Category Archives: Crime

Specter of cartel-made opioid rears head in Arizona

Reuven Shorr with a photo of himself and his younger brother Ezra as kids in Tucson. Ezra died of a mixed-drug overdose, which included fentanyl, in November 2014. Photo by Ron Medvescek/Arizona Daily Star.

A strong synthetic opioid made by the Sinaloa cartel is increasingly making its way through Arizona, and officials fear a rise in drug-related deaths will follow.

The strongest opioid available in medical treatment, pharmaceutical fentanyl, is used to treat severe pain and is usually administered through a patch. The euphoria-inducing drug is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and up to 100 times more potent than morphine.

Over the last couple of years, more than 700 people have died of fentanyl abuse in the United States, but the real number is likely higher because many state labs and coroner’s offices do not routinely test for fentanyl. Most deaths are attributed to the illegally manufactured version of the drug.

Since 2015, law enforcement agencies in Arizona have made at least five seizures of fentanyl — ranging from 4 ounces to 16 pounds — found inside stash houses and vehicles.

There are about 500,000 potential lethal doses of fentanyl in about 2 pounds, the Drug Enforcement Administration calculates. The equivalent to three grains of salt can be lethal to someone with a low tolerance.

“Fentanyl can put people to sleep to the point they can stop breathing,” said Greg Hess, chief medical examiner in Pima County. “Because fentanyl is more potent, the window or margin of error might be less for someone not as experienced.”

Only a small amount is needed of the illegal powder fentanyl cartels make to mix with heroin to make it stronger. Nationwide, persons dying from fentanyl are mostly heroin users exposed to fentanyl without knowing it.

There is no state data on fentanyl-related deaths, but the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner reported an increase from seven overdose deaths where fentanyl was listed as a contributing factor in 2014 to 17 last year.

“But what it means in the larger scheme of things, I don’t know,” said Hess.

The numbers include all overdose cases from Cochise, Santa Cruz and Pinal counties and additional cases from eight other counties.

During this time, there were only two deaths where combined heroin and fentanyl toxicity was listed as the cause of death. Medical examiners can’t distinguish between the pharmaceutical fentanyl and the illegally manufactured fentanyl smuggled through the U.S.-Mexico border.

But as the seizures continue, officials said it’s only a matter of time before the potentially deadly fentanyl-laced heroin makes its way here.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.

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Rare cross-border drug raid leaves 2 dead, 22 in custody

Two people were killed and 22 suspected members of the Sinaloa Cartel were arrested during what is believed to be an unprecedented cross-border law enforcement operation in Sonora, officials say.

Mexican officials had been investigating a stash house that was used for drugs and people in a rural area of the border town of Sonoyta, Sonora. The town is across the border from Lukeville, the popular border crossing used to reach the beach town of Puerto Penasco.

On Friday, Mexican federal officers raided the property, resulting in a shootout with armed men guarding the property.

The names of those killed and those arrested have not been provided, but U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said over the weekend that those arrested were in the custody of the Mexican government. American officials were to seek extradition of individuals facing criminal charges here.

Mexican law enforcement staged for the operation in Lukeville with the assistance of U.S. law enforcement agencies, which some call a first.

“I’ve been living here for 15 years, and there’s no precedent for a mega-operation, even less so of a binational one,” said Hugo Regalado, Sonoyta’s city manager. He said city officials have been talking with long-time Sonoyta residents and no one remembers seeing anything like it before.

The operation, dubbed Diablo Express, involved about 15 to 20 Mexican federal police vehicles and four or five helicopters, Regalado said.

The city awaits specific information about the operation, he said, noting that local government was not notified before the raid.

While the cross-border cooperation is unusual here, a 2011 report by The New York Times noted that the Obama administration was allowing the Mexican police to stage for drug raids from inside the United States.

During the rare operations, the New York Times said, Mexican commandos assembled in designated areas in the United States and dispatched helicopter missions back across the border aimed at suspected drug traffickers. That is what has been described in Friday’s raid that launched from Lukeville.

