Three hours north, another group of killers hunted drug mules and migrant smugglers in the hills of Santa Cruz County. There was a heavy U.S. response--armored agents and Blackhawk helicopters descended on them near Sonoita. A group of five killers was found three days later--but yet another hit went down close to Pima County.
It was calm for a few weeks; cops started thinking they may have finished the group off. Then the hunters killed again, this time near Green Valley.
Federal agents say the two theaters of murder, one in Sonora, another in Arizona, are not related; the narcos are staying on their side of the border, while opportunistic thugs wreak havoc on the well-worn illegal trails in the desert of the Tumacacori Mountains.
Then again, maybe they are related--tied together by the fact that they exist at all, a corridor of killing stretching from Sinaloa to Sonora and into Arizona.
People familiar with the situation reveal an uncomfortable truth: Years of federal neglect of the Arizona border have compromised the line. Killings are spilling out of control, hit men moving in to fill the gaps left by American law enforcement.
The recent violence started with a power grab, one gang of narco-traffickers overtaking another. Some say it's a settling of accounts coming to pass from two years ago, when someone picked a fight in a little town in southern Sonora, where large narco-cowboys were drinking good Don Julio tequila and packing machine guns. Or, some say, it started in the boardroom of the most powerful drug cartel in the world, south of there, in verdant, seductive, vicious Sinaloa. The trafficking groups reached an agreement; someone had to die for drawing too much heat to the drug-smuggling route.
Whatever the cause, this is the fact: Narco-traffickers have been wiping out cops and cartel figures in Sonora, while rip-off groups from Phoenix and Sinaloa--carrying AK-47s and cell phones--are camping out in the mountains of Southern Arizona searching for loads of illegal immigrants and narcotics like modern-day highwaymen. The Mexicans call them bajadores.
Meanwhile, the United States government--and to a certain extent, the Sonoran government--are putting a positive spin on the murders. The message from the United States: The greedy smugglers are feeling frustrated, turning on each other like starved rats. We're gaining operational control of the border, they say.
In the provincial capital of Hermosillo, Sonora, Gov. Eduardo Bours refers to the Sonora homicides as a "cockroach effect," blaming thugs from other parts of Mexico scattering to Sonora, chased away by an increasing military crackdown in that country.
This is a story about what the government doesn't say--what's left out of the conversation when we talk about border enforcement.
According to the executive summary of the meeting--stamped "Law Enforcement Sensitive" but made available to a reporter--authorities concluded that improved Border Patrol operations have led to the homicides and gunfights that are becoming a way of life in Southern Arizona.
"Trafficking-associated violence is likely to increase in Arizona for several reasons; 1) The United States Border Patrol continues to increase the number of agents in the Tucson Sector; 2) National Guard units from Arizona and other states, conducting several functions, remain detailed to the Arizona/Mexico border; 3) Fencing construction efforts increased along the border; 4) and fixed Border Patrol checkpoint operations have undergone changes.
"Trafficking organizations have begun to feel the 'squeeze' and pressure against their illegal activities. These criminal groups increasingly resort to violent means to conduct smuggling operations," the report states.
The message: The United States has done such a good job of securing the border that smugglers have no choice but to rip each other's loads off.
But a U.S. Justice Department official familiar with the killings in Southern Arizona disagrees with that conclusion.
"I interpret this as belief by the bandidos that it's actually easier to hit on the U.S. side than on the Mexican side," said the official, who spoke to the Tucson Weekly on condition of anonymity. "The closer you get to the border, two things occur: The border is actually erased and becomes a new territory, and mass chaos exists. This is the primary reason that today's trafficking has changed from storing or staging at the border. Instead, it makes its trek north and is immediately crossed, causing problems on our side."
Three of the reported hits this year took place in Santa Cruz County, leaving two drug smugglers dead and as many as 14 migrants and smugglers wounded, reports show. In two other instances, federal Special Response Teams captured a total of seven Sinaloan bandits carrying weapons and cell phones, camping out in the desert and waiting for drug loads to snatch.
"We weren't seeing these things before. Now that (traffic) is in areas where they could just sit and wait, it's easier for these bajadores to be more successful," says Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada.
One new federal border-enforcement strategy in the Tucson Sector is a permanent checkpoint on Interstate 19, a plan the Border Patrol has hungered for since the 1990s. But focusing on urban areas leads to more migrants, more smugglers and more drug mules out in the desert, Estrada says.
"It's going to continue as they keep pushing them further out," Estrada said. "It's having an adverse effect on all the sheriffs' offices."
The murders and rip-offs have scattered throughout Arizona, from Santa Cruz County up to Phoenix. Consider the most recent cases drawn from Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department reports:
Jan. 29: A group of five armed Sinaloans were arrested in a cave near Patagonia, Ariz.
