The New Boss

Police have shut down most of the meth labs in Phoenix, but now the drug is a big import from Mexico -- cheap, pure and more plentiful than ever

Someone up from the south might be dumb enough to pray to Santo Malverde, "un santo de los trafficantes," the patron saint of smugglers who is a folk hero in the mountains of Sinaloa.

But the dead giveaways have gotten few and far between.

In 2003, there was 31 percent more meth seized at the Arizona border than in 2002, says the DEA's Steve Comber.

Phoenix police book suspected meth cook Daniel Watkins outside his home, where cops seized two ounces of crystal and the makings of a small-time meth lab.
Peter Scanlon
Phoenix police book suspected meth cook Daniel Watkins outside his home, where cops seized two ounces of crystal and the makings of a small-time meth lab.
Mexican nationals at a Nogales port of entry wait for their vehicles to pass inspections by U.S. border officers. More than 1,200 pounds of meth have been seized at the Mexico-Arizona border so far this year.
Joe Watson
Mexican nationals at a Nogales port of entry wait for their vehicles to pass inspections by U.S. border officers. More than 1,200 pounds of meth have been seized at the Mexico-Arizona border so far this year.

In 2004, the amount seized shot up another 37 percent.

"The success we've had in seizures is a combination of more personnel at the border and better enforcement techniques," Comber says.

Or, more likely, drug officers say, there's just a lot more of the drug coming through in recent years.

"Prior to three or four years ago, we didn't see meth at this port," Gill says. "Now, we're the major port in the country for meth trafficking.

"God forbid any gets past us."

Obviously, plenty has.

Because the successes at the border don't seem to be translating into any sort of a drop in price or product in Phoenix.

"Meth is cheaper now for better stuff," Molesa adds. "The market tells the truth."

About 8,200 cars -- and an average of nearly 26,000 passengers -- drive through Nogales ports of entry from Mexico every day.

Another 18,000 people, including Mexican nationals, U.S. citizens -- mostly Arizonans -- and foreign tourists walk through the turnstiles.

This says nothing of the tens of thousands walking across the border in the vast desert west of here.

And with those tens of thousands of drug-mule opportunities come trafficking methods that are increasingly difficult to detect.

"If you can think of it, they're doing it," Gill says.

Gill shows off a couple of seized vehicles parked outside the port of entry as five Mexican nationals are standing by, waiting for officers to complete searches of an Astro van and an old Chevy Caprice.

A muscled-up 2003 Ford truck -- the equivalent in Sonora of the Escalade with spinners -- was seized just a few days ago. Thanks to drug-sniffing dogs and some keen observations by "post-rovers," officers found a secret compartment built above the truck's axle, and deep enough to store at least five pounds of meth.

A sedan is parked alongside the truck, its entire dashboard ripped out. Behind the dash, smugglers rigged switches to open and close the compartments, where drugs had been stored.

"The high-dollar stuff, like meth and cocaine, is coming in the high-dollar vehicles," Gill says. "It makes it hard to pick out the smugglers. Now, they're using [Mexican] doctors and lawyers and dentists to bring the stuff over. "

This world of high-dollar vehicles driven by mules with doctorates is a far cry from what's going on up the road in Phoenix, where, despite law enforcement's best efforts, meth labs have not been made extinct.


You don't necessarily need a big, high-tech Mexican lab to make good, clean meth.

You just need a "conversion lab," the latest in local meth-lab technology, in which dirty meth is cooked to make it purer.

But there is a reason you don't see many of those in American houses anymore.

Smarter drug traffickers have learned you don't cook where you live. They've also learned that you draw a lot of attention by blowing up a house in an American neighborhood.

Take the incident this summer at 3325 North 80th Lane in west Phoenix.

According to police reports, Sergio Carbajal, a 32-year-old Mexican national, was the only person in the Peoria house.

Also in the house was a freezer full of two five-gallon jugs containing some sort of extremely volatile fluid.

Apparently, the fluid was so unstable that when Carbajal either turned on a light or unplugged the freezer, the spark created triggered an explosion that literally blew the roof off the place.

Witnesses said the roof went up with a 60-foot plume of smoke and fire.

Shards of glass from windows were shot like bullets a football-field's length down the street.

Somehow, Carbajal survived the explosion, running from the house with his entire body ablaze. He ran to a garden hose and put out the flames engulfing his body before collapsing on a neighbor's yard.

When police and firefighters arrived at the scene, they noticed what appeared to be a latex glove lying in the front yard. As they got closer, they realized it was no glove at all.

It was the skin from Carbajal's right hand -- his fingernails still intact.

That was June 22. Carbajal is still hanging on for his life in a drug-induced coma at the Maricopa County Burn Unit, where his wife apparently paid him a visit. According to Phoenix Police Detective Travis Bird, the lead investigator in the case, she didn't believe the body in the bed was that of Sergio Carbajal. There was nothing left of him she recognized.

"His family never made an effort to contact me," Bird says. "I don't think they want to contact me. They know what happened. They know why he was here."

The meth trade is thick with ghoulish Sergio Carbajal-like stories.

Which leads to the conclusion that it's better to let the professionals in Sinaloa do the serious cooking.

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