Border Battles Escalating

Discussion in 'Marijuana News' started by Superjoint, Feb 12, 2001.

  1. By Ignacio Ibarra, Arizona Daily Star
    Source: Arizona Daily Star

    Smugglers trying to move a bumper marijuana crop across the fortified border are taking brazen risks and fighting violently with law officers - often on public roads. This hotter drug war in Southern Arizona has put law officers on edge, rural school-bus drivers on alert and border travelers at some risk.
    In the last four months, smugglers facing a bigger gantlet of law officers have shot at them, tried to run them down, sprinkled roads with spikes and crashed vehicles through official ports of entry into the United States.

    "Once you have a narcotics smuggler who is trapped at the port of entry, he or she will do anything to get out of that trap," said Donna De La Torre, director of field operations for the U.S. Customs Service in Arizona.

    "Thus far, we've had no injuries to the public, but that risk exists."

    One 15-year-old, driving a Jeep stuffed with 800 pounds of marijuana, sideswiped an innocent bystander's vehicle at the Douglas port of entry on Jan. 15. The same teen also crashed the border just 11 days earlier, in a pot-filled Crown Victoria.

    At least seven times since Oct. 1, vehicles packed with marijuana raced north through the southbound lanes at the Douglas entry, despite speed bumps and plastic barriers.

    Other pot-runners speeding from pursuing officers have forced traffic off state highways near the San Pedro River, a popular recreation spot for Southern Arizonans.

    Among those who barely got out of the way were a young pregnant woman and her husband, who were driving on Arizona 92 south of Sierra Vista.

    The oncoming smuggler who almost struck them on Oct. 18 had driven over spikes put down by law officers. He kept speeding on the shredded tires, as his rims gouged a pair of six-mile-long furrows down the highway. The truck - hauling more than a ton of marijuana - spewed sparks and cinders as cars swerved out of its way.

    In the Palominas area along Arizona 92, 15 miles southeast of Sierra Vista, several chases and clashes took place in recent months, as smugglers moved what U.S. intelligence reports describe as a banner marijuana crop due to rains in Mexico.

    Two schools are nearby, and school buses and pedestrian children use the rural roads.

    "The high-speed chases up and down Highway 92 are, of course, a concern, with buses pulling in and pulling out onto the highway," said Kathy Moore, superintendent of Palominas School District. "But knowing that, the Border Patrol, Customs and the Sheriff's Department have identified that as a concern and are aware that these two schools are out there."

    Moore said the 192-square-mile district has expanded its bus system to minimize students' walks. Drivers watch for suspicious activity and report it from their radio-equipped buses, she added.

    Parents say they know there's a potential problem, but some feel secure because they've seen the number of Border Patrol agents, sheriff's deputies and other officers grow dramatically.

    "Things are really pretty safe here. The Border Patrol is everywhere," said Kresent Gurtler, parent of 9- and 11-year-olds.

    In the last three years, the U.S. Border Patrol has grown to nearly 500 agents at Douglas and 150 at Naco, and other agencies also guard the border areas.

    They've seized hundreds of thousands of pounds of pot each year as a result - and say they've been rewarded by the Catch-22 that drug-runners are now more dangerous.

    "It's harder for smugglers to move their stuff through areas they used to use in Naco and Douglas, because of the border wall and the Border Patrol presence," said Lee Morgan, who heads Customs investigations in Douglas.

    "They've got to go out and around, and, in doing so, they're going to get more violent because they've got to get their stuff through - that's their job."

    Frustration over lost cargos and profits is the most likely reason for 113 incidents of violence reported against anti-drug law officers in Arizona last year, said Lt. Penny Gillette, head of intelligence for the state's federally supported High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area network.

    The attacks included rock-throwing, physical assaults, armed assaults, vehicle assaults and laser-beam targeting of agents along the border, Gillette said. The overall number of attacks was about the same as the year before, but what's new is the severity, several officers said.

    "Smugglers are more willing to use weapons in situations where they weren't before," Gillette said. "You have to remember that some of these loads are quite large and very valuable."

    Most agencies estimate the value of marijuana at about $1,000 a pound.

    "It used to be the average load here was 500 pounds. That's nothing anymore," said Lt. Ruben Saavedra, head of Cochise County's Border Alliance Group, a multiagency task force against drugs.

    The nightly cat-and-mouse of smuggling has turned into a 24-hour-a-day operation, said Saavedra.

    There have been reports, classified as unsubstantiated, that drug-trafficking organizations have moved snipers armed with long rifles into the area to "take out" the opposition.

    There are other reports that smugglers are using chase vehicles whose drivers are instructed to eliminate the officer in the event of a pursuit.

    When confronted by police, load drivers have turned their four-wheel-drive stash boxes into weapons, aiming them at agents or their vehicles. Their narco-accomplices have dragged road spikes and other barriers across roads and used fake police grille lights to shake off pursuit.

    Sometimes, the smugglers can't distinguish between civilians and undercover law enforcement, so there is a corresponding threat to people living or visiting rural areas along the border.

    But if the smugglers are organized and determined, so is the Border Alliance Group.

    Beginning Wednesday morning, U.S. Customs agents and sheriff's deputies seized more than a ton of marijuana in three separate busts.

    Along the way, they tracked through rugged mountains, surprised a group of men loading bundles into a Chevy Suburban a mile north of the border and called in air support from no less than a Customs Black Hawk helicopter.

    As Morgan said of the narcos: "If they're going to get more violent, we'll just have to escalate to meet them."

    Note: Smugglers getting more brazen, violent as law officers crack down.

    * Contact Ignacio Ibarra at (520) 432-2766 or at:

    Source: Arizona Daily Star (AZ)
    Author: Ignacio Ibarra, Arizona Daily Star
    Published: February 12, 2001
    Copyright: 2001 Pulitzer Publishing Co.

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