Surprise - terror war aids drug war

One Arizona border unit sees marijuana haul triple.

As Congress and President Bush wrangle over the USA Patriot Act, the Border Security bill, and other tools of the war on terror, they may want to keep another law-enforcement group in mind - the nation's drug-fighters.

That's because the war on terror is proving to be a boon to the war on drugs. Drug seizures are up all along the US-Mexico border. Nowhere is the trend clearer than along a desolate 118-mile patch of Arizona desert across the border from the Mexican state of Sonora.

In what is rapidly becoming one of the highest drug-trafficking and people- smuggling sectors along the border, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers there have seized 13,000 pounds of marijuana since Oct. 1, triple the amount captured in the same period last year. That year, fiscal 2005, also set a record. The reasons for the success? Better intelligence-sharing, increased manpower, and improved technology that border officials have received in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks.

The primary aim for upgrading America's border defenses was to prevent potential terrorists from crossing into the US, either individually or hidden among professional smuggling groups. But a side benefit has been progress for the nation's war on drugs. As the CBP has apprehended greater numbers of people at the nation's southern border, it has also seized larger and larger quantities of drugs.

Arizona accounts for more than half the marijuana seizures in the United States.

"There's a nexus to human smuggling and drug smuggling," says Salvador Zamora, spokesman for the CBP in Washington. "The terrain on the Mexican side is pretty much controlled by one or two organizations, and the human smugglers either smuggle drugs too or pay the drug operators who control that area."

Agencies cooperate on border watch

It's crucial for members of various government agencies - from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), FBI, CBP, as well as state agencies - to cooperate closely on the overlapping border issues, government officials say. That's why there is a Joint Terrorism Task Force, led by the FBI, that pulls them together here in Phoenix.

"We're working with the JTTF in Phoenix," says Steve Robertson, a DEA special agent who once worked the southwest border and is now in Washington. "The DEA has historically been involved in that area for a long while and has built up a network of informants who provide good intelligence."

But at the same time as the US government has built this task force, added border agents and canine teams, and beefed up the infrastructure and technology, drug traffickers are being more innovative. For instance, they've sent groups of illegal immigrants across the border into the US to divert the CBP's attention from a drug shipment, officials say.

Moreover, a violent drug war has erupted between the Gulf and the Sinaloa cartels - the Mexican drug organizations that US officials say are responsible for most of the cross-border smuggling. In fact, officials accuse those cartels of shooting and wounding two border agents this past June on the Arizona-Mexico border.

The two cartels are warring over turf, mainly in the Nuevo Laredo, Texas, area, but their battles are spilling over into Arizona, as are their related criminal activities.

Smugglers turn to army pros

That complicates the fight against drug trafficking, according to Al Ortiz, acting chief of the FBI's Americas Criminal Enterprise Section in Washington. "They've hired [Mexican] army deserters, but not just any army deserters. They were members of specially trained elite forces ... equivalent to somebody hiring our Delta Force."

Because of that drug smuggling and related criminal activity spilling into this area, Arizona and the Mexican state that borders it, Sonora, started a cross-border cooperation program in June. They have agreed to share intelligence and cooperate more closely in four areas: auto theft, people smuggling, illegal money transfers, and fraudulent or false identification.

"The same networks that have been set up to bring drugs into the country are the ones used for people smuggling and other criminal activity," says Marco Lopez, adviser on Mexico and Latin America to Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. "We wanted to preempt that activity and create a safe environment for business to grow along our border."

Since June, for example, Mexican agents, through law-enforcement officers in Arizona, have had real-time access to the US terrorist watch list. Mexico has set up three checkpoints, and plans to set up two others, on its side of the border adjacent to the Yuma sector. Since the three checkpoints have been set up, some 700 people, other than Mexicans, have been detained on the Sonora side, according to Mexican government figures. (Mexico can't legally detain its own citizens.)

"Additional agents and enhanced technology are going to net more arrests," says Gary Grossman, faculty chair of global technology and development at Arizona State University in Tempe. "But that doesn't necessarily mean more prosecutable crimes. We still have the ban on illegal search and seizure in this country."

While drug arrests are up somewhat in Arizona, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, it's drug interdictions that have gone up dramatically.

For the CBP's Yuma, Ariz., sector, which encompasses the 118-mile stretch of western Arizona desert, the pounds of marijuana seized has more than tripled since 2002. For the entire 370-mile border, the totals are up 66 percent during the same period (see chart).

Antismuggler tactic: Take their wheels

Another focus of the joint US-Mexico effort is stolen cars and trucks. Arizona's Department of Public Safety and Sonora now share information on vehicles in real time. Law enforcement officers in Sonora work with law enforcement officers in Arizona and vice versa to obtain the needed intelligence.

As a result of these measures, Lopez says, 38 stolen vehicles have been seized on the Sonora side of the border, and 22 on the Arizona side that could have been used to transport people or drugs across the border. Some 147 people have been arrested for carrying fraudulent identifications on the Arizona side of the border, documents that could have helped these individuals get driver's licenses, set up bank accounts, and engage in other illicit activities here.

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