When it comes to comprehensive immigration reform, Washington has a laserlike focus on people crossing the border illegally.

But that's only part of the equation, some border security experts say.

"There are major crimes going on at the border - smuggling drugs and people north and smuggling guns and money south," said former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. "Only one of them is receiving attention."

Most drug seizures occur along the Southwest border and Arizona remains one of the primary corridors. Hard drugs that used to be smuggled mainly through other parts of the Southwest border are increasingly coming through the state as well.

During the last five years, seizures of heroin and meth have skyrocketed at the ports and in between the ports of entry, Customs and Border Protection data show.

Arizona Sen. John McCain said on the Senate floor June 12 that drug smuggling is not being discussed enough.

"As long as there's a demand in this country for drugs, drugs are going to find a way into this country," he said. "It's just a fundamental of economics and we haven't had nearly the discussion nationally, much less in this body, about the issue of the drugs that flow across our borders."

The current Senate immigration bill requires that 9 of every 10 people trying to cross the border illegally are either apprehended or turned back to Mexico - before any of the 11 million people living in the United States illegally can get permanent status.

"Border security is about much more than economic migrants attempting to cross into the United States," said Erik Lee, associate director at the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University. It's about a whole range of things, from drugs and guns to how safe border communities feel.

Not having solid, widely accepted border security metrics, he said, makes the conversation much more difficult.


As apprehensions of illegal border crossers in Arizona decrease, CBP has focused more on the increase in narcotics coming through the area, said Jeffrey Self, commander of the agency's Field Command in Tucson.

Overall, drug seizures have increased at and in between the ports all along the Southwest border. But it's estimated that less than 10 percent of drugs coming through are seized.

While more than four-fifths of Arizona's 378 miles on the border have some type of barrier, drug traffickers still manage to get their good across.

The Tohono O'odham Nation is a primary entry point and transit zone for drugs in the region. Traffickers also use ultralight aircraft in the Tucson Sector to smuggle large quantities of marijuana. Every year since 2009, Tucson Border Patrol agents have seized more than 1 million pounds of pot.

At the ports of entry, smugglers try to blend in with the legal traffic by hiding narcotics in commercial trucks, inside bumpers, taped to their stomachs and even inside their underwear.

A 14-year-old boy was arrested in Nogales on June 4 as he tried to cross through Morley Pedestrian Gate with meth and cocaine hidden inside hominy cans.

A week later, CBP officers found 2,300 pounds of marijuana hidden among peppers inside a tractor-trailer.

Attempts like those complicate operations at the ports, said Self.

"You want to facilitate the legal travel and trade and reduce wait times while ensuring heroin smugglers don't come in," he said.


Heroin and meth seizures show the biggest increases along the Southwest border.

While Yuma and Tucson have seen some ups and downs in heroin seizures, the total seized over the last five years has skyrocketed. In Tucson, the amount seized jumped from almost 4 pounds in 2008 to 60 pounds in 2012.

"It's nothing like we had seen before," said Elizabeth Kempshall, director of the Arizona HIDTA, which stands for High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. The HIDTA coordinates and funds federal, state and local drug task forces to disrupt or dismantle drug trafficking organizations.

Mexico has started to grow poppies to produce a cinnamon-colored heroin, more appealing to the masses than black tar, Kempshall said. The nation produced more illegal poppies than any country but Afghanistan in 2009, the U.S. Justice Department said in a 2011 report.

Prescription-drug abuse in the United States is fueling the demand for heroin, Kempshall said. While a pill of oxycodone costs $80 to $120, a hit of heroin is just $10.

"They started getting hooked on these prescription drugs and couldn't afford to feed the habit," she said, "so they started using heroin."

Last year, CBP officers and Border Patrol agents in Arizona seized about 700 pounds of heroin - 576 at the ports of entry and the rest elsewhere along the border.

Meth seizures are also increasing rapidly. Last year, port officers in the state seized 1,662 pounds of meth, up from 316 pounds five years before.

