♠ Posted by Emmanuel in Latin America at 10/04/2007 01:34:00 PMI've been spending a lot of time on the Arizona Republic website lately (some of you may know exactly why). Anyway, this article caught my attention about the increasing level of sophistication Mexican drug cartels bring to their smuggling operations at the US-Mexico border. The money shot in the piece is that these cartels are able to "outspend, outgun, and outmaneuver" authorities patrolling the border in Arizona. It's supply and demand; as long as the demand exists Stateside, there will always be people coming up with ingenious ways of smuggling drugs. One load in ten is seized at the border, so it's not a exactly a fair battle:
Maj. George Harris watches from a front-row seat the increasingly sophisticated world of Mexican drug cartels as he skims his National Guard helicopter 200 feet above the southern Arizona desert.
Harris commands an aviation unit for Operation Jump Start, a two-year mission that sent National Guard troops to help secure the U.S-Mexican border. Although stopping illegal immigration grabs most of the public attention, slowing the flow of illicit drugs is a critical part of the job.
Hovering above the Tohono-O'odham Reservation recently, Harris pointed to a volcanic hill riddled with campsites where cartel "spotters" take up key lookout positions to alert smugglers of nearby patrols.
Such hideouts dot just about every hill Harris scouts in the 90 miles between Marana and Why in Pima County. There are more than 100 well-armed Mexican spotters operating in Arizona at any time, Harris and federal agents estimate.
The camps show how pervasive the Mexican drug-smuggling operation has become and why congressional investigators said last week that cartels "operate with relative impunity along the U.S. border."
Mexican smuggling rings, now allied with Colombian cartels, outspend, outgun and frequently outmaneuver government agents from both sides of the border because of enormous revenues and cunning operations.
The drug war is a mismatch in both countries. At best, government statistics show, one load in 10 is seized at the border, where Arizona has become the busiest marijuana-smuggling route.
The Government Accountability Office estimated last week that Mexican cartels earned $8 billion to $23 billion from U.S. drug sales in 2005. The drug syndicate runs street distribution gangs in "almost every region of the United States," investigators reported.
The U.S. government estimates that 90 percent of Colombian cocaine entering the United States comes through Mexico. That's up from five years ago, when two-thirds crossed the Mexico border.
With $23 billion in earnings, the Mexican cartels would be nearly the size of Arizona's two biggest companies combined: Avnet and Phelps Dodge. They would rank 97th on the Fortune 500 list, four spots below the Coca-Cola Co.
The money allows cartels to buy equipment, expertise and weapons; bribe police; or hire well-trained army deserters. The Mexican government fired or suspended nearly 1,900 federal employees last year on corruption allegations.
"The only thing that holds the cartels back is their imagination," said Ramona Sanchez, special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Phoenix.
In recent years, officials have arrested drug smugglers in Arizona carrying shoulder-fired rocket launchers. They routinely find assault rifles.
"It's like a military operation," said William Newel, head of the Phoenix office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "If they can lay down suppressing fire to let smugglers get away with their loads, they'll do it. So they want high-capacity, high-power weapons."
Smugglers used such weapons five years ago to gun down Kris Eggle, a park ranger at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and a friend of Harris, the helicopter pilot.
"It's always the good guys that get it," Harris said as he flew through a park canyon crisscrossed with smugglers' tracks.
There are so many tracks in the park that Harris won't let his family visit.
The cartels' money also buys technology as well as expertise.
When the National Guard built steel vehicle barriers on the Tohono-O'odham Reservation, smugglers engineered a ramp to drive over them.
The Guard finished a triple fence at San Luis early this year, and once-rampant illegal immigration there almost halted. But last month, work crews discovered a tunnel 30 feet deep that ran under the fence foundations and the water system. Authorities found 45 drug-smuggling tunnels, some with lights and air-supply systems, under the border from 2000 to 2006. The rate is escalating.
Spotters can camp out for weeks in one spot, with smugglers replenishing their provisions. The spotters use GPS equipment, encrypted satellite radios and night-vision goggles to keep smuggling routes open.
The canyons north of Menagers Lake are a popular spot. As Harris flew over the area, he called it the "worst place on the whole border, a nasty little joint," because of all the smuggling violence. Just across the barrier at the border, the driver of a blue four-wheel-drive vehicle watched Harris' helicopter glide by and then disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Flying north, Harris encountered a dozen abandoned smuggling trucks in the first three miles. National Guard troops familiar with the region say there are hundreds of abandoned trucks.
Harris' Task Force Raven has seized 108 trucks in the act of smuggling since July 2006.
The U.S. government has spent $397 million since 2000, helping Mexico fight its drug war. The money has gone toward DEA offices, law-enforcement training, border-security grants and helicopters.
"Smugglers hate helicopters," Harris said.
Cartel spotters are invisible from the desert floor. But from the air, their hideouts are betrayed by arranged rock walls and cut brush used for camouflage. As a National Guard officer, Harris does not have the authority to arrest smugglers, so he catalogs the hideouts and tells the Border Patrol.
"I try and get up in the hills and harass the scouts as often as possible," Harris said. "It takes away the smugglers' eyes."