Tony Coulson, who retired as the agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Tucson office in 2010, said he had never seen anything like it.

“I’ve never heard of anything like this, where armed Mexican police is brought to this side to actually stage an operation into Mexico,” he said.

In Friday’s raid, authorities confiscated 15 assault weapons, three handguns and more than 500 pounds of marijuana. Coulson said the drugs and weapons are far less important than who they arrested.

“You want to get at the highest level of who controls that corridor in order to totally disrupt and dismantle that group,” he said. “Your whole goal of an operation like that is to get key lieutenants who run the command and control the infrastructure of that area or group.”

Sonoyta is strategically important for the trafficking of drugs into Southern California, Coulson said.

“The corridor from Rocky Point to Sonoyta is a critical part of whoever controls the Baja California and Tijuana plaza,” he said.

The Sinaloa Cartel is one of world’s most notorious drug-trafficking rings.

Escape’s impact on Sonora is uncertain

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman’s escape from prison might lead to more instability within the Sinaloa Cartel, but its effect on Sonora, is still unknown, officials said.

“Some of the up-and-comers may have maneuvered themselves into better positions while he was away,” said Erica Curry, a Phoenix spokeswoman with the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“We are anticipating that El Chapo with his people may reassert his influence,” she said. That might lead to resistance from those who had positioned themselves in leadership roles.

The Sinaloa Cartel has decentralized over the past few years, leading to sporadic, violent power struggles between plaza bosses in northern Sonora.

So far this year, dozens of people, mostly believed to be associated with organized crime, have been killed in the Sonoyta and Caborca regions, across the border from Lukeville, Ariz., due to fighting between cells of the Sinaloa cartel known as Los Memos and Los Salazar.

“It will be interesting to see if that (violence) increases as different factions of the cartels, the lower level members are fighting out there and how they aligned themselves with El Chapo’s return,” Curry said.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.

Police commander in violence-plagued Sonoyta killed

During the first two weeks of December 2014, the Mexico’s attorney office in Sonora burned about 44,000 tons of marijuana, 156 pounds of methamphetamine, 12 pounds of heroin, about 26 pounds of cocaine, 30 pounds of marijuana seeds and and about one gallon of meth in liquid form. The drugs had been previously seized in the municipalities of Cajeme, Hermosillo, Sonoyta, Nogales, Agua Prieta and San Luis Río Colorado. Photo courtesy of Procuraduría General de la República, the Mexican federal police.

A Sonoyta police official was killed Sunday, the Sonora investigative police reported.

Saúl Fernando Félix del Castillo, deputy chief of the Plutarco Elías Calles municipal police, was found dead at about 8:20 a.m. in a vacant lot of the Burócrata neighborhood in the border town across from Lukeville.

A gunshot wound was visible, the news release said, and officials found handgun bullet casings at the scene.

Sonoyta and the rural communities to the east, all part of the municipality of Plutarco Elias Calles, have been the battleground for rival cartel factions vying to control valuable territory for moving people and drugs into the United States.

So far this year, the Sonora state police have reported nearly 40 homicides just in the Sonoyta area — with a population of about 18,000 — and another five wounded.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.

Fear grips Sonoyta: Shootouts plague Sonora border town

Juan Ortega in the snack stand outside his home in Desierto de Sonora. During one shootout, he and his wife hid under their bed. Photo by Kelly Prenel/Arizona Daily Star.

SONOYTA, Sonora — Anabel Cortez is afraid to leave her children home alone anymore.

After deadly gunbattles between rival organized crime groups started on April 30, Cortez took her children and fled her rural community outside this border town.

She is back home now that the violence has subsided, but not by choice.

“Where else am I going to go?” asks the mom of three elementary- and middle-school students.

Sonoyta and the rural communities to the east, all part of the municipality of Plutarco Elias Calles, have been the battleground for rival cartel factions vying to control valuable territory for moving people and drugs into the United States.

Sonoyta borders Lukeville, a crossing frequently used by Arizona travelers on their way to the beach town of Puerto Peñasco, commonly known as Rocky Point.

