Drug trafficking grows in desert

Smuggling: The fragile ecosystem and legitimate visitors to a stretch of Arizona desert are endangered by trade in contraband.

May 02, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ORGAN PIPE CACTUS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Ariz. - Until recently, this vast park 130 miles west of Tucson and cheek-to-cheek with Mexico was known for its 26 varieties of cactus and stunning high-desert views.

But during the past year, Organ Pipe has become a place where someone toting a backpack or driving a camper might be involved in something more than sightseeing.

Park officials estimate that illegal users of the back country outnumber legitimate overnight hikers and campers 10 to 1. So far this year, there have been 25 major drug and alien smuggling incidents.

Superintendent Bill Wellman can only shake his head when he talks about the increase in smuggling at his park.

Organ Pipe's seven rangers confiscated 10,000 pounds of marijuana last year and are approaching 7,000 pounds this year.

They deployed spiked rods, or "speed sticks," to stop fleeing vehicles 17 times last year and at least eight times this year.

"We are responsible for about one-quarter of all drug confiscation and one-half of all speed stick deployments in the National Park Service," says Wellman, a 31-year veteran.

A partial list of recent incidents:

A recreational vehicle stops in a park campground to unload bales of marijuana for backpackers heading north. After an off-road chase, officers seize 470 pounds of the drug.

A speeding truck hurtles through the visitors' center parking lot and is abandoned 15 miles away at a desert trailhead. Inside, park rangers and Border Patrol officers find 433 pounds of pot packed and ready for delivery.

Rangers surprise the drivers of four sport utility vehicles in the desert and a chase begins. A Chevy Tahoe stops when it hits spikes set out by officers. An Isuzu Trooper becomes disabled in a wash. The other two vehicles speed back into Mexico. Rangers seize more then 830 pounds of marijuana.

The incidents might have Hollywood overtones, but officials fear that the "extras" in high-speed chases and guns-drawn confrontations could soon be innocent bystanders on a family vacation.

"I can't say it's 100 percent safe," says Border Patrol Agent Joseph Korchmaros. "You can be walking down a trail and come across [drug smugglers]. They have something to lose and they may be willing to take drastic measures."

Reacting to increased security at major ports of entry between Mexico and the United States, smugglers of drugs and people are spreading out the defense - and Organ Pipe seemed a logical place to test it.

"I used to joke that when it came to Organ Pipe, it was a bad place to put a park and a bad place to put a border," says Rene Andreu, the U.S. Customs Service agent in charge of the 5,000 square miles, including Organ Pipe's 515 square miles. "The two don't mesh."

What makes the park so attractive to smugglers is Highway 85, a two-lane blacktop that slices through the park and links Mexico to east-west U.S. interstates that go to Phoenix and San Diego.

"If they shoot straight north, they will make I-8. The faster they can get into a town, the better they'll blend in," explains Border Patrol spokesman Rene Noriega.

Not that the traditional entry points have been abandoned. In Nogales, 100 miles east of Organ Pipe, drug smugglers carve crude tunnels connecting sewer lines in Mexico to houses just north of the border.

This year alone, Customs agents have found eight tunnels used to transport bundles of cocaine and marijuana into Arizona.

Slightly to the east of Nogales, at the Douglas port of entry, Customs officers guarding the southbound lanes have been startled by headlights coming from Mexico. Border jumpers in stolen cars get a running start and crash through oncoming traffic at the checkpoint.

"They're coming straight at us, around us and under us," says Kyle Barnette, associate special agent in charge of the Customs office in Tucson. "About the only thing we haven't caught in Arizona is a submarine."

The federal government has pumped money into agencies such as the Border Patrol and U.S. Customs to reinforce the Arizona border. Although they are reluctant to give out exact numbers, officials say there are more than 1,600 agents in trucks, on horseback, in Black Hawk helicopters and on foot, with hundreds more to be hired.

Korchmaros, who supervises the Border Patrol station at Ajo, just outside Organ Pipe, says he has about 60 agents and is scheduled to get an additional 40 by the end of the year. But that's a small force given the scope of the problem.

Sometimes the drug smugglers and the illegal immigrants become one and the same.

"An alien who doesn't have any money may make a deal with a smuggler to help move 400 pounds of marijuana in exchange for free passage," explains Noriega. "They unknowingly get into something that could endanger their lives."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.