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Smugglers' Paradise

When Fat Albert is working, he floats on a tether 10,000 feet above the border. But he's more of a buffoon than a balloon.

A few months ago, a Sierra Vista cop was driving over the San Pedro River on Arizona 90 when he saw a low-flying airplane zigzagging into Cochise County from Mexico.

Was it a dope smuggler? The cop notified Fat Albert. He expected to hear later that day about a drug bust he had initiated with the phone call. But the cop found out that Fat Albert hadn't detected anything. The cop's co-workers teased him: You were seeing things. After all, Fat Albert sees all, doesn't he?

Fat Albert, as the U.S. Customs Service's $18 million Aerostat is dubbed, has been billed as the feds' hottest new weapon in its war on dope. The blimp is supposed to hover above the mountains on the southeastern edge of Fort Huachuca. Fat Albert, who is the size of a 747, is supposed to beam sophisticated radar 160 miles into Mexico in an attempt to spot airplanes sneaking into the United States.

When Fat Albert's keepers detect a suspicious-looking plane, they are supposed to notify an air squadron located at Tucson's Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. The squadron--which includes two Blackhawk helicopters, several fixed-wing planes and a jet--is supposed to scramble and give chase.

But Fat Albert has a bad reputation. For one thing, he has been directly credited with leading cops to just two drug busts totaling 3,600 pounds of marijuana since he started work in June 1988.

"I haven't seen the balloon help us on the ground at all," says Bill Townsend, the head of Cochise County's beleaguered antidrug strike force. "When they bring the balloon down because of wind or whatever, all that happens is that somebody over here calls Mexico and lets the smugglers know. The planes immediately fly in from Cananea, drop the stuff off and are back in Mexico in minutes. Meantime, we start hearing from people: `I just saw a plane, I just saw a plane.' All we can do is thank them."

Customs Service officials admit their vaunted blimp doesn't detect about one quarter of the planes that fly within its range. Even if Fat Albert's presence has caused some drug traffickers to move their operations from air to ground, local agencies don't have the manpower to cope. The Sierra Vista Police Department has just one detective--David Wheeler--working narcotics. That's in an area with a population approaching 50,000.

"If I'm doing something in one place, I can't be across town doing something else," Wheeler says. He adds sardonically, "We don't have a drug problem down here anyway, so I guess it doesn't really matter what we do."

The county's narcs laugh that the feds ought to sell advertising space on Fat Albert.

"We might just as well blink a neon message on it that says, `Just Say No,' and maybe then it would at least be worth something," says one agent. "The balloon is a big deal in Washington, D.C., for some reason, and it's Customs' baby. We need all the weapons we can get in this war, but that blimp is just a public-relations eyesore."

For now, Fat Albert isn't even that. A dust devil tore him apart May 10, and currently he's undergoing repairs that will take several months and cost nearly $1 million. The wisecrack around Sierra Vista is that one of the horde of retired Army honchos who live here blasted a hole in the thing with a high-powered rifle.

"There's a lot we could do with $18 million," sheriff's major Larry Dever says, referring to Fat Albert's fat price tag. "By `we' I mean we as police departments and we as parents who want the schools to educate their kids about drugs. Give us some of that $18 million and give some to the schools, and I promise we'll put it to good use."

Welcome to the free state of Cochise, drug-smuggling capital of Arizona. Welcome to southeast Arizona's wild outlands. Everyone in this Arizona border county knows the "war on drugs" is a dismal failure. And no one quite knows what to do about it.

"We've declared our own war down here and we're working hard, but we're mostly getting the crap kicked out of us," says Cochise County Sheriff Jimmy Judd. "I'd hate to be a kid today with all these damned drugs. When I was coming up, our biggest problem was when to say no to a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer."

SOME PEOPLE INVOLVED in the day-to-day struggle against drugs in Cochise County sound downright radical.

"Sometimes," says a veteran narc, "when I'm out there on the border, I get to thinking. When I hear about Ollie North and them maybe being drug smugglers in the Iran-Contra thing, I wonder, `Does that mean that Reagan and Bush are the drug kingpins? Are they the guys I'm fighting in this, quote, `war on drugs'? It's crazy, but I'm still fighting."  

Others, like long-time Border Patrol agent Gary Patrick Callahan, have wound up being accused of joining the smugglers. Callahan is charged with stealing drugs from seized shipments and sending them to Paradise Valley dentist Bill Bartel.

"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.

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."

More and more youngsters are being drawn into the booming drug business in Cochise County, and there are court records to prove it.

