Federal and state law enforcement recently made three mass arrests of drug smugglers in Arizona, resulting in a staggering amount of confiscated drugs, weapons, and money. In total, 76 suspected smugglers were arrested. Over 20 tons of marijuana, 160 pounds of heroin, 210 pounds of cocaine, almost $760,000 in cash, and 108 weapons were seized.
Yet, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu says this is just a tiny fraction of the drugs coming through and that these busts will slow the cartel down but certainly not stop it. Perhaps even more unsettling, two of the weapons found in the arrests were tied to the botched Fast and Furious attempt by ATF to allow guns to pass across the border into the hands of the cartels so they could be tracked.
The drug traffickers are believed to be part of the massive and powerful Sinaloa Cartel, who some think seem to be curiously untouchable and immune from arrests, although that’s certainly not what happened this time. They have complete control of the Mexico / Arizona border and are the biggest of all the drug trafficking organizations. They ship cocaine from Columbia as well as their own marijuana, heroin, and meth (The Sierra Madres provide an ideal growing climate for poppies). Their leader is the elusive Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán who somehow managed to escape from a maximum security prison in a laundry truck in 2001. He is Mexico’s most-wanted, and the DEA considers him the “godfather of the drug world.”
Arizona drugs mostly come in through an 80 mile corridor between Yuma and Sells. This is rugged, barren land with few roads. A large portion of it runs through the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Some roads there are closed in the winter. The enormous Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range is directly north of Cabeza Prieta, so I’m guessing smugglers wouldn’t be going through that way! For one thing, any arrests there would automatically be under federal jurisdiction and penalties much harsher.
Rte 85 goes from the border at Lukeville through Organ Pipe, connecting with I-8 at Gila Bend. This seems a probable route for drug traffickers, even if it is heavily watched by law enforcement. Most of the rest of the 80 miles is on Tohono O’Odham land. There is a network of small roads heading south from Sells but there are no obvious crossing points at the border.
This border land is mostly unremittingly hostile to humans. It is rugged terrain with little water, scorching temperatures in the summer, and the usual assortment of Arizona desert flora and fauna that bite, sting, and imbed themselves in you. The geography of the land makes it is one of the few areas in the entire US / Mexico border that has no fences, nor is it easy to patrol. That’s why smugglers use it.
I can understand how a few hundred pounds of heroin and cocaine can be backpacked across the borders. But transporting twenty tons of marijuana requires large vehicles which probably can’t maneuver well on remote dirt roads and thus would have to go on highways like Rte. 85.
Think about it. These busts, massive as they are, probably won’t even cause much panic in their destination cities because vast quantities continue to be smuggled in. This is our problem too, not just Mexico’s.