The New Boss

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Increasingly, U.S. drug-enforcement officials say, traffickers are using undocumented immigrants as drug pack mules.

Often, such deals go down in the Sonoran town of Altar, the farming village southwest of Nogales that has morphed into the primary staging area for Mexican nationals hoping to hike across the desert into Arizona.

"It's just a simple deal there," says the DEA's Molesa. "[The traffickers tell undocumented immigrants:] You carry this backpack, we'll pay for your coyote.

"There is 350 miles of continuous border here and all sorts of roads connecting us to Mexico," Molesa says. "It's perfect for traffickers."

And it's not just geography that makes Arizona and its Mexican sister-state of Sonora a great pipeline for meth.

It's the professionalism of the drug traffickers along the route.

For years now, drug officials say, the Arizona drug corridor has been controlled by what is likely one of the most peaceful and businesslike drug consortiums in Mexico's history. While both the Juárez pipeline to the east and the Tijuana pipeline to the west are fraught with sometimes spectacular violence, the Mexican drug lords along the pipeline to Phoenix work with chamber-of-commerce efficiency.

"We've generally been lucky that way because they are smart enough to know that murders get people fired up," Molesa says.

That luck may not hold out.

On a late Saturday afternoon in mid-October -- a typical Saturday, according to border and customs officers -- about 350 vehicles are inching north toward Grand Avenue, the main drag of Nogales, Arizona.

Five lanes of cars stop and go through entry wells as officers inspect undercarriages with mirrors and peer into back-seat windows.

Here, drugs in the meth pipeline come to a screeching stop.

Here, if you're running the stuff, it's time to start acting.

"If it doesn't look good, we search it. We're looking for something in our mental files," says Richard Gill, the chief customs and border protection officer at the Dennis DeConcini port of entry on Grand.

Such as wild eyes, nervousness, a slip in the story.

Many of the mules, Gill says, are "highly religious people, looking for protection, something to calm themselves." Often, a mule is carrying a photo of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, maybe on a keychain or in his or her wallet or purse.

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.

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.

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Robert Nelson
Joe Watson