"They had weaponry; they had cell phones. The cell phones we caught from those guys matched the cell phones of the two caught the week before," said Santa Cruz County Lt. Raul Rodriguez.
Jan. 26: Two Sinaloans carrying AK-47s were arrested in Aliso Springs Canyon.
Jan. 15: A group of nine Mexican drug smugglers were shot by bajadores with AK-47s. Two of the drug smugglers die.
Dec. 13, 2006: A Santa Cruz County deputy patrolling near Peck Canyon Road found an illegal immigrant, Jorge Luna. Luna told the deputy his group was shot at, then a man yelled at them to leave the area or they would be killed. Luna and his group hid in the bushes.
A shout in the night as the killers found them again: "So, you don't want to leave, cabrones." More shots; the group scattered. Nobody knows what happened to the rest of the group.
Dec. 10, 2006: Bajadores shot an illegal immigrant an inch below the ribcage. He survived. Jesus Molina and eight others had crossed through Sasabe towards Interstate 19. The smugglers hid in the mountains west of I-19 and found them.
Dec. 6, 2006: Border Patrol agents in a helicopter found an illegal immigrant near Interstate 19 with blood streaming down his leg. He'd been shot in the femur.
Sept. 2, 2006: A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement transport van is shot on Interstate 19.
It was one of three in a convoy. When the agents arrived at Tucson International Airport, they noticed the bullet hole on the cargo bay door, right side.
Then the killings moved north to Pima County:
March 30: Two illegal immigrants were killed southwest of Green Valley. Again, the two men arrested in connection with that killing were from Sinaloa.
A Border Patrol helicopter found their campsite, which was stocked with rifles and night-vision equipment. A group of men ran away as the chopper approached; a third man was later arrested. The suspects told sheriff investigators they were hired in Sinaloa to rip off drug loads, said Sheriff Clarence Dupnik.
Feb. 8: Three illegal immigrants were killed when the bajadores opened fire on their vehicle near Silverbell Mine Road. Fifteen to 20 illegal immigrants were in the vehicle.
And in Pinal County:
Jan. 27: A U.S. resident, David Norris Jr., from Eloy, was killed after a rip-off crew in a white van attacked the load of illegal immigrants in the car he was driving. A 12-year-old boy in the car was shot in the leg. Survivors told investigators three white men and one Hispanic did the shooting. The killers spoke poor Spanish and wore military-style berets and camouflage clothing. Investigators still don't know if Norris was a smuggler.
Finally, these incidents were listed in a report prepared by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and made available to the Tucson Weekly by an agent who attended the meeting:
March 7: Fifteen illegal immigrants were kidnapped at gunpoint after their vehicle was forced off the road near Warner Road in Maricopa County.
Feb. 28: The Phoenix Police Department told ICE two smugglers and 10 illegal immigrants were taken hostage, but were released after paying a fee.
Feb. 20: Two trucks forced a vehicle carrying illegal immigrants off the road in Chandler. Armed men kidnapped the driver and his load of people.
Feb. 19: Twenty-one illegal immigrants were found in a drop house in Maricopa County. They told the ICE agents they were taken by force.
At no time has Arizona had so many federal agents working here. But these agents' focus is on operations, with few resources thrown to intelligence. The federal agencies don't understand what is happening. The tendency is to react only to events they know about, not seeing the storm moving in, experts say.
Strong in divisions, Humvees, mountain bikes and horse patrols, the U.S. Border Patrol has more than doubled the number of agents in the Tucson Sector since 1999, said Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar, speaking at a town-hall meeting sponsored by Democrat Gabrielle Giffords in Sahuarita on April 3. The agency's Tucson Sector now has more than 2,600 agents.
The Border Patrol reports a 14 percent drop in apprehensions compared to last year--about 25 percent less than two years ago. But those numbers are misleading, because they don't show how many people attempted to cross, only how many arrests were made. The same person can be arrested 10 times, accounting for 10 arrests.
"They don't track the number of actual crossers. There's really no will to do that, because it would just alarm the American public," says T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, the agency's union.
Meanwhile, the Drug Enforcement Administration, whose agents gather intelligence from south of the border--putting two and two together when executions go down and coordinating with Mexican law enforcement--has been cut back.
Consider this bit of news from the DEA's own Web site:
"The Drug Enforcement Administration is currently experiencing a hiring freeze for all positions. As a result, DEA is not accepting applications for Special Agent positions at this time. It is not presently known when the freeze will be lifted. It is anticipated, however that the freeze, which began August 11, 2006, will last over a year and possibly until sometime in 2008."
The FBI, which also places agents along the border to investigate narco-trafficking and government corruption, had to limit its hirings and recruitings through January, until Congress passed its 2007 budget and allocated funds to the agency.