"The smugglers are paying kids $100 a week or so just to keep an eye on county patrol cars," says Juvenile Court Judge Steve Desens. "They don't carry drugs and they've committed no crime, and they just make a collect call into Mexico when they see something. We've probably had seven to ten American and Mexican kids who have gotten busted here since last October--I'm talking pot busts of 285, 305, 410 pounds, that sort of thing.

"As of a few years ago, I wouldn't have believed this. But now, I view the drug trafficking in Cochise County as a well-organized and finely tuned business--a merit system of economics."

COCHISE COUNTY ATTORNEY Alan Polley is trying to talk tough these days.
"I'm getting after my people," he says in an interview at his office in Bisbee. "We've been having too many plea bargains to `attempted transportation of a narcotic drug.' Too many probation terms. . . . Sometimes our people will say, `But he's just a mule. Somebody waved a few thousand dollars in front of him.' But we're not the consciences of our community. We're just prosecutors, and we have been offering plea agreements on cases that we definitely shouldn't have."
Polley is a man in search of a policy. He portrays a world in which his prosecutors often have problems in court because of inadequate police investigations. His rule of thumb has been to ask county grand juries to indict people on more serious charges than can be easily proven in court. Then his prosecutors almost inevitably plea-bargain down before trial to less serious charges.

That's a standard practice of prosecutors. But Polley apparently has decided to toss in a new wrinkle.

No more plea bargains, he says, adding, "At the point we fill up the courts with trials, we'll have no recourse but to decline cases. Until then, we either have enough to go to trial or we don't.

"When you charge, you easily can get enough `probable cause' for an indictment. You hope enough will materialize to cover the more serious charges. Sometimes, officers inflate testimony and put the case in its most favorable light, and my prosecutors have to take on this added baggage."
At this moment in the interview, however, Doug Whitney--one of Polley's prosecutors--nervously walks into his boss's office. Whitney has a problem with a dope case, he tells Polley. The Border Patrol agent in a marijuana-smuggling case couldn't properly identify any of the four defendants during a pretrial hearing.  

The case was going down in flames, so Whitney had asked for a recess and offered a plea bargain to the four Mexicans: They would be eligible for probation. So much for Polley's new ban on plea bargains.

"It's all relative, and you have to adapt to each situation as it comes along," Polley says after Whitney leaves. "Until a few years ago, if the feds caught you with under fifty kilos of pot at the border, they'd often just grab the pot, maybe grab your car and send you on your way. Then they came up with Zero Tolerance [a no-mercy policy that since has faded out]."
Cynics contend that Polley wants to clog the courts with drug trials so that Cochise County will be forced to create another Superior Court division. Under that scenario, Polley would become a judge.

The county attorney is very sensitive to police criticism, especially since a public feud with BAG's Bill Townsend. Polley flat-out despises BAG.

"BAG doesn't have any legal authority," Polley says. "It's kind of like a new car dealers' association. Even the name--the Border Alliance Group--is redundant. I think the relationship between the agency heads in the county is excellent. But when you get to the level of the officers in the field--especially the BAG officers--our relationship with them could be improved a whole lot."
Cochise County Sheriff Jimmy Judd points to more than $300,000 that's gone into county coffers as a result of drug-related forfeitures stemming from BAG busts. (Some of that money is being used to hire two new prosecutors who will do nothing but drug cases; former Maricopa County attorney Tom Collins was hired two weeks ago for one of the jobs.)

BAG is under Judd's control, so he naturally defends its work.
"I hate to get into a fight with Alan, but sometimes I look up into the heavens and say, `Beverly, where are you?'" Judd says, referring to Polley's predecessor, the late Beverly Jenney. "We just aren't cooperating with each other. If Alan goes on this no-plea-bargain kick for real, it's going to cause a hell of a lot of problems. We just can't put everyone in jail."

IT WAS A MAGIC moment for BAG, Cochise County's own version of Miami Vice. BAG finally had hit the big I-told-you-so bust that would shut up its critics for a while.

Actually, it was luck that led a BAG team to a rental house southeast of Sierra Vista on June 29, 1988. The break came when the home's caretaker saw packaged bundles in a closet. The new tenant, a Guatemalan named Carlos Calderon, had moved in a few days earlier without furniture. The caretaker snitched to the BAG boys after he saw the bundles.

At about the same time, BAG learned that the Border Patrol had busted a mule with about 400 pounds of cocaine. (That bust was credited to Gary Callahan, the agent recently arrested on smuggling charges. Police are speculating that Callahan spirited away at least 81 pounds of coke from the cache and turned it over to Paradise Valley dentist Bill Bartel.)

