Violent crime along the U.S.-Mexico border, which has long plagued the scrubby, often desolate stretch, is increasingly spilling northward into the cities of the American Southwest.
In Phoenix, deputies are working the unsolved case of 13 border crossers who were kidnapped and executed in the desert. In Dallas, nearly two dozen high school students have died in the last two years from overdoses of a $2-a-hit Mexican fad drug called “cheese heroin.”
The crime surge, most acute in Texas and Arizona, is fueled by a gritty drug war in Mexico that includes hostages being held in stash houses, daylight gun battles claiming innocent lives, and teenage hit men for the Mexican cartels. Shipments of narcotics and vans carrying illegal workers on U.S. highways are being hijacked by rival cartels fighting over the lucrative smuggling routes. Fires are being set in national forests to divert police.
In Laredo, Texas, a teenager who had been driving around the United States in a $70,000 luxury sedan confessed to becoming a Mexican cartel hitman when he was just 13. In Nogales, Ariz., an 82-year-old man was caught with 79 kilograms of cocaine in his Chevrolet Impala. The youth was sentenced to 40 years in prison in one slaying case and is awaiting trial in another; the old man received 10 years.
In Southern California, Border Patrol agents routinely encounter smugglers driving immigrant-laden cars who try to escape by driving the wrong way on busy freeways. And stash houses packed with dozens of illegal immigrants have been discovered in Los Angeles.
But a huge U.S. law enforcement buildup along the border that started a decade ago has helped stabilize border-related crime rates on the California side; a recent wave of kidnappings in Tijuana has been largely contained south of the border.
But law enforcement officials are wary of how this new burst in violence will play out, especially because the enemy is better armed and more sophisticated than ever. Among their concerns are budget cutbacks in some agencies—including a hiring freeze in the Drug Enforcement Administration—and community opposition to the surveillance towers.
Johnny Sutton, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas, said he would need at least 20,000 new Border Patrol agents in El Paso alone to hold back the tide. But that is the total number of agents that Washington hopes to have along the whole border by the end of 2009.
In Phoenix, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio said there were 10,000 inmates in his jail and overflow tents; 2,000 of them are “criminal aliens” from the border, he said. His deputies are investigating the deaths of 13 people executed in the desert.
Jennifer Allen, director of Border Action Network, a Tucson nonprofit that supports immigrants’ rights, said Washington and Mexico City need fresh approaches. “The smugglers are no longer mom-and-pop organizations. Now it’s an industry,” she said. “So the violence increases. That’s incredibly predictable.”
The small town of Sierra Vista, Ariz., learned firsthand of the rising violence in 2004, when police chased a pickup carrying 24 illegal immigrants on the border town’s main drag, Buffalo Soldier Trail. Speeds reached up to 100 mph. The truck went airborne, hit half a dozen cars and killed a recently married elderly couple waiting at a stoplight.
Even more brazen have been several kidnappings of 50 to 100 immigrants by rival cartels, which hide them in stash houses in and around Phoenix until families pay a ransom. One captive’s face was burned with a cigarette, another person nearly suffocated in a plastic bag. A woman was raped. Fingers have been sliced off and sent back to families with demands for money.
Statewide the picture is equally bleak. Homicides of illegal crossers is up 21% over last year.
Another visible effect of the cross-border crime wave is the flood of drugs into the country.
Anthony J. Coulson, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA in Arizona, said records indicated that cocaine and heroin seizures may end up twice as high as last year. Marijuana seizures are increasing 25%. Nine months into the current fiscal year, he said, his team had already seized more pot than all of last year. “And 2006 was a record year,” he said.
In the Tucson sector alone there has been a 71% increase in marijuana seizures over the last fiscal year, with the Border Patrol reporting 648,000 pounds confiscated since October.
In the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, Arpaio said, a cartel operative was openly selling heroin to high school students. “He was getting 150 calls a day on his cellphone,” the sheriff said.
The DEA believes 80% of the methamphetamine in the United States is coming from labs in Mexico, which were set up after police raids shut down many of the labs in the U.S.
A House subcommittee on domestic security has investigated the “triple threat” of drug smuggling, illegal border crossings and rising violence, and it found that “very little” passes the border without the cartels’ knowledge.
The panel found that cartels send smugglers into the United States fully armored with equipment—much of it imported to Mexico from the United States—including high-powered binoculars and encrypted radios, bazookas, military-style grenades, assault rifles and silencers, sniper scopes and bulletproof vests. Some wear fake police uniforms to confuse authorities as well as Mexican bandits who might ambush them.
The panel’s report cited numerous recent crimes. In McAllen, Texas, “two smuggled women from Central America were found on the side of a road badly beaten and without clothing. Their captors intimidated the victims by shooting weapons into the walls and ceiling as they were raped.” In Laredo, Texas, Webb County sheriff’s deputies came upon 56 illegal immigrants locked in a refrigerator trailer; 11 were women, two children. After six hours, “many were near death by the time they were rescued.”