Border drug seizures increase
But that may not mean fewer drugs on Tucson streets

By Brady McCombs
Arizona Daily Star
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 02.25.2006
An unusual toolbox in the flatbed of a dusty, beat-up Chevy pickup truck catches the eye of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers on this relatively cool and quiet day at the Mariposa port of entry in Nogales.

Their suspicions prove true when — after removing tools and lids and using a mobile X-ray device — they find nearly 47 pounds of marijuana hidden on a sliding metal tray in a lower compartment of the toolbox the 62-year-old U.S. citizen driver said was a gas tank.

Federal border officials have been carrying out drug seizures like this one Thursday at rising rates in the past three years. Since 2003, federal border officials have seized increasing amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine, and are on pace to continue that trend this year.

While the increased seizures are a tangible sign of success and validation of increased federal resources on the border, they don't necessarily mean fewer drugs are on the streets of Tucson, said Capt. David Neri, commander of the Counter Narcotics Alliance, which monitors drug activity in the Tucson metro area.

"While it's a good indicator of activity at the border, it's not necessarily a good indicator of what's going on locally," said Neri, who has been with the alliance three years.

Increased drug seizures are ambiguous measures that don't always mean fewer drugs on the streets, according to University of Arizona law professor Gabriel J. Chin, who has studied the narcotics market for 20 years. He said they can also be a sign that larger amounts of drugs are being smuggled across and that agents are just seizing the same percentage.

Based on what he sees in the Tucson metro area — where drug prices and supply remain the same — Neri believes the latter theory to be true. But that doesn't mean the increased seizures have no effect on Tucson. Neri said agents have begun to notice an increased level of violence among drug traffickers, which could be related.

The Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, the federal intelligence-gathering agency that tracks drug loads moving across the U.S.-Mexican border, is studying what the increased seizures mean, said Lt. Ken Hunter. He concurred with Chin's two theories and added that the intense attention placed on the Arizona border in 2005 from both Mexico and the United States might have factored into the increased seizures as well.

From the Minuteman Project to federal and state legislative proposals in the United States to the Mexican military patrolling the border, the Arizona border has been under heavy scrutiny, Hunter said.

Efforts to contact Mexican authorities for this story were not successful.
Hunter, Neri and Richard Gill, chief inspector with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, agree that it's impossible for anybody to know the amount of drugs coming across the border. The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that law enforcement seizes 3 percent to 10 percent of all drugs, Neri said.

"All we can measure is what we get here," said Gill, who has been with the agency for 14 years. "And based on the amount of meth and cocaine, we have a problem in this country because it's based on demand."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection — which patrols the six land ports of entry in Arizona and Tucson and Phoenix Sky Harbor international airports — has recorded a twofold increase in heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine seizures since 2002, while marijuana seizures have remained consistent.

This year, the agency is on pace to increase cocaine and heroin seizures while methamphetamine and marijuana are down slightly through the first quarter of the fiscal year.

U.S. Border Patrol Tucson Sector, which patrols border areas beyond the ports of entry, has seized at least 13 percent more marijuana each year since 2002 and is 50 percent ahead of the 2005 pace so far this year.

Gustavo Soto, spokesman for the Tucson Sector, attributes the increased seizures to more agents (up to 2,400 from 1,600 in 2002) and technology upgrades. Gill said Customs and Border Protection's emphasis on counterterrorism has actually helped drug seizures, because agents spend more time reviewing each person who passes through the ports of entry.

But the war is far from over. Drug smugglers and border officials are engaged in an eternal chess match that will continue as long as the demand for drugs exists. Drug smugglers have already begun to employ new strategies.

"Every time we start seizing more, they change their tactics," said Brian Levin, spokesman for Customs and Border Protection. "They change their tactics, we change ours — that's what happens."
At the ports of entry, smugglers are mixing drugs in cocktails and stashing them in elaborate inner compartments, like the toolbox, Gill said. In the desert, smugglers who used to divide loads into small portions and send them across on the backs of illegal entrants are now sending heavily loaded vehicles across the border in one kamikaze attempt, Soto said.

"The systematic problem is that the police can't just defend the spot where the drugs are coming now," said Professor Chin, the co-director of the Law Criminal Justice and Security Program at the James E. Rogers College of Law. "They have to defend where they came in before and where they could come in the future, because the criminals are flexible and innovative."

Hunter and Neri fear drug smugglers could be stockpiling their supply and waiting for the attention on the Arizona border to dwindle.

"There are a whole lot of drugs lined up at the border waiting to come in that were intended for 2005, in addition to that which we would normally expect for 2006," Neri said.

● Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or at