Violent crime along the U.S.-Mexico border, which has long plagued the scrubby, often desolate stretch, increasingly is spilling northward into the Southwest.
In Phoenix, deputies are working the unsolved cases of 13 border crossers who were kidnapped and executed in the desert. In Dallas, nearly two dozen high school students have died in the last two years from overdoses of a $2-a-hit Mexican fad drug called “cheese heroin.”
The crime surge, most acute in Arizona and Texas, is fueled by a gritty drug war in Mexico that includes hostages being held in stash houses, daylight gunbattles claiming innocent lives, and teenage hit men for the Mexican cartels. Shipments of narcotics and vans carrying undocumented workers on U.S. highways are being hijacked by rival cartels fighting over the lucrative smuggling routes. Arson fires are being set in national forests to divert police.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio holds 10,000 inmates in his jail and overflow tents; 2,000 of them he said are “criminal aliens” from the border. It is his deputies who are investigating the deaths of 13 people executed in the desert.
Jennifer Allen, director of the nonprofit Border Action Network in Tucson that supports immigrants’ rights, said Washington and Mexico City need fresh approaches. “The smugglers are no longer mom-and-pop organizations. Now it’s an industry,” she said. “So the violence increases. That’s incredibly predictable.”
Sierra Vista learned firsthand of the rising violence in 2004, when police chased a pickup carrying 24 illegals on the border town’s main drag. Speeds reached 100 mph. The truck went airborne, hit a half-dozen cars, and killed a recently married elderly couple waiting at a stoplight.
“It was just the worst kind of tragedy,” said Cochise County Attorney Ed Rheinheimer. “The ‘coyotes’ (smugglers) are just more willing to either shoot at the police, fight with the police, or to try to flee.”
Even more brazen have been several kidnappings of from 50 to 100 immigrants by rival cartels, who hide them in stash houses in and around Phoenix until family members pay a ransom. One captive’s face was burned with a cigarette, another nearly smothered in a plastic bag. A woman was raped. Fingers have been sliced off and sent back to families with demands for money.
The border crime issue became so urgent in Arizona that top officials met in Tucson in June with their counterparts from Sonora, Mexico. Gov. Janet Napolitano agreed to help train Sonoran police to track wire payments to smugglers. Sonoran Gov. Eduardo Boors agreed to improve police communications with U.S. authorities.
In the first nine months of this year, Tucson officials surpassed their record from last year of 4,559 human smuggling arrests.
DRUG WAR MOVES NORTH
Another visible effect of the crossborder crime wave is the flood of illegal drugs into the country.
Anthony Coulson, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Arizona, said records indicate that cocaine and heroin seizures might end up twice as high as last year. Marijuana seizures are increasing 25 percent; nine months into the current fiscal year, he said, they had seized more pot than all of last year, “and 2006 was a record year,” Coulson said.
In the Tucson sector, there has been a 71 percent increase in marijuana seizures over the last year, with the U.S. Border Patrol reporting 648,000 pounds grabbed since October.
In Scottsdale, Arpaio said a cartel operative was openly selling heroin to high school kids. “He was getting 150 calls a day on his cell phone,” the sheriff said.
A huge U.S. law enforcement buildup along the border starting a decade ago has helped stabilize border-related crime rates on the California side; a recent wave of kidnappings in Tijuana, Mexico, largely has been contained south of the border.
The sprawling U.S.-Mexico border has been criss-crossed for years by the poor seeking work in the United States and drug dealers in the hunt for U.S. dollars.
For decades neither the U.S. nor Mexico has managed to halt the immigrants and narcotics pushing north. But with the Mexican government’s newly pledged war on the cartels, and an explosion of violence among rival networks, a new crime dynamic is emerging: The violence that has hit Mexican border towns is spreading deeper into the U.S.
U.S. officials are promising more Border Patrol and federal firearms officers, more fences and more surveillance towers along the desert stretches where the two nations meet.