But marijuana continues to dominate. Nearly half of all marijuana seized between the ports comes from the Tucson Sector.

Sinaloa is the primary growing region for marijuana - the cartel's big-money crop, Kempshall said.

"If they can get marijuana sold in the United States they can bring money back to buy chemicals necessary to manufacture meth, buy cocaine, weapons, corrupt officials," she said. "Money gives them the power they want."


The domestic drug trade generates tens of billions of dollars annually. Only about 0.20 percent of illicit cash that crosses the Southwest border is actually seized, the State of the Border report says.

The money is critical, Self said. "It's their lifeblood. If we don't target their ability to exploit our financial systems in the United States for their criminal enterprise, it's going to continue."

HIDTA's goal, Kempshall said, is to make Arizona an undesirable place for the cartels. "If we can do that, our borders will be secured."

Key lawmakers proposed last week adding 20,000 more Border Patrol agents, bringing the total to more than 40,000, as part of the requirement to secure the border.

But pouring more money and manpower into enforcement on the border will have little impact as long as the criminal organizations remain intact, Goddard said.

The path to border security, he said, isn't just stopping people and drugs coming north across the border. It's stopping the flow of cartel money heading south, going after the leaders and dismantling their criminal organizations.

"We could double again the number of Border Patrol agents and see little improvement," he said.

"If you focus on just one part of the problem, and I would argue not the most important, you are going to continue to lose," he said. "That's exactly what's happening."

On StarNet: Find more recent and archived stories on immigration and other border-related issues at azstarnet.com/border

"As long as there's a demand in this country for drugs, drugs are going to find a way into this country. It's just a fundamental of economics and we haven't had nearly the discussion nationally, much less in this body, about the issue of the drugs that flow across our borders."

Sen. John McCain, speaking June 12 on the floor of the U.S. Senate



It used to come mostly through Southern California but seizures are on the rise in Arizona and South Texas.

In fiscal 2012, about 125 pounds were seized in the Tucson and Yuma Border Patrol sectors in addition to the amount seized at ports of entry - nearly the same as in the San Diego and El Centro sectors in California. So far this year, sectors in South Texas and Tucson are seeing the biggest share of heroin seizures. As of May, nearly 100 pounds have been seized in the Rio Grande Valley, 78 pounds in Laredo, 58 pounds in Tucson and 50 pounds in San Diego.


Like heroin, it used to come mostly through Southern California, but seizures in Arizona and South Texas have also increased in the past five years. In 2012, Customs and Border Protection officers in Arizona seized more than five times the amount caught in 2008.

The Sinaloa Cartel is manufacturing some of the meth but subcartels in Michoacan are still the primary manufacturers and control the meth trade.


Traffickers smuggle marijuana predominantly between the ports of entry in Arizona rather than through official ports. Seizures at and between the ports in Arizona account for about 50 percent of the marijuana seized at the Southwest Border.

But marijuana seizures in the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol sector have been creeping up. In 2012, the Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol sector seized nearly 886,000 pounds compared to a little more than a million in the Tucson Sector. Since 2008, the Rio Grande Valley has seen a 135 percent increase, while Tucson's seizures rose 24 percent.


Most of it comes into Southern California and South Texas, but seizures in the Tucson and Yuma Border Patrol sectors since 2008 have risen 57 percent and 918 percent, respectively, to a combined total of about 850 pounds in addition to what's seized at ports of entry. A lot of it though is seized at the ports of entry.

Source: 2011 National Drug intelligence Center report, Customs and Border Protection data, Arizona HIDTA.

drug seizures at Arizona ports of entry

Fiscal year 2008 Fiscal year 2012

Heroin (in pounds) 286 576

Meth (in pounds) 316 1,662

Marijuana (in pounds) 70,805 89,003

Cocaine (in pounds) 3,420 2,721

Outbound currency $1.1 million $4.9 million

Source: Customs and Border Protection

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at ptrevizo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4213.