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Drug runners grow fearless along border

Mark Shaffer
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 19, 2001

When Tombstone Marshal Paul Kostellic comes to work and switches on the radio, he needs both a translator and an encryption specialist.

That's because Mexican drug traffickers have figured out how to tap into his department's new, high-tech radio relay system and are using the police band at will for their communications.

"There's more chatter this morning by narcos than by our own officers," Kostellic said one day last week.

Using police bands in southern Arizona is just one example of how criminal organizations around Agua Prieta, Sonora, just south of Douglas, are becoming increasingly fearless in their efforts to move drugs across the border.

Seven times in the past five months, vehicles loaded with drugs have sped northbound past the Douglas port of entry into oncoming southbound traffic.

In addition, drug cargoes captured recently are about twice as large as those of the past.

Officials attribute these moves to stepped-up law enforcement along the border.

The primary smuggling routes have moved to more isolated areas such as the Peloncillo Mountains near the Arizona and New Mexico state line; the border with the Mexican state of Chihuahua; and in the Coronado National Forest between Sierra Vista and Nogales.

"What we are seeing here is the effect of having 1,600 Border Patrol agents," said Lee Morgan, lead criminal investigator for U.S. Customs in southeast Arizona.

"It's forced the dope smugglers into the mountains and desert and into desperate measures if they stay in town. But they always have a lot of time to think about things like, 'Why not crash the port against traffic during high-traffic times?' " Morgan said.

Douglas Mayor Ray Borane said it's an appalling trend.

"We've already had one of the drug vans smash into a tourist car going south," Borane said. "I have a feeling that if the drug interdiction effort continues at this level, this problem could get worse and worse."

Jimmy Tong, Customs port director in Douglas, said law enforcement officers recently captured four of the seven smugglers who drove in the opposite lanes of traffic. Security against the wrong-lane intrusions has been hampered because the Customs Service is building an inspection booth for southbound traffic, Tong said.

In two of the cases, a 15-year-old Agua Prieta male was driving the drug vehicles. In the first, he lost control of his vehicle and smashed into a desert arroyo just north of the border. The teenager was thought to have suffered spinal and other injuries after an air bag activated, and officials decided not to prosecute the youth.

Ten days later, the same teen was arrested after another port-running incident in the same fashion, Morgan said, and was prosecuted.

"In all but one of the cases, we believe that marijuana was involved," Tong said. "Before, in our normal stops, we would take 30 to 50 pounds of marijuana, and now the average is 80 to 100 pounds or more."

Officials say fewer loads are being smuggled across, but those loads are much larger.

According to Border Patrol statistics, nearly 108,000 pounds of marijuana have been seized in southeast Arizona this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, a 3 percent decline from the same period last fiscal year.

Cochise County sheriff's deputies also have made two of their largest seizures in vehicles since the beginning of the year, with more than a ton of marijuana in each, spokeswoman Carol Capas said.

"We're thinking that there may be some new drug organizations entering this market," Tong said.

That thinking was reinforced last week when a joint operation of U.S. Customs and Mexican police seized an airplane carrying nearly 800 pounds of marijuana 15 miles south of Nogales, Sonora.

The drug traffickers also once used their own radio-transmitting equipment.

That began changing four years ago, when the Federal Communications Commission closed a monitoring station it had operated in Douglas, said Al Haines, a microwave engineer for Cochise County.

Haines has sent letters to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., among others, trying to get about $3 million to purchase a secure communications trunk system for the county.

"That (FCC closure) left Tombstone police, especially, in a bad situation as it turned out," Haines said. "We installed more sophisticated equipment for them a few months ago, but we are always left with the problem of the strongest signal capturing the receiver."

"Mexico has really been cranking up the wattage on the new towers down there, and it's easy to see why we have so much interference. We've recovered radio equipment from some of our recent stops of drug smugglers that is more advanced than ours," Capas said.

All of which is no surprise to Kostellic, Tombstone's top cop.

"Every time we take one step with technology into the future, it seems like those people take two steps."

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