"There's a problem here," says Michael Vigil, former international operations chief for the DEA and a former agent in Hermosillo. "Intelligence drives operations, and without that intel, you're missing interdictions; you're not coordinating with Mexican law enforcement; and you can't build that broad platform you need to conduct successful operations."
Beltrán Leyva is the little-known boss of the Sinaloa Federation, that conglomerate of narco-trafficking figures that includes Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán and Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada. The federation and the Gulf Cartel have been embroiled in a war since 2003.
That drug war has encompassed most of the Mexico border states, as well as Guerrero and Michoacán. Sonora, by longstanding agreement amongst the Sinaloa drug lords, was left alone--until now.
"La Barbie," Edgar Valdez Villarreal, is Beltran Leyva's Texan hit man. A three-year-old indictment sits in U.S. District Court for Valdez; he's wanted on suspicion of marijuana smuggling. Since the indictment, he's taken to Mexico, where he heads a group of hit men.
Publicly, the Sonoran Attorney General's Office says the note was unsigned, anonymous. But homicide investigators tell the Tucson Weekly it contained at least 10 names of police officers throughout Sonora who were targeted for execution, and that it was signed by a wanted fugitive, Francisco Hernandez Garcia, aka "El Dos Mil," who rose to power by eliminating the established Sonoran narco-families.
"He terrified the police, and that is not easily done," says a lawyer with the Mexican Federal Attorney General's Office in Hermosillo, who asked that his name not be used, because he's not allowed to speak to the media.
The connections between the families are tenuous even during the best of times. Hernandez engineered a coup of sorts, betraying the Enriquez Parra family and taking over the Sonora-Arizona drug corridors.
The Enriquez family called themselves Los Numeros, The Numbers.
According to a report written by the political espionage arm of the Mexican government, the Center for Investigations and National Security, Los Numeros was the go-to gang for drug trafficking into Arizona. In 2002, they killed an Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument ranger, Kris Eggle, while trying to escape Sonoran police.
A narco-corrido describes them better:
Poncho came from Jalisco,
The others came from Sonora,
The Nine, the Seven and the Ten,
and Chapo, they no reign.
But the Enriquez brothers are mostly dead now. Their last strongman, Wenceslao Terán, "El 24," was the last to go, shot six times with an AK-47 on March 10.
"He hired eight assassins from Tamaulipas, to conduct the killings," the federal lawyer said. They were Zetas, deserters from Mexican army Special Forces, the hired killers of the Gulf Cartel.
Drawn from Sonora State Police reports:
March 22: Federal Preventive Police officer Gustavo Vega Rendón was gunned down in Cananea. He was transported to Tucson, where he died a week later.
March 21: Federal Preventive Police officer Jorge Luis Borquez Garcia is killed in his Grand Cherokee in Hermosillo.
March 12: Two agents from the Federal Investigations Agency (the Mexican FBI equivalent), loaded up with cocaine, are arrested after they fire on a police station in Hermosillo. City cops arrested them along with a hired strongman and five hookers. But a federal judge dropped the charges against the federal agents. He gave no reason.
March 10: Police officer Nelson Nicolás Chacón Martínez was found strangled in Hermosillo.
March 6: Police officer Hero Arturo Gálvez Acosta was found with a note nailed to his chest in Hermosillo.
March 6: Federal Preventive Police officer Aldo Guzmán Palafox was gunned down while driving through Cananea.
March 5: A state police officer, Héctor Castelo Arenas, was killed at point-blank range in the parking lot of the prosecutor's office in downtown Hermosillo. More than a month would pass before state investigators admitted the killer was a deserter from the Mexican army's Special Forces.
March 2: State police officer Raúl Bojórquez was executed as he drove through Hermosillo.
Feb. 28: A group of hit men killed off-duty federal Preventive Police officer Miguel Ángel Mora in Magdalena de Kino.
Feb. 26: A group used 10 cop-killer bullets to execute Agua Prieta Police chief Ramón Tacho Verdugo outside his office.
Feb. 8: A city cop, César Ernesto Domínguez, and a former cop, Iván Valenzuela Córdova, were found with gunshot wounds to the head in Caborca.
It's tough being a cop in Sonora these days.
Semi-trucks rumbled past a rest stop on Highway 15, near Guaymas, Sonora, their jake-brakes groaning as they gathered speed, heading north with goods bound for the United States. The smell of smoldering carne asada lingered in the humid, late-March air.
Carlos Maytorena, a police officer in nearby Empalme for five years, was a little worried but nonchalant about his fears, he says, explaining the life of a Mexican cop.
"If you don't get involved, you have nothing to worry about, but man, is it stressful."
Shortly after the note appeared on the cop's chest in Hermosillo, his police department got a call.
"They said, 'We're coming for two of you fuckers. You know who you are,'" he said. The next day, all the bulletproof vests were gone. Seven cops have already resigned from his police department--fleeing, some to the United States, he said.
