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Illegal drugs flow over and under U.S. border

U.S. officials are fighting an uphill battle against Mexican drug cartels inventive smuggling techniques. NBC News Mark Potter reports from Nogales, Ariz.
/ Source: NBC News

NOGALES, Ariz. – Just before sundown, the nightly ritual here begins. On the south side of the rusting, battered fence which separates the United States from Mexico, young men climb the bluffs overlooking the border. They will serve as spotters for other Mexicans who try to cross the border illegally under cover of night. These hilltop observers watch for U.S. Border Patrol agents guarding the north side of the boundary and alert the smugglers huddled near the fence below when it's safe to attempt a crossing.

Farther west in the vast and rugged Arizona desert, smugglers are also busy and routinely take advantage of what U.S. drug agents describe as wide gaps in the border security system there. 

“It is very conducive to smuggling activities,” said Anthony Coulson, the Assistant Special Agent in Charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency District Office in Tucson. “Once they've defeated the fence or the car barriers, a vehicle can spread out and go on dirt trails, on washes [dry beds of seasonal streams], up to their stash location where they'll drop off their product.”

That product is often marijuana, but it can also be cocaine, methamphetamine or heroin — all of it paid for by American drug abusers.

The scale of the drug problem was underscored by the DEA's announcement Thursday of what it described as the single largest strike at a Mexican drug cartel operating in the United States on Thursday. More than 300 people suspected of being involved with the La Familia drug cartel were arrested across the country.

Smuggling thousands of tons
The amount of illicit drugs believed to enter Arizona alone each year from Mexico is easily in the thousands of tons, according to U.S. officials.

“Right now, the volume of marijuana that will be seized in southern Arizona will be approximately, we predict, 1.4 million pounds [700 tons] by the end of this calendar year. That is beyond what we've ever seized before,” Coulson said.

While that number is staggering and can be credited to effective and coordinated law enforcement efforts, agents said, it only represents an estimated 20 percent of all the marijuana that will enter the United States through Arizona this year. That means another 7 million pounds (3,500 tons) is being smuggled into the U.S. undetected through this state alone.

“If they get in through Arizona, they're into the highway system of the United States, they're into literally the bloodstream of the United States,” Coulson said. “And once they're in the bloodstream of the United States, it's very hard to root them out.”

Image: Man with flashlight
A U.S. border agent crawls through a sophisticated illegal drug tunnel with wooden planks supporting the roof and sides and a hose for ventilation.

Arizona is an attractive target for drug smugglers, because it sits atop a geographic funnel in northwestern Mexico. With the Gulf of California to the west, the Sierra Madre Mountains to the east and a vast illicit drug production area to the south, the Mexican plains lying just south of Arizona are a natural staging area for traffickers bound for the United States. 

“The cartels have found this is the most lucrative place to come in the United States,” said Coulson. “We're fighting a corporation, an entity that has resources of $10 billion at their disposal.” The DEA estimates that the drug cartels generate about $10 billion annually from the sale of drugs whcih pass through Arizona alone.

The DEA says two powerful Mexican drug organizations are responsible for the smuggling in Arizona. The Sinaloa cartel, reputedly headed by Ismael Zambada-Garcia and Joaquin "Shorty" Guzman, Mexico's most wanted fugitive, is largely involved in smuggling drugs through the state's vast desert area. A second cartel headed by Arturo Beltran Leyva and joined by a murderous enforcement group known as Los Zetas concentrates on smuggling through the Nogales area, a senior agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity said.

Another technique involves the use of specially designed trucks with ramps built in the back and front. These trucks pull up next to the barbed-wire border fence and lower one of the ramps over to the U.S. side, while the other ramp slides down the back of the vehicle. Smugglers in SUVs loaded with drugs then drive across these mobile truck-bridges into Arizona without ever touching the fence.  From there they race north across the desert to offload their contraband.

Increasingly, ultralight planes are used by daring pilots who fly over the fence to drop drug loads on the U.S. side.  In one case, an ultralight plane carrying marijuana bales crashed in an Arizona lettuce field, killing the pilot. Marijuana was still strapped to the frame of the aircraft.  According the federal agents, scores of ultralight flights have been detected this year.

