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Arizona: Now Focal Point in Drug Trafficking

April 17, 1989

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) _ About a mile south of the tiny Tohono O’odham Indian village of San Miguel, a pickup truck crossed from Mexico through an open gate in the barbed wire that constitutes the international border.

The truck, carrying 500 pounds of cocaine, started along a winding, dirt road known as Indian Route 19. It then headed north for Tucson and to major U.S. cities for distribution.

As the truck continued its journey, two U.S. Customs agents, both Tohono O’odham Indians, popped onto the road in a four-wheel-drive vehicle and chased it.

U.S. agents took a .357-caliber Magnum, the $45 million cocaine cache and the truck and charged 21-year-old Francisco Lopez Loya of Chihuahua, Mexico, with conspiracy and other offenses.

The March 23 arrest was similar to one played out almost daily as federal, state and local law enforcement officers fight a narcotics flood pouring across the border.

The 360-mile-long Arizona border has become the latest chessboard in the deadly game of drug trafficking, primarily because of the success of anti-drug task forces in southern Florida.

″We have seen a tremendous increase in the amount of drugs coming into Arizona from Mexico,″ said David S. Wood, chief agent for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Phoenix. ″We’re able in many instances to trace it directly back to Colombia.″

Wood said Arizona offers a variety of advantages to traffickers.

″It’s a very porous border and then there is the human connection because of family contacts″ on both sides that ″makes it an ideal situation for the smuggler,″ he said.

Other factors include the rugged terrain and sparse border population - only Douglas, Nogales and San Luis have populations of more than 1,000; and the logistics - one major Mexican highway runs 25 yards south of the border.

″They can throw a package over the fence, and it’s in this country,″ Wood said.

An unprecedented rash of violence has accompanied the new drug trade, authorities said.

During the last three weeks, the bodies of five men, bound, tortured and stabbed, were found in a Tucson shed; and in Agua Prieta, Mexico, about 125 miles southeast of Tucson, the bodies of nine men and three women were discovered similarly bound, tortured, mutilated and shot. All had been dumped in a well or covered with lime in a septic tank.

Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said the Tucson and Agua Prieta slayings ″are directly connected, with the same persons responsible.″

They have been characteristic of some of those of the notorious Colombian Medillin cartel, said Thomas A. McDermott, the head U.S. Customs Service agent in Arizona. ″We’ve seen that sort of brutality in south Florida.″

Authorities have not drawn any connection between the slayings and the mutilations of 15 people near Matamoros, Mexico.

The increased volume in drug trafficking and violence prompted Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., to vow last week to press Congress to fund the remaining $1.9 billion promised in last year’s omnibus drug bill. ″I’m prepared to raise taxes″ and to cut other programs, he said.

Border Patrol chief agent Ronald Dowdy, whose sector includes most of the Arizona border, said his agents seized 85,000 pounds of marijuana in fiscal 1988. ″To date, we have exceeded 107,000 pounds for fiscal ’89, which began Oct. 1,″ he said recently.

McDermott said the step-up in violence was anticipated as cocaine seizures in Arizona soared from 100 pounds in 1985 to almost 10,000 pounds a year currently.

Larry Bagley, FBI special agent in charge in Tucson, said his office now routinely gets numerous drug-related queries weekly from Chicago, Philadelphia, Columbus, Ohio, and elsewhere on cases that ″all lead back to Tucson as the focal point, the funnel from which the supply is coming. It’s not so much Florida any more but Tucson, Arizona. This is the distribution center.″

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