Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Surprise - Terror War Aids Drug War ; One Arizona Border Unit Sees Marijuana Haul Triple

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Surprise - Terror War Aids Drug War ; One Arizona Border Unit Sees Marijuana Haul Triple

Article excerpt

As Congress and President Bush wrangle over the USA Patriot Act, the Border Security bill, and other tools of the war on terror, they may want to keep another law-enforcement group in mind - the nation's drug-fighters.

That's because the war on terror is proving to be a boon to the war on drugs. Drug seizures are up all along the US-Mexico border. Nowhere is the trend clearer than along a desolate 118-mile patch of Arizona desert across the border from the Mexican state of Sonora.

In what is rapidly becoming one of the highest drug-trafficking and people- smuggling sectors along the border, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers there have seized 13,000 pounds of marijuana since Oct. 1, triple the amount captured in the same period last year. That year, fiscal 2005, also set a record. The reasons for the success? Better intelligence-sharing, increased manpower, and improved technology that border officials have received in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks.

The primary aim for upgrading America's border defenses was to prevent potential terrorists from crossing into the US, either individually or hidden among professional smuggling groups. But a side benefit has been progress for the nation's war on drugs. As the CBP has apprehended greater numbers of people at the nation's southern border, it has also seized larger and larger quantities of drugs.

Arizona accounts for more than half the marijuana seizures in the United States.

"There's a nexus to human smuggling and drug smuggling," says Salvador Zamora, spokesman for the CBP in Washington. "The terrain on the Mexican side is pretty much controlled by one or two organizations, and the human smugglers either smuggle drugs too or pay the drug operators who control that area."

Agencies cooperate on border watch

It's crucial for members of various government agencies - from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), FBI, CBP, as well as state agencies - to cooperate closely on the overlapping border issues, government officials say. That's why there is a Joint Terrorism Task Force, led by the FBI, that pulls them together here in Phoenix.

"We're working with the JTTF in Phoenix," says Steve Robertson, a DEA special agent who once worked the southwest border and is now in Washington. "The DEA has historically been involved in that area for a long while and has built up a network of informants who provide good intelligence."

But at the same time as the US government has built this task force, added border agents and canine teams, and beefed up the infrastructure and technology, drug traffickers are being more innovative. For instance, they've sent groups of illegal immigrants across the border into the US to divert the CBP's attention from a drug shipment, officials say.

Moreover, a violent drug war has erupted between the Gulf and the Sinaloa cartels - the Mexican drug organizations that US officials say are responsible for most of the cross-border smuggling. In fact, officials accuse those cartels of shooting and wounding two border agents this past June on the Arizona-Mexico border.

The two cartels are warring over turf, mainly in the Nuevo Laredo, Texas, area, but their battles are spilling over into Arizona, as are their related criminal activities. …

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