Agents said they have also found that the more expensive illegal drugs — cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine — are usually in small packages hidden deeply within passenger cars and trucks and are smuggled through the official U.S. Ports of Entry at Nogales, Douglas and other border towns. 

Smuggling tunnels
Perhaps the most unusual technique for smuggling drugs and illegal immigrants to the U.S. involves tunnels dug below the border. The U.S. Border Patrol reports that 18 tunnels were found in Arizona during the 2009 fiscal year that just finished at the end of September. “If they're not successful going through us, they'll go beneath us,” said Coulson, the DEA supervisor.

Most of the tunnels found this year were in Nogales, Ariz., which shares a massive underground storm drainage system with the city of Nogales, Sonora, on the Mexican side. For years, smugglers have used the large drainage pipes to smuggle groups of people or bundles of drugs into the United States. 

“This is a daily threat, it's a daily battle,” said Supervisory Border Patrol Agent Gerardo Durazo, who heads a team of agents that regularly search the tunnels. “We've got to come in here every day and try to discover and see what they they're up to.”

While the U.S. has sealed off much of the access to the storm drains, the smugglers still find ways to get around the barriers. Sometimes they will cut into the wall of the drainage tunnel on the Mexican side and then dig their own parallel tunnel over to the U.S. side, often emerging on the streets of Nogales or inside buildings. “We’ve found [tunnels] in private homes, in businesses, even in community centers where they've tapped in,” said Durazo.

One homemade tunnel went right underneath the heavy traffic lanes at the U.S. Port of Entry and was only discovered after it collapsed. Another tunnel caved in at the playground of a church school in Nogales, several blocks from the border. Agents said it's hard to imagine how many smugglers may have died in such collapses. 

Using a flashlight in the pitch darkness, Durazo peered down a narrow corrugated tube which carries storm water from the street into the main drainage tunnel.  Smugglers, he said, had crawled deep inside the tiny opening to carve their own perpendicular tunnel. “This is the last tunnel we discovered where they actually penetrated the corrugated tube and cut through the street into the Elks Lodge up top,” Durazo said.

Image: A view of the entrance to a recently constructed tunnel at a home in Nogales, Arizona
A view of the entrance to a recently constructed tunnel at a home in Nogales, Arizona, June 28, 2007. Agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) discovered a recently constructed tunnel that stretches nearly 100 yards underground to a residence across the border in Mexico. Since 9/11, federal authorities have discovered more than 40 cross-border tunnels along the U.S.-Mexico border in California and Arizona. Picture taken June 28, 2007. REUTERS/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Handout (UNITED STATES). EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.U.s. Immigration And Customs / X80001

Most of the tunnels are crudely dug and aren't very wide. Occasionally, though, a large, sophisticated tunnel is found. One of those discovered this year was 83 feet long, had wooden planks shoring up the roof and sides and even had a long, green hose providing ventilation.  Typically, the smugglers will try to use cement, wood or cardboard to hide the entries to the tunnels so they can be used over and over again for smuggling people and drugs.

Agents: Parts of border unsecure
Recently, outside the drainage system, in the bright southwestern sun, agents said they have also found tunnels dug directly beneath the hulking U.S. border fence and the road next to it.

Waving his arm repeatedly across the road, Senior Border Patrol Agent Mario Escalante pointed out all the areas where illegal tunnels had been found. “They were just digging tunnels, you know, back and forth, I mean from the wall to here. Whether it would be here, maybe one here, another one later here.”

In recognizing the gaps in border security in Arizona and the relentless onslaught from trafficking groups in Mexico, federal officials are pouring more manpower and resources into the state and are reporting record drug seizures and the steady apprehension of smugglers and illegal immigrants. 

But, privately, agents working in the field worry it may not be enough, claiming that in many areas here the smugglers still have the upper hand, particularly in the hundreds of square miles of rugged desert and mountains in southwestern Arizona, where it's virtually impossible to monitor and patrol, given current manpower and technical capabilities.

“If the American public had any idea how wide open that border is out there, they'd have a heart attack,” one frustrated U.S. official said.