As the White House and media spotlights focus on the war on terrorism, another war is quietly being fought on another front: the battle to keep drugs from crossing the Arizona-Mexico border.
Out here, in the middle of over 2,000 hectares of southern Arizona cactus and rattlesnakes, new records are being set in the war on drug smuggling from Mexico. The border is 16 kilometers away and much marijuana traffic passes through the Tohono O'odham Indian Reservation west of Tucson - a 240-kilometer-long line patrolled by customs agents who have confiscated more drugs and arrested more drug smugglers than in any previous year.
Roger Meier, Customs spokesman for the Arizona area, says he's not surprised. "Along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, our drug seizure numbers are up compared to a year ago and we think a lot of this has to do with the heightened anti-terrorism inspections that Customs has been undertaking for a little over a year now," he said. "The overall examination process is much more thorough, involving a lot more scrutiny, and, as a result, we're finding a lot more dope than we did a year ago."
White House estimates indicate nearly half of the $65 billion in narcotics Americans buy each year comes through Mexico...and much of it comes through this reservation. Resident Agent-in-Charge, Rene Andreu, says more than 45,000 kilos of marijuana have been intercepted in his sector of the desert over the past 12 months along a known drug corridor from Mexico. "This allows us to focus our efforts on those areas that bring us back the most result," said Rene Andreu. "The bulk of our seizures here on the Tohono O'odham nation...we're getting them in a 10-mile-wide column from Highway 6 in Sells down to the border. That's where we've been getting most of our drug confiscations, and arrests."
Only a handful of agents patrol a land mass comparable in size to some smaller American states. Agent Andreu says his troops are bringing in a rate of return better than anyone expected. "Eventually, we're going to go into overload. We're going to reach our peak efficiency and we won't be able to exceed a certain magical number," he said. "I don't know where it's at yet, but with the number of personnel we have on board, I can tell you that, per-capita, these officers are out-seizing just about everybody else in the state."
Still, and he admits this only reluctantly - due to limitations on both manpower and equipment, only 10 percent of the marijuana hauled across the border gets intercepted. That means 90 percent still makes its way into the United States. "We're wide open and the chances for success are a lot better," he said. "Do the math. 19 officers, even if we had them all on at the same time, spread out over 150 miles total border, or just the 70 miles of the reservation. That's a lot of miles in a straight line."
Customs agents cover the desert in 4 wheel drive ATVs and pickup trucks, as well as on foot and horseback. And the war against drug smugglers continues to get more sophisticated as the level of technology increases. "We're merging the old techniques, the tracking skills of our Native American trackers, with new technologies," said Agent Andreu. "We've gotten away from horses in favor of all-terrain vehicles that allow us to cover more ground more quickly and efficiently. We have new Global Positioning System devices, night-vision devices, encrypted radios."
But the veteran agent says it's a never-ending game of chase. As soon as law enforcement figures out how to overcome one level of technology, smugglers go to a higher level. "They've also been using night-vision devices, motor homes set up as mobile command posts, complete with scanners, radios, munitions and armor, bulletproof vests, " he said.
As in any war, a combination of variables are needed to ensure success in the battle to keep drugs out -manpower, equipment, time, skill, persistence. Agent Rene Andreu says this war won't be won overnight. "Is this a war that can be won? If we had unlimited resources, oh yeah, we could win it," he said. "We could build a mile-high wall the entire stretch of the Southwest border that would be impervious. With the resources we have now...it's going to be a long battle."
Like the journey of a 1,000 miles, victory in this battle begins with the first step and customs agents take those steps every day along the Mexico-U.S. border.