BAG's Bill Townsend noted the cocaine was bundled in green garbage bags and wrapped in gray duct tape. The Sierra Vista caretaker had mentioned that the bundles he'd seen were wrapped the same way. The narcs quickly obtained a warrant to search the house. Calderon was there alone, with a rifle and a revolver nearby, but he didn't resist as the cops rushed to the closet.

They found eleven bundles piled atop each other, 823 pounds of cocaine, one of the largest busts in Cochise County history. It probably would have sold on the streets for about $20 million.

Calderon, then 32, was jailed in Sierra Vista. He told police he had been paid $5,000 to act as an interpreter in negotiations over the price of the drug. At first, all he said was that some Mexican fellow named Ricardo had hired him. In his arrest questionnaire, Calderon listed himself as the sole breadwinner of a Sierra Vista family that includes a young wife and a child.

He noted that he made a living doing odd jobs around Sierra Vista, but that he had $10,000 in cash at home. Calderon's wife, however, told police he had rented the house "for the purposes of smuggling cocaine." The police report also said Calderon's wife claimed he "had smuggled narcotics before in Cochise County." (Townsend says Carlos Calderon confessed later that the 400 pounds seized by the Border Patrol also had been destined for his Sierra Vista safe house. Calderon allegedly also said that he had planned to siphon off a portion of the cache to deal himself.)  

Within a few days after his arrest, the Guatemalan handyman, who was being held without bond, hired high-priced former Arizona Attorney General Robert Morrison, who swung a plea bargain that rocked the county. Calderon originally was charged with possessing cocaine for sale, a felony that calls for mandatory prison time. But he wound up pleading guilty just to possession of cocaine, which under Arizona law can result in probation.

Deputy county attorney Chris Roll recommended that Calderon receive a five-year prison term--the maximum under the circumstances. Even Morrison agreed that five years wouldn't be a bad deal for his client. After all, Calderon had been caught red-handed with $20 million of illegal assets.

Last September, Calderon appeared before Cochise County Superior Court Judge Jim Riley, who bought his "interpreter" story and sentenced him to a year in jail--with credit for three months already served. Riley insists he didn't know about the cops' contention that Calderon told them he had intended to sell part of the cache of coke.

"It was analogous to a mule case," the judge says. "He was neither a buyer nor a seller. It was his first offense. He has a stable family situation. The only horrendous thing was the tremendous amount of cocaine involved.

"For someone with a hanging-judge's reputation, I've occasionally imposed a sentence that flies in the face of the hue and cry of the war on drugs. But the prosecutor expected me to do what he should have done as far as making him plead to a charge that would have meant mandatory prison time."
The judge also fined Calderon $205,500--payable at $20 monthly upon his release.

The cops were outraged, and the finger-pointing still hasn't stopped. BAG's Bill Townsend angrily told a local paper it was the product of an inexperienced prosecutor getting snowed by a savvy defense lawyer. County attorney Alan Polley counterattacked, privately lobbying Sheriff Jimmy Judd to transfer Townsend out of BAG.

What should have been the brightest spot in BAG's year-and-a-half history had turned sour.

"Everyone assumed that 823 pounds wasn't for personal use," county attorney Polley tells New Times, "but we were worried that a jury would say, `Where is the evidence that he transported or intended to transport the narcotic?' To link that person with what was in the closet, we couldn't do it. There were no fingerprints taken, no clothing fibers. It wasn't the best police work, believe me. The judge's sentencing vindicated us, and then BAG badmouthed us."
Townsend, a low-key career cop from Douglas who seems an unlikely candidate for controversy, won't back down.

"We are just trying to nip at the cancer," Townsend says. "That much coke, 823 pounds, is a pretty big nip, wouldn't you say? Of course, the guy who owned the coke probably lives in a villa in southern Colombia. But Calderon wasn't a low-rent mule, like so many we get in this county.

"We have a guy who admits to us that he's negotiating the drug, that he's guarding it, and that he's participating in a conspiracy to sell it. We have a big political problem here. The price of dope is going down and the quality is going up. So where the hell is this war on drugs?"
Calderon, who recently was released from jail, should have his $205,500 fine all paid off in about 850 years.

end part 2 of 2

"We've declared our own war down here and we're working hard, but we're mostly getting the crap kicked out of us."

"There's so much damned dope down here and there's so much potential money for you if you decide to go bad, it's sickening."

They'll stuff a 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.

"It wasn't the world's biggest case, 700 pounds of pot, but it was something."

"The smugglers are paying kids $100 a week or so just to keep an eye on county patrol cars."

"We just can't put everyone in jail."

"The price of dope is going down and the quality is going up. So where the hell is this war on drugs?


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