Home Invasions and Kidnappings from the Mexican Drug War Explode into the U.S.
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 scenes.
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. officials said.
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 was continuing.
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.”