Mexican Drug Cartel Violence Spills Over, Alarming U.S.
Police officers with the victims of a recent Tucson home invasion, one of
more than 200 in the city in the last year
TUCSON — Sgt. David Azuelo stepped gingerly over the specks of blood on the floor, took note
of the bullet hole through the bedroom skylight, raised an eyebrow at the lack of furniture in
the ranch-style house and turned to his squad of detectives investigating one of the latest home
invasions in this southern Arizona city.
A 21-year-old man had been pistol-whipped throughout the house, the gun discharging at one
point, as the attackers demanded money, the victim reported. His wife had been bathing their
3-month-old son when the intruders arrived.
“At least they didn’t put the gun in the baby’s mouth like we’ve seen before,” Sergeant Azuelo
said. That same afternoon this month, his squad was called to the scene of another home invasion,
one involving the abduction of a 14-year-old boy.
This city, an hour’s drive north of the Mexican border, is coping with a wave of drug crime the police
suspect is tied to the bloody battles between Mexico’s drug cartels and the efforts to stamp them out.
Since officials here formed a special squad last year to deal with home invasions, they have counted
more than 200 of them, with more than three-quarters linked to the drug trade. In one case, the
intruders burst into the wrong house, shooting and injuring a woman watching television on her
couch. In another, in a nearby suburb, a man the police described as a drug dealer was taken from
his home at gunpoint and is still missing.
Tucson is hardly alone in feeling the impact of Mexico’s drug cartels and their trade. In the past few
years, the cartels and other drug trafficking organizations have extended their reach across the
United States and into Canada. Law enforcement authorities say they believe traffickers distributing
the cartels’ marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs are responsible for a rash
of shootings in Vancouver, British Columbia, kidnappings in Phoenix, brutal assaults in Birmingham,
Ala., and much more.
United States law enforcement officials have identified 230 cities, including Anchorage, Atlanta,
Boston and Billings, Mont., where Mexican cartels and their affiliates “maintain drug distribution
networks or supply drugs to distributors,” as a Justice Department report put it in December. The
figure rose from 100 cities reported three years earlier, though Justice Department officials said
that may be because of better data collection methods as well as the spread of the organizations.
Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has asked for National Guard troops at the border. The Obama
administration is completing plans to add federal agents along the border, a senior White House
official said, but does not anticipate deploying soldiers.
The official said enhanced security measures would include increased use of equipment at the
ports of entry to detect weapons carried in cars crossing into Mexico from the United States, and
more collaboration with Mexican law enforcement officers to trace weapons seized from crime
Law enforcement officials on both sides of the border agree that the United States is the source
for most of the guns used in the violent drug cartel war in Mexico. “The key thing is to keep
improving on our interdiction of the weapons before they even get in there,” said Janet Napolitano,
the secretary of homeland security and the former governor of Arizona, who will be testifying
before Congress on Wednesday.
Sergeant Azuelo quickly began to suspect that the pistol whipping he was investigating was linked
to a drug dispute. Within minutes, his detectives had found a blood-spattered scale, marijuana buds
and leaves and a bundle of cellophane wrap used in packing marijuana.
Most often, police officials say, the invasions result from an unpaid debt, sometimes involving as
little as a few thousand dollars. But simple greed can be at work, too: one set of criminals learns
of a drug load, then “rips” it and sells it.
“The amount of violence has drastically increased in the last 6 to 12 months, especially in the area
of home invasions, “ said Lt. Michael O’Connor of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department here. “The
people we have arrested, a high percentage are from Mexico.”
The violence in the United States does not compare with what is happening in Mexico, where the
cartels have been thriving for years. Forbes recently listed one of Mexico’s most notorious kingpins,
Joaquin Guzmán, on its list of the world’s billionaires. (No. 701, out of 793, with a fortune worth $1
billion, the magazine said.)
But a crackdown begun more than two years ago by President Felipe Calderón, coupled with feuds
over turf and control of the organizations, has set off an unprecedented wave of killings in Mexico.
More than 7,000 people, most of them connected to the drug trade or law enforcement, have died
since January 2008. Many of the victims were tortured. Beheadings have become common.
At times, the police have been overwhelmed by the sheer firepower in the hands of drug traffickers,
who have armed themselves with assault rifles and even grenades. Although overall violent crime
has dropped in several cities on or near the border — Tucson is an exception, reporting a rise in
homicides and other serious crime last year — Arizona appears to be bearing the brunt of
smuggling-related violence. Some 60 percent of illicit drugs found in the United States — principally
cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine — entered through the border in this state.
The city’s home-invasion squad, a sergeant and five detectives working nearly around the clock, was
organized in April. Phoenix assembled a similar unit in September to investigate kidnappings related
to drug and human smuggling. In the last two years, the city has recorded some 700 cases, some
involving people held against their will in stash houses and others abducted.
