How Mexican cartels get drugs across the border

Marijuana seized from the Mexican DTO (Drug Trafficking Organization) Roberto Hernandez led.

Kai Ryssdal: There's a certain logistical rhythm to the way illegal drugs get into this country. They're made, grown or mixed, and brought to the U.S.-Mexican border. Smugglers get 'em across into the Southwestern part of the United States. Law enforcement tries, sometimes succeeds, but often fails to stop them. And so illegal drugs are a multi-hundred-billion-dollar a year business.

Today we begin a three-part series, "The Drug War at Home," from Fronteras, a regional public radio reporting project in the Southwest. Devin Browne takes us to one particular drug route.


Devin Browne: Roberto Hernandez is in prison, and he will be until 2019. But two years ago, he ran a complex drug trafficking organization in southern Arizona, out of a town most locals pronounce "Cassa Grand." His organization did two things -- one, move drugs north to Phoenix, and two, move money south to Mexico. Detectives with the Pinal County Sheriff's Office learned this through a wiretap in 2009. They estimate that at any given time, Hernandez had between 50 and 100 people working for him.

Ray Hinojos: The stash house workers, the actual load drivers, the people who are looking out for vehicles, somebody to buy supplies... The list goes on.

This is detective Ray Hinojos with the Pinal County Narcotics Task Force, driving me along the same roads Hernandez's smugglers used, retracing their routes, which were always through the Tohono O'Odham Indian Reservation, a 5,000 square mile stretch of land on the border. Hernandez's chain began with backpackers -- men, usually Mexican nationals -- recruited to walk for as many as 10 days through the desert with 40 to 100 pounds of marijuana strapped to their backs. Their destination? What the detectives call a "lay-up" -- a little spot just off the interstate where the backpackers would radio in their mile marker and wait for a load driver who would...

Hinojos: Pull right up, stop, pop the trunk, throw two or three backpacks in and we're gone. And then a couple of hours, maybe a little later, another vehicle would come, get the bodies, once they saw that the dope or whatever got off OK and everything's all right.

Meanwhile, the drugs headed to Casa Grande. Scouts and look-outs, on mountain-tops and in vacant houses, made sure that the drivers took the right route.

Hinojos: They'll get up to a high enough vantage point and then that's when they're going to tell either the desert people, OK, it's cool to get on the highway or get on the road. Or you know what, stop, stop, stop.


A smuggler's route. (Illustration by Devin Bronwe)

It is time-intensive and expensive to move drugs. The sheriff's office estimates drug trafficking organizations spend $100 for every pound of marijuana they move from the border through Casa Grande to Phoenix. During peak season, Hernandez was moving 1,000 pounds every week, bringing in about $500 for every pound of pot sold on the street.

Hinojos: There's actually lot of money being spent, but if there wasn't that much money to be made, where would they be?

Well eventually, they went to jail. Law enforcement arrested Hernandez and 32 others in October of 2009 and seized nearly $30 million worth of cars, houses, weapons, and cash. Later, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu told reporters at a press conference that this was a great victory.

Paul Babeu: This actually crippled an entire transportation network, bringing drugs from Mexico up through the Tohono O'odham Indian Nation into Pinal County.

But Hernandez's drug trafficking organization -- or DTO -- was just one of many that moved drugs for the Sinaloa Cartel, which controls this area of the border.

Again, Ray Hinojos.

Hinojos: They're not just entrusting one DTO to move their shipment, they're liable to have 10 of them. Ten DTOs and nobody knows about each other. So that way, if one's not doing a good job, I can start pushing more weight over this way for this one who is doing a good job.

So with one drug trafficking organization dismantled, another will now just take on that supply and move it north. Currently, the Pinal County Sheriff's Office says it has several more traffickers under investigation.

In Phoenix, I'm Devin Browne for Marketplace.


Ryssdal: Tomorrow, the economics of smuggling drugs along our Interstate highway system and into this country's big cities.

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