mexico border.3 (See Figure 3.) Increased law enforcement coverage along the Arizona-Mexico border has forced Mexican traffickers to take extra precautions when concealing illicit drug shipments. For example, Mexican traffickers allegedly smuggle methamphetamine dissolved in large-capacity water tanks that are stored in motor homes or other recreational vehicles for transport across the border; once the drugs reach the intended destinations, the water is evaporated from the tank, and the methamphetamine is retrieved. Mexican traffickers also conceal illicit drugs inside--or commingle illicit drugs with--legitimate cargo for transport and later distribution. For example, law enforcement officials have made several seizures of methamphetamine that had been concealed inside fire extinguishers. Additionally, in June 2006 USBP agents stopped the driver of a flatbed truck carrying what appeared to be a load of drywall. Upon further inspection, the agents discovered that the center of the drywall had been professionally cut out to form a cavity that contained 28 bundles of marijuana totaling 1,000 pounds. Some Mexican drug traffickers have resorted to scare tactics such as purporting to be transporting explosive devices to dissuade law enforcement from interdicting their drug shipments. (See text box.)

Figure 3. Arizona HIDTA transportation infrastructure.

Map showing the Arizona HIDTA transportation infrastructure.

Mexican Trafficker Claims Bomb Concealed in Marijuana Transport Vehicle

In May 2006, USBP agents and officers with the San Luis Police Department (SLPD) detained the driver of a private vehicle for allegedly eluding USBP agents earlier that day. They had detained the driver after discovering that the vehicle had been parked in a residential area. Moments later, SLPD dispatch received a telephone call from an unknown Spanish-speaking male, who falsely claimed that there was a bomb located in the vehicle. The caller insisted that officers vacate the area in 10 minutes. However, 10 minutes later, the same caller made another call to the SLPD, providing similar instructions. Shortly thereafter, the Yuma County Sheriff's Office Bomb Squad and the U.S. Marine Corps Explosive Ordinance Disposal robots removed 145 packages of marijuana totaling 1,725 pounds from the vehicle but did not locate a bomb.

Source: Drug Enforcement Administration Phoenix.

To Top      To Contents

Mexican DTOs often transport illicit drugs through POEs using private and commercial vehicles; however, they also transport significant and increasing quantities of illicit drugs, particularly marijuana, between POEs. (See Table 1 and Table 2.) Many Mexican traffickers who transport illicit drugs in vehicles between POEs make no attempt to conceal illicit drug shipments and instead simply "drive through" the border. Transporters who conduct drive-throughs are particularly dangerous because most of them drive erratically at high speeds when approached by law enforcement officials; they also destroy Saguaro cactuses and other vegetation while driving through desert terrain.4 In addition, most traffickers cut or otherwise destroy the fence along the Arizona-Mexico border. Many of these traffickers smuggle illicit drugs in tandem--using two or more vehicles simultaneously--primarily because they believe that law enforcement resources usually are too limited to chase all the vehicles involved. Many traffickers also transport smaller loads (20 to 100 kg) than they had transported previously, particularly when smuggling cocaine, most likely to cut their losses in the event of law enforcement interdiction. Smaller drug loads typically are stored in stash houses in the Nogales area for consolidation and eventual bulk transport to Tucson and Phoenix. Once in Tucson and Phoenix, some of the drugs are distributed locally; however, significant quantities are repackaged and shipped to other U.S. destinations, including Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Utah, and Wisconsin. Most drug proceeds are transported in the reverse direction, often in the same vehicles used to transport illicit drugs to the area.

Table 1. Illicit Drug-Related and Firearms-Related Seizures Between Ports of Entry in Arizona, by Number and Weight, FY2002-2006
Fiscal Year 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
Marijuana Seizures 1,198 1,840 2,161 2,264 3,876
Pounds 277,269 383,599 459,328 523,816 661,985
Cocaine Seizures 28 40 53 66 83
Pounds 113 116 882 1,206 106
Heroin Seizures 5 7 7 7 6
Ounces 24 17 37 2 1
Methamphetamine Seizures 33 89 86 82 142
Pounds 1 29 9 17 8
Firearms Used In Same Event as Drugs Seized 25 63 52 54 84

Source: U.S. Border Patrol as of 2/21/07.

Table 2. Illicit Drug Seizures at Ports of Entry in Arizona, by Number and Weight, FY2002-2006

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

Source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection as of 2/21/07.

High-level Mexican traffickers smuggle up to hundreds of pounds of marijuana and occasionally other illicit drugs weekly through existing subterranean infrastructures, particularly in the Nogales metropolitan area. The number of tunnels discovered in Arizona, particularly at the Nogales POE, is higher than the number discovered in any other border state. The Nogales metropolitan area often is exploited by drug traffickers because it is located above an intricate system of underground drainage tunnels and sewage and irrigation systems. Some of the drug traffickers who exploit underground tunnels or systems crack holes through existing pipes, which typically are concrete. The traffickers then construct man-made tunnels from these openings in the pipes. The tunnels branch off in many different directions, and most terminate at one of the numerous homes or businesses located in the hills along the Arizona-Mexico border. For example, in July 2006 USBP agents seized 250 pounds of marijuana and arrested two men for smuggling the drug from Mexico through a sewer storm drain that terminated in Nogales.

Mexican traffickers on either side of the Arizona-Mexico border often hire backpackers to carry marijuana-filled burlap bags, weighing 50 pounds or more, north across the border. They transfer bundles of marijuana through holes in the fence or throw bundles of drugs over the fence for retrieval by other traffickers in pickup trucks and other four-wheel-drive vehicles. As part of these operations, lookouts or individuals who reside on either side of the border monitor patrol patterns and determine the best times to conduct illicit drug smuggling operations. Backpackers who smuggle illicit drugs across the Arizona-Mexico border pose additional problems. For example, many of these smugglers pilfer items such as food and clothing from local residents or damage their properties, making many residents fear for their safety and, in some cases, take the law into their own hands, increasing the threat of violence even more.

End Notes

2. A plaza is a geographic area in which drug smuggling is controlled by a DTO.
3. Arizona is the only state along the Southwest Border that does not have U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) checkpoints. As a result, traffickers often exploit Arizona roadways when transporting illicit drugs to and through the state.
4. Officers and agents with the USBP, Forest Service, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife report that drive-throughs often result in the destruction of the Saguaro cactus--the state flower and a cactus unique to extreme southeastern California, southern Arizona, and adjoining northwestern Mexico that attracts tourists from all over the world. The Saguaro cactus grows very slowly--perhaps an inch in height a year--but can grow as high as 50 feet and, once destroyed, cannot be easily replaced.

To Top      To Contents     To Previous Page     To Next Page

To Publications Page     To Home Page

End of page.