Cortez, 34, was among hundreds of people who fled Desierto de Sonora, less than 10 miles east of Sonoyta, after violence erupted last month. By some accounts, 28 gunmen and two innocent civilians were killed in the Sonoyta area from April 30 to May 5. The Sonora investigative state police reported six people killed on May 1 and another five on May 4. Residents said the criminals themselves started to warn people of upcoming shootouts and asked them to leave.

The fighting nearly paralyzed the town. Many parents stopped sending their kids to school. The city canceled all cultural and sports activities, including the traditional Fiesta de las Flores, an annual fair that is one of Sonoyta’s main events.

“We didn’t want to put citizens in danger in case of a violent incident, that we would be caught in the crossfire,” said Carlos Arvizu, Sonoyta’s city manager. “It was a preventive measure.”

The mayor, Julio Cesar Ramírez Vásquez, is no longer giving interviews, his office said, after one of the groups threatened him for speaking out.

So far this year, the Sonora state police have reported 38 homicides just in the Sonoyta area — with a population of about 18,000 — and another five wounded. May was the deadliest month, with 15 dead and another one injured, Sonora police data analyzed by the Arizona Daily Star show.

And those are just the officially reported numbers. By other accounts, it was 22 dead — including six burned bodies — and at least a handful of others injured that month. There also have been gunbattles between Sonora state police and gunmen that resulted in at least another 14 dead.

Local residents talk of many others who are missing and unaccounted for.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.

Rare conviction in case of molested crosser, 14

Jose Mancias-Flores

A man who pleaded guilty to molesting a 14-year-old border crosser faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced later this summer in Santa Cruz county.

The successful prosecution of José Mancinas-Flores, 24, is believed to be the the first one in the region in at least 15 years. The last couple of cases of immigrant rapes where the perpetrator was charged and punished involved Border Patrol agents in Cochise and Santa Cruz counties, Arizona Daily Star archives show.

The prosecution of a sexual assault case where the victim is a border crosser is very rare, local officials said. There are many pieces that have to fall in place: the victim has to come forward, the alleged perpetrator has to be caught, and jurisdiction has to be determined.

In this case, James Miller, the court-appointed defense attorney, had asked the judge to dismiss the case because the Border Patrol deported the other immigrants the victim was traveling with before he could talk to them. Perhaps they could have given him information to help prove that at least one of the incidents happened in Mexico, he said this week.

The Santa Cruz County Attorney’s Office and Miller had reached a plea agreement in September under which Mancinas-Flores faced a prison sentence of five to 10 years.

But Superior Court Judge Thomas Fink of Santa Cruz County not only refused to dismiss the case, he rejected the plea deal, saying it wasn’t enough time in prison.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.

Border Patrol goes after lookouts for cartels

On a hilltop on the Mexican side overlooking the border, a group of suspected spotters monitors the activities during a tour of the Mariposa Port of Entry. It is believed the spotters keep track of anything taking place around the ports. Photo by A.E. Araiza/Arizona Daily Star.

They hunker down day and night on mountaintops in Arizona’s western desert, sometimes for weeks at a time.

The “scouts” or “lookouts,” as they are called, are the eyes and ears for drug- and human-smuggling cartels. And the Border Patrol is going after them.

The question is how to charge them.

The scouts have been part of cartel operations for a long time, telling smugglers when it’s safe to go and when it’s not, or guiding smuggling groups over desert trails. But with more agents and technology — and fewer border crossers — the Border Patrol has the resources to go after the lookouts, said Manuel Padilla, chief of the Tucson Sector.

“The vision is to make the Arizona-Mexico border an undesirable location for transnational criminal organizations to operate,” Padilla said.

It’s all part of a multifaceted approach, he said. The first phase is being on the ground to catch the drugs and people coming through. The second phase is breaking down the cartel’s communication and logistical network.

“How do we keep them from operating? They need two main things: the ability to move and the ability to communicate,” Padilla said. “So those are the things we target.”

But the ongoing operations don’t come without challenges.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.