Smugglers' Paradise

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

But the tale of Mexican police lieutenant Luis Verdugo sums up the futility of Cochise County's losing war against drug smugglers.

Verdugo and another Mexican were stopped last December as they rode toward Sierra Vista in a pickup truck. The two men were toting a load of 700 pounds of marijuana that other mules had backpacked from Mexico into a canyon just across the border near Miracle Valley.

Verdugo, a cop in Naco, Sonora, later confessed to a BAG detective that he and his cohort were on their way to deliver the pot to a truck stop near Tucson. He said he couldn't pass up the opportunity to make some quick money. Verdugo said he earned only about $40 a week as a cop and, anyway, "everyone in Naco, Sonora, is involved in smuggling," so why not him?

The case against Verdugo and his associate seemed airtight. But a few months ago, a federal judge in Tucson ruled that police had stopped the pair illegally. The case was dropped.

"I thought it was a heck of a case," says Bill Townsend of BAG, "and then all of a sudden it wasn't. It wasn't the world's biggest case, 700 pounds of pot, but it was something. We thought we had it all going our way, then we didn't. It was extremely frustrating." Sometimes, the war on drugs starts and ends in the courtroom, not on the border. The Arizona Attorney General's Office has been fighting in court to seize 780 acres of land, two houses and almost $1.7 million in cash from Yolanda Molina de Hernandez, a Sonoran suspected of heading what the feds call the Agua Prieta Cocaine Cartel.

The cartel allegedly includes seven large, extremely wealthy Mexican families who have lived near the border for generations. The families purport to be land and cattle barons, but the U.S. feds say they primarily smuggle drugs.

Molina de Hernandez hasn't been charged criminally, but the state has frozen her assets under Arizona's antiracketeering laws.

"We think the financial penalties are the way to go, so we spend much of our time chasing these paper trails instead of doing street surveillance," says Townsend. "Of course, all the lady has to do is to run one extra load of coke in, and she'll recoup all that loss just like that."

GETTING COCAINE INTO ARIZONA is something of an art form that works like this: The coke is flown by private aircraft from Colombia to a ranch in central Mexico. (According to the feds, Colombia's big-league Medellin Cartel is supplying coke to its customers at cheaper prices today than it did when Ronald Reagan became president in 1981 and declared war on drugs.)

The coke is driven to Agua Prieta--the border town adjacent to Douglas in Cochise County--or to Naco, Sonora, a few miles from Bisbee. From there, it is smuggled into the United States, where it's sent to Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, among other places.

The illicit drug trade probably is the fastest-growing industry in the world. Certainly, it's the biggest industry in Cochise County.

It also is a deadly business, as seventeen Mexican citizens learned in April. Five men were found stabbed to death in Tucson; a few days later, the mutilated bodies of nine men and three women were found in a well and cesspool at a ranch two miles west of Agua Prieta in Sonora.

Hector Fragoso, a convicted dope smuggler linked to the Agua Prieta cartel, is a suspect in the killings. "El Tombstone," as he is known, has been said by Mexican officials to own the ranch where the dozen bodies were dumped.

Police speculate that the murders sprang from the rip-off early this year of a large amount of cocaine by someone inside the local cartel.

A few weeks before the carnage, police in Douglas seized $1.6 million in cash from a motor home parked at a K mart. Investigators speculate that the money belonged to the bosses of the Agua Prieta cartel.

More than anything, the recent murders have put the fear of El Tombstone into the Sonoran mules.

"We've heard from our clients that prices have gone up for a mule three to four times since the murders, to a few thousand bucks per load," says Cochise County public defender Bob Arentz. "That's more likely as a result of what happened in Agua Prieta and Tucson than because of any efforts by law enforcement. Anyway, they're not arresting any real traffickers down here, and the mules we defend rarely have a financial interest in the drugs, except what they've been paid to transport it."
Almost a third of Arentz's clients face drug-related charges. That's up from one-in-five about five years ago. The stakes have become more serious because of the Arizona State Legislature's hard-line mandatory sentencing stance against users and smugglers. But it's also more serious for cops and judges because the legislators haven't appropriated the bucks to build prisons to warehouse the druggies.

In any case, the mules who have gone through the Cochise County courts usually are treated rather kindly by the three judges.

"I routinely have sentenced mules to something like six months in the county jail," says Superior Court Judge Jim Riley. "I consider a lot of things, not the least of which is the overcrowding of the prisons. Typically, illegal alien burglars in our county go to prison on the first offense. That seems a lot more serious here than a backpacker bringing in dope. Judges react to the community. We get elected here, you know."
Adds Superior Court Judge Richard Winkler: "If they are from across the line and they have no prior convictions, and they have a family down there and a limited-earning capacity--the typical scenario--then I give them a lecture, get their felony on the record, maybe give them ninety days or six months in jail and then release them to Immigration. There are lots and lots of these kinds of cases."

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