Mexican drug war spilling into US

by Scott Seckel, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Mar 08 2009 05:22 PM | Updated as of Mar 09 2009 01:23 AM

PHOENIX - Homes are being invaded by gunmen, people raped and tortured, and bodies dumped in the Arizona desert as violence from the Mexican drug wars spills into the American Southwest.

Illegal immigration and drug smuggling have always been issues in this border state, but warring Mexican cartels are carrying violence to levels that have shocked law enforcement and government officials.

"It's definitely being ramped up beyond anything we've ever seen before," Arizona state Senator Jonathan Paton told AFP.

"The violence in terms of kidnapping, home invasions, and assassinations here has increased. We see the violence flowing from Mexico into the US and we're seeing we have to take different steps."

Last month the body of a man who had been tortured, shot, and wrapped in duct tape like a mummy was dumped in Arizona.

"We're seeing these more public statement body dumps like you see in Mexico," Paton said. "You're seeing those visible messages like a fish in a newspaper more and more.

"That message isn't meant for you or me, but it's meant for people who are breaking the law."

There are more than 1,000 safehouses used to corral illegal immigrants after they are smuggled into the country at any given time in Phoenix, according to Lieutenant James Warriner of the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

Illegal immigrants are taken to so-called drop houses, stripped naked, blindfolded, and held for ransom. If they're naked, there is less chance of them fleeing. A bucket in the room serves as a toilet.

"Next door in the other room is the torture/rape room," Paton said. "They say, 'Hey we need another 2,000 dollars or we're going to torture and rape so-and-so.'"

Arizona state police have found 30 to 40 people crammed into rooms the size of a child's bedroom. Paton recently visited one in a Phoenix neighborhood.

"It was the only place on the block with barbed wire around it," he said. "It's evil. There is no real focus on this. This is modern-day slavery of terrible proportions."

Home invasions and kidnappings are so prevalent now that the Phoenix Police Department has formed a special squad just to deal with them.

Men hired by the Sinaloa drug cartel -- the most active in Arizona -- wearing body armor and tactical gear identical to American SWAT teams kick in doors, zip-cuff the inhabitants, then kill them.

Several bodies were dumped in the western Phoenix suburb of Buckeye last year, according to Warriner.

"It's pretty alarming and pretty scary," he said. "The homicides in some cases it seems there's no concern for the human aspect."

The cartel weapons of choice are Belgian FN rifles, although they are also armed with South Korean rocket-propelled grenades, American AR-15 rifles, and armor-piercing bullets, authorities say.

There are signs the drug cartels are sponsoring human smuggling, Warriner said. "It's all related to money," he said.

Local, state and federal agencies are fighting back.

"We had several major operations in December that we feel exemplify the type of law enforcement needed to choke cartels and prevent spillover violence," said Anne Hilby, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Attorney General's office.

A drug smuggling cartel, a violent street gang, and a human trafficking ring were shut down and 188 people indicted after months of work.

Operation Tumbleweed, a year-long multi-agency investigation by 85 officers, gave an insight into the remarkably sophisticated and well-planned smuggling operations of the drug cartels.

The Garibaldi-Lopez organization brought more than two million pounds (910,000 kilograms) of marijuana into the United States, with a street value of one billion dollars.

The traffickers loaded heavy-duty trucks with marijuana in Mexico and drove them across the desert into Arizona at night.

The drivers wore night-vision goggles to drive without headlights, and the trucks carried camouflage netting to conceal themselves from the air.

Scouts spent weeks at a time on mountain ridges, supplied with food and water by coordinators, using radios to warn drivers when to stop and when to proceed.

Once well into Arizona, the loads of marijuana would be broken down into smaller shipments and transferred to sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks, then driven to stash houses in metropolitan Phoenix.