The state police also have a new human-smuggling squad that focuses on the proliferation of drop
houses, where migrants are kept and often beaten and raped until they pay ever-escalating smuggling
fees. “Five years ago a home invasion was almost unheard of,” said Assistant Chief Roberto Villaseñor
of the Tucson Police Department. “It was rare.”
Web of Crime
Tying the street-level violence in the United States to the cartels is difficult, law enforcement experts
say, because the cartels typically distribute their illicit goods through a murky network of regional and
local cells made up of Mexican immigrants and United States citizens who send cash and guns to
Mexico through an elaborate chain.
The cartels “may have 10 cells in Chicago, and they may not even know each other,” said Michael
Braun, a former chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Elizabeth W. Kempshall, who is in charge of the drug agency’s office in Phoenix, said the kind of open
warfare in some Mexican border towns — where some Mexican soldiers patrol in masks so they will
not be recognized later — has not spilled over into the United States in part because the cartels do not
want to risk a response from law enforcement here that would disrupt their business. But Mrs.
Kempshall and other experts said the havoc on the Mexican side of the border might be having an
impact on the drug trade here, contributing to “trafficker on trafficker” violence.
For one thing, they say, the war on the Mexican side and the new border enforcement are disrupting
the flow of illicit drugs arriving in the United States. The price of cocaine, for instance, a barometer
of sorts for the supply available, has surged. With drugs in tighter supply, drug bosses here and in
Mexico take a much harder line when debts are owed or drugs are stolen or confiscated, D.E.A.
Although much of the violence is against people involved in the drug trade, law enforcement
authorities said such crime should not be viewed as a “self-cleaning oven,” as one investigator put it,
because of the danger it poses to the innocent. It has also put a strain on local departments.
Several hours after Sergeant Azuelo investigated the home invasion involving the pistol whipping, his
squad was called to one blocks away. This time, the intruders ransacked the house before taking a
14-year-old boy captive. Gang investigators recognized the house as having a previous association
with a street gang suspected of involvement in drug dealing.
The invaders demanded drugs and $10,000, and took the boy to make their point. He was released
within the hour, though the family told investigators it had not paid a ransom. “You don’t know
anybody who is going to pay that money?” the boy said his abductors kept asking him. The boy,
showing the nonchalance of his age, shrugged off his ordeal. “No, I’m not scared,” he said after
being questioned by detectives, who asked that his name not be used because the investigation
Not all the problems are along the border. The Atlanta area, long a transportation hub for legitimate
commerce, has emerged as a new staging ground for drug traffickers taking advantage of its web of
freeways and blending in with the wave of Mexican immigrants who have flocked to work there in
the past decade.
Last August, in one of the grislier cases in the South, the police in Shelby County, Ala., just outside
Birmingham, found the bodies of five men with their throats cut. It is believed they were killed over
a $450,000 debt owed to another drug trafficking faction in Atlanta.
The spread of the Mexican cartels, longtime distributors of marijuana, has coincided with their taking
over cocaine distribution from Colombian cartels. Those cartels suffered setbacks when American
authorities curtailed their trading routes through the Caribbean and South Florida. Since then, the
Colombians have forged alliances with Mexican cartels to move cocaine, which is still largely produced
in South America, through Mexico and into the United States.
The Mexicans have also taken over much of the methamphetamine business, producing the drug in
“super labs” in Mexico. The number of labs in the United States has been on the decline. While the
cartel networks have spread across the United States, the border areas remain the most worrisome.
At the scene of the pistol-whipping here, Sergeant Azuelo and his team methodically investigated.
Their suspicions grew as they walked through the house and noticed things that seemed familiar to
them from stash houses they had encountered: a large back room whose size and proximity to an
alley seemed well-suited to bundling marijuana, the wife of the victim reporting that they had no
bank accounts and dealt with everything in cash, the victim’s father saying over and over that his
son was “no saint” and describing his son’s addiction problems with prescription drugs.
A digital scale with blood on it was found in a truck bed on the driveway, raising suspicion among
the detectives that the victim was trying to hide it. The house, the wife told them, had been invaded
about a month ago, but the attackers left empty-handed. She did not call the police then, she said,
because nothing was taken. Finally, they saw the cellophane wrap and drug paraphernalia and
obtained a search warrant to go through the house more meticulously.
The attackers “were not very sophisticated,” Sergeant Azuelo said, but they somehow knew what
might be in the house. “For me, the question is how much they got away with,” he said. “The family
may never tell.”
All in all, Sergeant Azuelo said, it was a run-of-the-mill call in a week that would include at least
three other such robberies. “I think this is the tip of the iceberg,” Detective Kris Bollingmo said as
he shined a light through the garage. “The problem is only going to get worse.”
“We are,” Sergeant Azuelo added, “keeping the finger in the dike.”