His 12-year-old daughter started asking him to quit his job, and sometimes, he thinks his old Pepsi-Cola delivery gig wasn't so bad. It paid less, but "you sure didn't face these problems," he said.
The state government has minimized the violence.
In Hermosillo, the governor has been critical of media reports tying all the killings together into a pattern of violence. Even Gov. Janet Napolitano entered the fray last month when, fresh from her trip to Iraq, she appeared at a horseback ride put on by Gov. Bours.
The beefed-up security, including the helicopters overhead during the cabalgata, had nothing to do with the cop killings or the threats, Bours told Hermosillo newspaper El Imparcial. Rather, they were there to ensure Napolitano's security, he said.
"We have a responsibility to her and to the state of Arizona to take care of her and protect her," he said.
José Larrinaga, spokesman for the Sonoran Attorney General's Office says the media reports of a "wave of violence" in the state are inaccurate. Some of those killings were not related to organized crime, he said. He referred to two particularly gruesome homicides in Hermosillo this month where the victims were decapitated.
"Those killings were related to local narcotics distributors and had nothing to do with the murders of those police officers," he said.
The execution of Agua Prieta police chief Tacho in February remains a mystery.
"Sometime before he was killed, Tacho approached the Douglas Police Department trying to reach out to the FBI," said a DEA agent, speaking on condition of anonymity. "He had information to give them, but we don't know what it was."
Port inspectors arrested his brother, Roberto, four days later, at the Naco port of entry, carrying 59 pounds of marijuana. His wife and children were in the car with him. He was chief of police in neighboring Naco until Feb. 1, when he resigned for personal reasons.
The job of police chief in Naco isn't very popular. His was the 10th resignation in the past three years.
Agua Prieta Mayor Antonio Cuadras doesn't have much to offer on the murder of his police chief. He said he has no idea who killed Tacho or why. He adds that state prosecutors advised him against hiring Tacho as police chief last September, but they wouldn't tell him why.
But there's little to worry about in this city, he says.
"We have been recognized as the safest border in Sonora, and that is according to two sessions of the Sonora-Arizona Commission," he said.
"We are moving at unprecedented rates of resourcing the border. We are resourcing; we are adding personnel, tactical infrastructure and technology at unprecedented rates," Border Patrol Chief Aguilar told a room full of residents.
"Now the reason that this is not happening fast enough--and I'll be very frank with you on this, as I have been on (Capitol) Hill before--is that this border was ignored for a long time by this country--for a long time it was ignored. So it's going to take us a while to be where we need to be."
Whether it's a permanent checkpoint on Interstate 19, National Guard soldiers on the border, or the $2 billion SBInet--Homeland Security's plan to put a virtual wall on the border west of Sasabe--the consensus in the government is that there is a plan to secure the border.
He ticked off the other goals and needs: 2,500 new agents this year, 3,000 the next and 500 by then end of 2008, doubling the size of the Border Patrol's 2001 ranks. More walls, checkpoints and vehicle barriers were promised.
Then the stats were given, those gems of every press conference:
• 182,000 apprehensions in Tucson sector.
• 500,000 pounds of marijuana seized.
• 42 percent of all arrests made along the border happen here.
Aguilar and the other Border Patrol officials focused their presentation on their mountain bikes in Nogales, a rancher liaison unit, "strategic" trucks parked in the highway medians, remote video surveillance systems in Cochise County, SBInet, with its 28 miles of testing ground near Sasabe.
Rich Bohman, a builder in the area, supports the Border Patrol's mission "100 percent." But even he's watching with some skepticism. Ever since the checkpoint was placed at a permanent locale, the early-morning riser has seen a new smuggling trend:
"They're dropping them off south of the checkpoint, in Tubac, Aliso Springs, whatever, and picking them up on the other side," he said.
The killings were barely mentioned even when residents tried to bring them up.
Tubac resident Ann Groves remained unimpressed. Her family has been in Arizona since 1890, and she walked out of the meeting frustrated by the agency's skirting the immediate issue.
"They're saying that it's better now. It is not better," she said. "This is all like a recruiting session for Border Patrol agents. I think that this meeting today should have been pinpointing the complaints of the residents here instead of the broad picture. We need attention now."
Meanwhile, the violence continues.
Last Sunday (April 15), two hand grenades were thrown at the offices of the State Preventive Police in Hermosillo, officials said.
Then, just after midnight Tuesday morning, April 17, a newspaper reporter, Saul Noé Martinez, was kidnapped by a group of men carrying AK-47s. Martinez worked for Interdiario, a semimonthly newspaper in Agua Prieta.
Martinez reportedly ran into a police station for help. Two men came in after him and dragged him away. Police found 230 grams of uncut cocaine and 27 9 mm rounds in his 1995 Chevrolet Suburban, Larrinaga said.