Border Epidemic

As narco-on-narco crimes escalate, police ask: Who's next?


     Inside an Arizona tire shop, Phoenix cops, the robbery unit and others walked around, jotting down what they saw; Body armor, radios, shotgun shells, every type of shell in fact: 9mm, .45's, 30-06, 7.62's and banana clips.

     The primitive battering ram caught everyone's attention, constructed of little more than a fence post packed with concrete; such a tool is likely used in home invasion robberies or kidnappings.

     The tire shop owner, Manuel Torres, was picked up along with six other people that day, Mexican nationals, most in the country illegally and most hailing from Tijuana on the West Coast and the Mexican northwestern states of Sonora and Sinaloa: places embroiled in a cartel war that's killed more than 7,000 people over the past two years.

     Cops entered Torres' apartment, finding night vision, frag grenades, tac lights, bags of ammunition, rifle scopes, video equipment and cameras hooked up to a live feed monitoring the front and back of his home.

     "He was making money from every type of border crime," says Phoenix Robbery Unit Lt. Lauri Burgett.

     Those crimes included housing smuggled illegal migrants in the tire shop, home invasions and ripping off drug traffickers.

The Mexican drug war

     The Sinaloans, the powerful cartel that fuels much of the United States' drug habits, have been embroiled in a drug war against smaller, rival cartels that's threatened to destabilize Mexico.

     Headed by Joaquín "Shorty" Guzmán, the Sinaloans waged war on at least three different fronts over the past year, from Ciudad Juárez (across from El Paso), to Nogales (two hours south of Phoenix), to the Sinaloan capital city of Culiacán on the steamy Pacific coast.

     Hundreds of police officers have been murdered, many involved in the drug trade, but also those who've battled against it. Mexican Army soldiers have been decapitated, the highest echelons of Mexico City's law enforcement compromised with suitcase payments of nearly a half million dollars a month. The Sinaloans, a syndicate of three separate drug cartels, have established themselves as the largest cocaine broker and producer of methamphetamine and marijuana in the Western Hemisphere. The cartel and its rivals have decimated border cities from the Pacific to the Mexican Gulf. Entire towns in the mountains of Sinaloa have cleared out, fleeing the violence like war refugees. Narcos with M-79 grenade launchers and 50-caliber rifles engage in the streets and entire border economies, which are heavily reliant on tourism, have been decimated as the violence spreads.

     The border has always been a violent, collisional line reliant on illicit trade and murder. Perhaps optimistically, some say Mexican president Felipe Calderón has pushed the narco-traffickers so hard that they've turned on each other like starved rats. Others say this drug war is a re-accommodation of power, one that takes place about every decade and on which the government's efforts have had little effect. The United States points to narcotic street prices, saying they have gone up over the past year, as an indication that narco-traffickers are suffering from a supply problem.

     The Phoenix robbery unit detectives only look at a reporter quizzically when the question is raised. A narcotics detective in San Diego simply laughs. The men and women encountering drugs and border crime day to day don't agree that narco-traffickers' supplies are limited.

The corridor of trafficking

     Phoenix, a massive city the size of Connecticut and inhabited by 1.5 million people, sits about 100 miles north of the Mexican border. The capital of Arizona has long acted as a hub for drug trafficking and migrant smuggling into the United States. This state acts as the corridor for the majority of both, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

     In the past two years, Phoenix has gained another title: the city now leads the nation in kidnappings and home invasions.

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