Ring used backpacks to transport marijuana
Local and federal law enforcement officers said they have broken up a drug transportation ring that was bringing 60,000 pounds of marijuana into Arizona literally one backpack at a time.
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said the operation came to light with a routine traffic stop last year that yielded about $229,000 in cash. But Babeu said that, rather than simply take down those in the vehicle, he worked with the Drug Enforcement Agency to go after the whole operation.
What they found, the sheriff said, was a group that hand carried marijuana across the border through the Tohono O'odham Reservation.
Smugglers, carrying 50 to 100 pounds apiece, could take up to 10 days to reach their destination, with the organization leaving food and water at some predetermined locations. Eventually the drugs would wind up at "stash'' houses in Pinal County.
To date, 21 people have been arrested, including Robert Hernandez, 38, of Arizona City, who Goddard said is the alleged leader of the organization. Charges against him include transporting marijuana, conspiracy, money laundering and use of a minor to commit a drug offense, that last one stemming from hiring teens to take the drug from the individual backpackers and drive it the last length to the stash houses.
They also have seized nearly 4,000 pounds of marijuana, 21 vehicles and several assault rifles.
Babeu said it is not surprising that the smugglers chose to route their traffic through the reservation, which straddles both sides of the international border. He said while tribal police helped, the sheer size of the reservation and the sparse population make that a popular route.
"These people don't want to be detected,'' the sheriff said.
More to the point, Babeu added, much of the border through the reservation is without any sort of meaningful barrier.
"The criminal element exploits the scene,'' he said.
Attorney General Terry Goddard said it made sense to pursue the investigation, rather than just go for some quick publicity.
"We're talking about an entire organization which was identified through some very good police work over a period of about nine months,'' Goddard said. "And then, through a multi-agency cooperation, we're bringing them to an end. They're gone.''
Goddard said he believes this particular group was operating for about three years. But he conceded that even taking out a group that was bringing in 60,000 pounds a year amounts to just a portion of what is coming into Arizona.
"I'd love to tell you that we've struck a death blow to the whole organization,'' he said. "I cannot say that.''
Nor can he say for which Mexican drug cartel this particular transportation group was working.
Goddard said, though, his office and the police agencies now have "a much higher level of understanding of what it is and how they do it.'' And he said that has given law enforcement some clues on where to find them.
"The result is they get out more in the open,'' Goddard said. "Future investigation may have an easier time of finding illegal activity.''
Babeu said the organization also apparently had creative ways of dealing with competing drug organizations, not only with violence but even having a vehicle decked out to look like a police car so members could impersonate a police officer.
He said this isn't simply a matter of interrupting the flow of marijuana, as groups like this are involved in much more.
"This is for everything from carjackings, home invasions, assaults against police officers, officer-involved shootings,'' he said. "And these people not only have the means with their weapons, they have the motive.''
Elizabeth Kempshall, special agent in charge of the DEA's Phoenix division, said the bust will have effects beyond this particular group.
"These drug-trafficking organizations think that because they've been entrenched in the community, they have places to hide, that they have protection among the local communities,'' she said. "But this investigation sends them a strong message that there's nowhere you can hide."
HOWARD FISCHER, CAPITOL MEDIA SERVICES