Smugglers' Paradise

Guess who's winning the drug war in Cochise County?

"There's so much damn dope down here and there's so much potential money for you if you decide to go bad, it's sickening," says a sheriff's deputy who used to patrol the border area between Naco and Sierra Vista known to locals as "Drug Alley."

"I hate to say this, because I'd like to think there's only a few of us who would do what Gary did, but you can see what led him to do it. Money and greed. Money and greed, the bastard. There might be a bunch more who go down before this is over."

It's every bit as feral here in some ways as it must have been more than a hundred years ago when Cochise ruled the county that was named for him.

Things have gotten so extraordinary that no one in Sierra Vista blinks anymore when a Mexican national walks into a car dealership with a suitcase full of hundred-dollar bills and drives away in a new vehicle.

And no one called Callahan's bluff when he claimed he'd bought his $200,000 house in Bisbee with winnings from the California lottery.

The cops complain about a lack of manpower and of wasted money. But even if all the cops were honest, and if they doubled their numbers, and if the various agencies stopped their bickering, most of the drugs sent across the border on foot, plane or vehicle still would make it undetected.

Why? Cochise County itself, which is the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. Its border to Mexico is about ninety miles long and includes mountains as well as desert. And it's on the main line.

Says Cochise County sheriff's major Larry Dever: "They're always going to bring it across. We are a major-league transfer zone, where lots of money and dope exchange hands on a wholesale basis. We just try to put their operations in jeopardy as much as we can. But we're always behind the eight ball."

The smugglers will try anything. They'll stuff a long piece of plastic pipe with cocaine, plug up both ends and hurl it like a javelin from a small plane into a preordained spot in the desert. They'll hide dope in truckloads of vegetables and drive it across the border. Or they'll hire a team of backpackers to lug it across.

These "mules" who carry or drive the dope usually are poor Mexicans, thrilled to make the equivalent of months of wages by gambling that the American cops won't nab them. Cochise County's narcs like to fantasize that dope smugglers are the hares and that they are the tortoises, bound eventually to win the race. And fantasy is all that is.

"We're like the little kid with his finger in the dike, we know that," says Bill Townsend, a sheriff's sergeant who is operations supervisor for the Border Alliance Group [BAG], a Cochise County drug team established in 1987 that includes fourteen officers from federal, county and local agencies. "But we have to try to plug the leaks any way we can, even if it's a losing battle. And I'll admit it--we're losing."

THE COPS DON'T strike out every time. In 1987-88, the various police agencies based in Cochise County seized more than two-and-a-half tons of cocaine, more than 20,000 pounds of pot and dozens of drug-carrying vehicles.

Most of the substantial drug busts in Cochise County have been generated by the Border Patrol. That agency works closely with three federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents stationed in the area. Those DEA agents largely are responsible for deciding whether drug defendants are to be taken through the federal or state courts.

But the cops estimate that they intercept only 10 percent of the drug traffic. That means an estimated $500 million worth of illegal drugs has passed unscathed through Cochise County in the past two years.

The Border Patrol and Customs Service traditionally are unfriendly partners--it stems from battles over turf, money and hunger for publicity. This rivalry probably isn't crippling the antidrug effort, but the sniping can't help. On the other hand, some of it is pretty funny.

Border Patrol agents and local dope cops love to ridicule Tom McDermott, the senior agent-in-charge of the Customs Service in Arizona. McDermott, they quip, invariably parachutes out of a helicopter in his three-piece suit to have his photo taken after each Cochise County dope bust. Then he returns to his Tucson office and fields questions from the media.

Customs agents counter--quietly, of course--that no one knows exactly how much dope the Border Patrol actually seizes each year because its agents take such a chunk of it for themselves.

Despite the problems and backbiting, drug cops already have seized more than 12,000 pounds of pot this year in Cochise County, though there hasn't been a cocaine bust to speak of yet in 1989. In early June, however, Border Patrol agents in Santa Cruz County, near Nogales, seized 2,646 pounds of cocaine along the Mexican border in what is being called the largest bust in state history. No one has been arrested. Also in early June, Border Patrol agents grabbed about 500 pounds of coke in Sonoita, a half-hour drive from Sierra Vista in Santa Cruz County.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets