By Will Grant
There are 28 High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas across 46 states in the US. From Washington, D.C. to Miami to Los Angeles, these areas are the focal points of in-flowing drugs. The HIDTA program was formed in 1990 after the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. The US Office of National Drug Control Policy oversees the HIDTA program, and each HIDTA is managed by a combination of federal, state, local, and tribal personnel.
The HIDTA program was set up to enhance coordination between agencies to control drug trafficking. A driving force of the program is tailoring programs and initiatives to local conditions—whether the behavior of smugglers, the local law enforcement infrastructure, or the natural environment.
Not surprisingly, the largest HIDTA is along the US-Mexico border. It’s where the lucrative business of smuggling drugs has pushed narco-violence to a level of staggering brutality. Corpses hung from highway overpasses; bodies found without hands, feet or heads; storage units full of dead cops. The warring cartels of Mexico have washed the border with the blood of informants, rivals, and innocents alike.
In southern Arizona, the wilderness of the Sonoran Desert presents an attractive thoroughfare for getting drugs into the US. To the east, from Tucson to New Mexico, the population is denser, which means more law enforcement. To the west, the ridges flatten out, and the lack of topographic relief means no high ground for cartel lookouts. This corridor of sparsely populated land—Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the Tohono O’Odham Indian Reservation, Barry M Goldwater Air Force Range, Sonoran Desert National Monument— through Maricopa and Pima counties is a bottleneck for smuggling.
With 50-pound packs of compressed marijuana, groups of backpackers walk the drugs from Mexico to prearranged drop-off points. The backpackers travel only at night, subsist mainly on cornmeal and water, and can make up to $2,000 USD per trip. While that may be a lot of money for a week’s walking, not only do the hazards of desert travel play hell on these backpackers, but so too do the HIDTA teams lying in wait to hunt the smugglers like dogs in the night.
The cartels use backpackers, ATVs, four-wheel-drive vehicles, even ultra-light aircraft to smuggle drugs into the US. Their goal, in south-central Arizona, is to get the drugs to Interstate 8, which bisects Maricopa County. But over the last two and half years, since the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and eight other agencies started smuggling interdictions, fewer drugs are making it to the Interstate and more smugglers are going to jail.
WELCOME TO THE WILD WEST
At 1600 hours, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office HIDTA Task Force meets on the tarmac of the Gila Bend Municipal Airport for the night’s briefing. News is relayed, assignments are given, introductions made. There will be two teams manning observations posts, there’s a dog and two officers from the Bureau of Land Management here, a Border Patrol aircraft will provide aerial support if necessary.
The anticipation of a successful hunt is a workaday occurrence for these men, and it can make a lot of jobs seem mundane. Busting dope smugglers at night in the Arizona desert is fun, dangerous work.
“I started hunting when I was seven years old,” says one of the officers. “I tell my dad that this is just the same, only we’re hunting different game.”
After the briefing, we wait for nightfall. The men load magazines, check communication systems, and wipe clean riflescopes. They eat energy bars and Tupperwares of leftovers and drink Gatorade. The Sonoran Desert is an unforgiving workplace.
There are more plants out here with thorns than without. The black, volcanic ridges absorb heat all day, and the temperature can easily be over 100 degrees at midnight. It gets so hot on the ridge-top observation posts that a man can drink two gallons of water in a matter of hours.
Some of the men wear snake-proof chaps over their calves. Some carry ultraviolet lights to illuminate scorpions. Almost all wear Camelbak hydration systems, and everybody wears body armor, carries pistols in addition to their M4s, and wears helmets with night-vision optics.
Part of the excitement—and most of the danger—of the job is the unknown, that the men never know what they’re going to find when they leave the airstrip they now sit on eating sunflower seeds and peeling grapefruits. And when you’re apprehending Mexican drug smugglers, you stand to learn something new every night.
“We picked up one guy with holes worn through his shoes,” said the same officer. “His feet were raw and bleeding. You see the desert out here? That’s nuts. I wouldn’t do it.”
Lt. Steve Bailey, commander of the MCSO HIDTA Task Force: “About a year ago, we rolled up on a group of backpackers, got out of the car, and they ran. I took off after one of these guys across the shoulder of the highway. He’s wearing a 50-pound backpack, and when he gets to that barded wire fence, he didn’t even touch it. Went right over it. I shit you not.”
As the sun lowers in the west, the observation teams are dispatched. Two three-man teams are positioned on mountaintops along the east-west Interstate 8 corridor. From high points on the basalt ridges, they can see a rabbit three miles away. Walking up to these lookouts “will kick you in the ass,” says one officer. Walking down, after hours standing bent over the optics, isn’t much easier.
“If we pick a hill that’s not steep enough,” says Sgt. Joel Floyd, “we deal with snakes. If we pick a hill that’s too rocky, we deal with scorpions.”
The snakes and the scorpions come with the territory. Most of the men are no strangers to desert wildlife. But they haven’t always manned mountain lookouts, and they haven’t always gone after drug smugglers in this fashion.
“The Task force used to be all meth labs,” Lt. Bailey says. “We were doing three to five a week. Then we woke up one morning, and there were no more meth labs.”
That was two and a half years ago, about the same time the Sheriff’s Office got a tip that a bunch of backpackers would be loading a truck full of dope at a certain mile marker at 10:30 that night. This was a new kind of intel for the MCSO and exactly how they were going to apprehend these men was unclear. But they’d be there to stop it, one way or another.
“We all drove out there,” says Lt. Bailey, “dumped our car on the other side of the highway and walked across the median and hid in the wash. About 10:30, sure enough, they all walked up to the highway. We couldn’t believe it had actually happened, and we didn’t know what to do next.”
A nearby deputy pulled over the dope-filled vehicle and made the interdiction. Since then, it’s been a cat-and-mouse game. The Task Force has been changing and adapting its tactics to smuggling activity while the smugglers change and adapt their tactics to law enforcement activity. But now more than ever, the HIDTA teams are dialed in on what works and what doesn’t.
THE GAME IS AFOOT
Night has fallen, and the observation teams are in place. Lt. Bailey parks his vehicle near a Shell station on the Interstate. We’re in the shadows, next to a vendor who sells oversized blankets bearing images of white tigers, wolves, and the logos of NFL teams. A cat walks across the hood of the car, and apparently Lt. Bailey has a soft spot for cats.
“Let’s get this cat some water,” he says. So we cut the bottom off a Gatorade bottle, fill it with water, and the cat refuses to drink. Lt. Bailey rubs the cat’s ears, and lets him climb on his shoulder. I’d have done the same, had the cat not looked like it was carrying a payload of parasites. “He just wants some attention,” Lt. Bailey says.
Over the radio, an observation team reports a group of six backpackers just north of the Interstate. The cat is out of the picture. Three-man ground crews, or Drug Interdiction Rapid Response Teams, are dispatched. Bailey pulls on his body armor, we pile into the vehicle, and fly down the Interstate at 95 miles per hour.
One of the biggest improvements in the Task Force’s tactics has been the coordination of observation posts, ground crews, and supporting officers. Using whisper-sensitive communication systems and night-vision optics, the over-watch teams direct the ground crews to an ambush point and position the support vehicles for an intercept. The ground crews often get to within 20 feet of smugglers without being detected.
“They almost never know we’re there,” says an officer. “When we throw on our lights and announce ourselves, we pretty much scare the crap out them…We’ll pick up a scout walking out in front of a group, and the rest will come around the corner and be like, ‘Where’s Pablo?’"
But often as not, it’s anybody’s guess as to how everything works out. A few months ago, a squad car was pulled over on the side of the road with its lights off when two illegals jumped in the backseat thinking the vehicle was their ride to freedom. “Everybody was equally scared,” Bailey says.
In early April this year, illegals loaded a pulled-over squad vehicle with bales of dope thinking it was the pickup car, or loader vehicle. Clearly, that was a mistake on the part of the backpackers, but there may be more to the situation than at first apparent.
“It’s easy to write that off as, ‘those idiots loaded a cop car with dope,’” Sgt Floyd says, “but we pull over loader vehicles with homemade red and blues [emergency lights] in them. We think those guys could have been waiting for a fake cop car.”
Six backpackers are cutting off the straps from their bales of marijuana a quarter mile north of the Interstate. They’ve carried the drugs from Mexico, and they’re about to load the bales into a car on the Interstate. Once on the highway, the drugs will likely disappear. But the chances of this dope making it into a getaway vehicle tonight are slim.
Lt. Bailey shuts off the headlights before we pull off the Interstate so the smugglers don’t know the good guys have showed up. Half a dozen squad cars are stopped on the shoulder with their lights off, and each vehicle is loaded with a lot of bad news for drug smugglers.
The ground crew silently stalks the backpackers. The over-watch team relays the developments over the radio and guides the officers on the ground to the drugs. If any of the backpackers have a rifle, the men three miles away on the mountain will likely be able to see it.
Whispered chatter cracks over the radio as the ground team gets closer. Time for an interdiction. “Going to white light,” comes over the radio. We see three white dots appear in the desert blackness. Shouting over the radio, and, “We got runners.”
The smugglers scatter like chickens. Four disappear into the night, two are apprehended.
We get out of the vehicle and walk toward the small lights of the HIDTA team. As we get closer, the air becomes thick with the smell of marijuana. Under a clump of stunted trees are six bales of dope wrapped in burlap and brown packaging tape and tied with bailing twine. The backpack straps are crudely fashioned from twine, rope, and canvas webbing. The smugglers’ water bottles are painted black because the cartels are under the impression that black plastic is harder for surveillance aircraft to detect.
On the dirt, sit two Mexicans about to go to jail for smuggling drugs into the US. Their hands are bound with cord handcuffs. They’re thirsty, hungry and tired. One of them is wearing carpet booties.
The officers take photos of the drugs and the Mexicans. The Mexicans can see little for the lights constantly being shined on and around them. The officers are jovial. Good hunting, so far.
The contrast between the tired, dirty Mexicans and the heavily armed law enforcement officers surrounding them is stark. The night vision, the Camelbaks, and the body armor stand tall over the two men who have spent ten days carrying drugs on their backs through the desert. The Mexicans look worse for the wear.
“Most of these guys don’t want to get into a confrontation with US law enforcement,” Lt. Bailey says. “When they’re carrying weapons, it’s really for the rip crews.
The rip crews are bandits paid by competing cartels to rob drugs from backpackers. The cartels control plazas, or smuggling routes like the famous Vekol Valley, in every border state in the US. The plazas have staging areas and lookout camps on the mountains throughout their plazas. And if you use another cartel’s plaza without permission, you’ve wagered your life.
When the HIDTA team intercepts a vehicle full of weapons or a string of backpackers with AK-47s, the weapons are intended for the people who have escalated border violence to unprecedented levels. They’re the reason members of the HIDTA Task Force wear armor and carry 90 rounds of M4 ammunition.
The two smugglers in custody are escorted back to the Interstate where they’re given water. The bales of dope are heaved into the back of a pickup truck. The Mexicans are loaded into squad cars and taken to the station for processing.
The station smells like a marijuana grow operation. The bales are weighed and tagged—each weighs with an pound or two of 50 pounds. The Mexicans are interviewed and more photos taken of them. Photos are taken of their bare chests and back—if they have callouses from the crude straps then the HIDTA Task Force has reduced the ranks of regular mules.
The marijuana has a street value of $500 per pound in Phoenix, $2,500 per pound in Hartford, Connecticut. The two men will be charged with conspiracy to transport marijuana, possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, and transportation of marijuana. They will be indicted in Maricopa County and serve a sentence there before being handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation. They will be classified as criminal aliens.
It’s 0130 when we return to the airstrip. We’re sitting in a Chevy Suburban with a K-9 Unit in it. To keep the dog comfortable and because the man sitting next to me is wearing 50 pounds of gear on his chest, the air conditioning is maxed out, blowing icy air full blast. I open the window to let in some of the warm desert air. I put on a jacket and scribble notes while my HIDTA escort taps away on his BlackBerry.
Over the radio, an observation team reports a blacked-out (no lights) SUV heading north down a dirt road. A man gets out of the vehicle and attempts to erase the tire tracks with a branch.
