All The Cartel’s Men

Radio Writing

It takes a lot to move drugs north.

Listen to the story on Marketplace here, and listen to me talk about the reporting behind the story on the BBC here and State of Nevada here.

Kai Ryssdal: There’s a certain logistical rhythm to the way illegal drugs get into this country. They’re made, mixed, grown, and brought to the U.S.-Mexico border. Smugglers get them across into the United States and law enforcement tries, sometimes succeeding, but often failing to stop them. Illegal drugs are a multi-hundred-billion-dollar-a-year business. Today, we begin a three-part series “The Drug War at Home” from the Fronteras Desk, a public radio reporting project in the Southwest. Reporter Devin Browne profiles one particular drug route north.

Devin: Roberto Hernandez is in prison, and he will be until at least 2019. But before this, he ran a huge drug trafficking organization in Southern Arizona out of a town most locals pronounce “Casa Grande.”

His organization did two things — one, move drugs north, to Phoenix and, two, move money south, to Mexico. At any given time, law enforcement estimates that he had between fifty and one hundred people working for him.

Ray Hinojos: The stash house workers, the actual load drivers, the people who are looking out for vehicles, someone to buy supplies, you know…

Devin: This is Detective Ray Hinojos with the Pinal County Narcotics unit. The list goes on.

Ray:  What’s called scouting, the drivers, the people looking for drivers…  

Devin: Detectives with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office learned this through a wire-tap in 2009, the first wire-tap investigation in Pinal County ever. They learned that 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 route was always through the Tohono O’odahm Reservation at the border, and their destination was what detectives call a lay-up: a little spot just off Interstate 8 where the backpackers would radio in the mile marker and wait for a load driver who would:

Ray: Pull right up — say there’d be some people in the wash behind the bushes — stop, pop the trunk, throw two or three backpacks in and we’re gone. Couple hours, maybe a little later, get the bodies, once they see the dope got off all right, come back and get the bodies.

Devin: 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.

Ray: They’ll get up to a high enough vantage point and that’s when they’re going to tell the desert people, it’s cool to get on the highway. or you know what, stop, stop, stop.

Devin: The drug transportation business is an expensive one. The sheriff’s office estimates drug trafficking organizations spend $100,000 for every 1,000 pounds of marijuana they move from the border through Casa Grande to Phoenix. During peak season, Hernandez was moving this much every week.

Ray: There’s actually lot of money being spent, but if there wasn’t all that money to be made, where would they be? 

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

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

Devin: But Hernandez’s drug trafficking organization was just one of many that moved drugs for the cartel that controls this area of the border, the Sinoloa Cartel. Again, Ray Hinojos.

Ray: They’re not entrusting just one DTO to move their shipment you know — they’re liable to have ten of them. Ten DTOs and no one 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.

Devin: So with one transportation cell 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 under investigation.