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Drug-Related Crime

Violence directed against law enforcement officials has increased over the past year along the Arizona-Mexico border and appears to be the result of heightened counterdrug operations. U.S. law enforcement personnel at the border areas of the HIDTA region have experienced assaults by "rockings," gunfire, vehicular assaults, and physical assaults. (See Table 2.) These incidents are often intended to deter agents from seizing illicit drug shipments or as a diversion to smuggle drug shipments.

Table 2. Border Violence by County in Arizona, 2009

Type of Violence Pima Pinal Santa Cruz Cochise Yuma Maricopa Total
Rockings 11 1 236 38 0 0 286
Shots Fired 3 0 3 2 0 0 8
Physical Assaults 15 4 22 11 0 0 52
Vehicle Assaults/Ramming 2 4 2 2 0 0 10
Shootings 0 0 3 1 0 0 4
Weapons Possession 1 0 0 1 0 0 2
Total 32 9 266 55 0 0 362

Source: Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

Kidnappings, often involving associates of drug or alien smuggling groups who owe drug debts or border-crossing fees, have increased in Phoenix over the past few years. From 2007 through 2009, authorities in Phoenix received reports of 826 kidnappings (267 in 2009). The actual number of kidnappings is likely greater, since some victims do not report the incidents because they fear retribution from smugglers or arrest by law enforcement. Drug traffickers sometimes kidnap or murder alien smugglers to deter them from using established drug smuggling routes. In response, alien smugglers, as well as the individuals they are escorting, carry weapons for protection, increasing the potential for violent incidents. Additionally, home invasion robberies are a growing concern in the region. Like kidnappings, home invasions often involve individuals or groups who owe drug debts or border-crossing fees. In September 2009, Operation Gideon, a joint effort by the ATF and the Phoenix Police Department, led to the arrests of 70 members of home invasion robbery crews in the area. Charges included firearms and drug trafficking violations.

Compounding the problems posed to the region by drug-related violence, criminals commonly referred to as border bandits, or bajadores, conduct armed assaults of both drug and alien smugglers. Border banditry is increasing in the West Desert area, which includes the Tohono O'odham Reservation. Frequently, bajadores or other "rip-off crews" dress in dark clothing and police-style raid gear, with the intention of appearing to both targets and observers as law enforcement.

The Arizona HIDTA is also a source area for weapons smuggled into Mexico. Mexican DTOs frequently obtain firearms from Federal Firearms Licensees at U.S. gun shows or pawnshops. They often employ individuals to make "straw purchases" of firearms to insulate themselves from the transactions. Street gangs, for example, use young women as straw purchasers at gun shows. Operation Trident, in August 2009, resulted in the indictment of more than 100 members of multiple South Phoenix street gangs on various drug and weapons trafficking charges. Traffickers also obtain weapons by way of thefts from private residences and gun stores or from private individuals at gun shows who are legally permitted to sell personal weapons collections with no requirement for a license or to conduct criminal record checks or file paperwork to document the transaction.

Project Gunrunner

Project Gunrunner is the comprehensive strategy of the ATF to combat firearms-related violence by the cartels along the Southwest Border. The strategy aims to reduce firearms- and explosives-related violent crime associated with Mexican DTOs operating in Mexico and along the U.S.-Mexico border by preventing these organizations from acquiring and trafficking firearms and explosives. ATF accomplishes this goal through an integrated approach that makes use of all appropriate agency capabilities and by working collaboratively with a variety of domestic and international partners.

In FY2009, ATF seized a total of 2,589 firearms and 265,500 rounds of ammunition destined for the Southwest Border and investigated 179 Southwest Border firearms trafficking cases nationwide. In those cases, ATF obtained evidence that 4,964 firearms were trafficked to Mexico. In addition, ATF referred 355 cases and 686 defendants for prosecution under Project Gunrunner.

In the first quarter of FY2010, ATF referred 42 cases and 113 defendants for prosecution under Project Gunrunner. ATF also obtained evidence that 323 firearms were trafficked to Mexico and seized a total of 280 firearms and 243,841 rounds of ammunition.

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