“Sounds like a loader vehicle,” says the officer sitting next to me. “Good thing you stuck around.”
The good guys are moving in to intercept the vehicle. Three SWAT guys jump in our Suburban, and we’re en route. Our driver flips on his night vision, cuts the lights, and we’re parked on the side of the Interstate. The bad guys have somehow learned that the good guys are on to them. They ditch the dope—unload the vehicle and take off back south.
The HIDTA Team recovers more than 600 pounds of jettisoned dope. Enough to fill the bed of a pickup. That brings the night’s tally to nearly 1,000 pounds of marijuana—with a street value of about half a million dollars—and two in custody, and I’m back in my motel room at 0400.
Sixteen hours later, I’m walking behind Sgt. Floyd as we silently pick our way over boulders and up the side of a rocky, cactus-studded mountain. Our behavior is no different than when hunting elk in the Rocky Mountains. We pause often, freezing in our tracks to listen. We stay low and whisper. We notice what look like fresh boot tracks in the sand.
From our observation post, we look down on the Interstate a mile below. The lights of Gila Bend flicker on the horizon. We can see miles and miles of desert stretching out before us. Sgt. Floyd props his M4 at arm’s reach on a rock and sets up a tripod for the optics.
“The reason I wasn’t too worried about you getting shot,” he says, “is because armed confrontations are scarce.”
Truth is, it would have been a short life for the smuggler dumb enough to point a gun in the direction of a HIDTA man. But the officers do get into armed confrontations, and there are weapons out there being smuggled with the drugs. I find a flat rock to sit on, lean against my pack, and think I could sit here forever.
We sit up there for five hours. We watch officers intercept a resupply vehicle—a car packed with food and water bound for the cartel lookout camps in places similar to where we sit. We hear over the radio (or rather Sgt. Floyd does, as I’m wearing no earpiece) that officers took into custody four men in a vehicle with an AK-47. We watch a coyote hunting rabbits. I see half a dozen shooting stars and an aircraft release flares over Barry M Goldwater Air Force Range to the south.
It’s a quiet night, and we walk off the mountain about 0100. Thirty feet from the Interstate we kneel in the brush and wait to be picked up. A truck pulls up with no lights on, and I ask Sgt. Floyd, “That our ride?”
“Better be,” he says. “Let’s sit here, and see who gets out.”
It was our ride. But out here, when you’re meddling in the drug business, and especially if you’re trying to shut down the business, you better be ready for the unexpected.
THE SOUTHERN FRONT
The MCSO HIDTA officers are soldiers in one of the busiest drug trafficking areas in the country. Land is cheap in places like the Vekol and Freeman valleys because on any given night you’ll have cartel smugglers in your backyard being chased by HIDTA men who you might not ever see. If you do own land in Maricopa County, the best thing you have going for you is Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Arpaio spent 25 years with the US Drug Enforcement Administration and has approached illegal smuggling in his county with an iron fist. His message is clear: Maricopa County is a bad place to traffic drugs. And though the cartels favor the area for its topography and lack of population, men like Lt. Bailey, Sgt. Floyd and dozens of others under Arpaio make smuggling narcotics difficult.
The drug-enforcement efforts of Maricopa County have made substantial progress. The cartels are constantly being forced to change their tactics because of pressure from law enforcement. But the Sheriff’s Office has a long way to go. There’s room for improvement in the tactics, the communication systems, the inter-agency coordination. And they miss a lot smuggled narcotics.
Back on the airstrip, it’s the end of the workday. The armor comes off, and the weapons are stowed. I tell one of the officers that the drug-smuggling situation is far more complex than I had imagined. I also tell him that I think I’ll go to Nogales, Sonora, just over the border to see what the story is on the other side.
“I wouldn’t,” he says. “I got no interest in going to Mexico until the government stops taking payoffs and starts getting serious about controlling crime. Maybe it’s different since I have a wife and kids, but I want no part of Mexico.”
Interesting words, I thought. Better be pretty careful how I go about Stage 2 of my vacation on the US-Mexico border. And I got a feeling it won’t be quite as much fun as hunting dope smugglers in the desert.