In May 2008, Tucson police estimated 60 percent of the illegal drugs that enter the United States come through Arizona, the Arizona Daily Star reported.
Last December, the U.S. Justice Department’s National Drug Intelligence Center issued its 2009 National Drug Threat Assessment: “Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations, the cartels, represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States. Mexican DTOs control drug distribution in most U.S. cities. Violent gangs control most retail-level drug distribution nationally and are increasingly involved in wholesale-level drug distribution, aided by their connections with DTOs.
Mexican drug traffickers maintain working relationships with street and prison gangs.”
Those relationships aren’t news to street cops.
And last week, USA Today reported the Justice Department’s National Gang Intelligence Center estimates there are 1 million gang members nationwide who are responsible for 80 percent of the crimes committed. Gangs are organized crime.
Some law enforcement officers have seen this coming for years.
Police and corrections experts tell me there are at least 30,000 gangsters in Arizona and at a minimum, 30 percent of the state’s prison population of almost 47,000 inmates belongs to a prison or street gang. Even though they’re locked up, gang members can still call the shots on street crimes.
Arizona’s also become a destination for California’s three-strikers, criminals who face life sentences on their next felony conviction, and those who are also fleeing law enforcement crackdowns on gangsters.
City, county, state and federal police officials have told me there is a high probability Arizona has now become ground zero for the drug trafficking organizations’ ongoing expansion into the U.S. They’ve also told me that all across Arizona, especially at the state level, law enforcement in its present form isn’t ready for what’s happening as the drug trafficking and organized crime expands in our state.
Look at what’s happened in worldwide when trafficking organizations move in and set up business operations.
Arizona has become the path of least resistance for traffickers that have evolved from simple cash operations into powerful, multi-billion dollar international business conglomerates. All while much of Arizona law enforcement has devolved over the last decade thanks to so-so leadership, inexperience, misdirected resources, naivete and political micro-management.
Arizona’s statewide law enforcement team, the Departments of Public Safety, Corrections, Liquor, Homeland Security and a half-dozen or so other state agencies that can and should be leading the charge against organized crime, has become a maze of duplicity, waste, political gamesmanship and ineffectiveness. This team hasn’t lived up to its potential and responsibilities.
On top of that, for too long Arizona has concentrated and wasted the state’s finite law enforcement resources on “nickel and dime” police actions and immigration enforcement operations that are designed around politics and publicity, and not destroying the organized crime cancer that has only grown bigger under these failed policies.
The state’s recent handouts of $3.8 million to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office’s questionable immigration enforcement program is a distressing example of this kind of conduct. All while Arizona still doesn’t have a law enforcement information sharing system or adequate crime lab services, both essential tools that are desperately needed to successfully fight organized crime at all levels.
It’s a circus and the bad guys are laughing all the way to bank as they watch much of law enforcement flounder in fiscal and operational bankruptcy.
As the organized crime forges new partnerships to maximize profits the threat only grows larger.
With the exception of the cost cutting and effective East Valley Gang and Criminal Information Fusion Center, Arizona has no unified and strategic plan that pools most law enforcement and intelligence collection resources to mount a comprehensive and unified attack on organized crime.
The East Valley model, housed at the Mesa Police Department, could easily be implemented statewide. Sadly, DPS and the sheriff’s office have refused to join this highly successful anti-organized crime project.
The door has been left wide open for the Mexican trafficking organizations and their crime partners. Law enforcement must become smarter, more focused and better organized or Arizona is going to lose big time.
This column is dedicated to Border Rat and retired U.S. Customs Special Agent Herb Reay. Herb passed away Jan. 31. He sure taught me a lot and gave a lot more to all of us.
Retired Mesa master police officer Bill Richardson lives in the East Valley and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.