by Sonya Heitshusen,
The numbers are hard to comprehend – thousands of people killed, tons of drugs seized and billions of dollars exchanging hands. And Iowa is right in the middle of the Mexican drug cartels’ distribution network.
It’s the middle of the night in Pinal County, Arizona. Just as he does on every mission, Lt. Matthew Thomas, with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, makes a mental checklist.
“You’re getting your stuff ready, getting into game time mode.”
His team plans to raid two locations tonight. They’re stash houses, used to store drugs awaiting distribution through a nationwide network.
“Sheriff’s Office, search warrant,” one agent yells as he bangs on the window.
Lt. Thomas and his team take three people into custody and uncover dozens of bundles of drugs in a pickup parked outside. There are more drugs inside the stash house, along with a shrine of saints. Some are legitimate saints, like the Virgin Mary. Others, like Saint Jesus Malverde are called “narco saints.” Malverde is considered the patron saint of the illegal drug trade. Traffickers pray to him for the safe delivery of their loads.
Lt. Thomas carries a picture of Malverde in his patrol car. It’s a souvenir from his days undercover, when he had to convince dealers he was one of their own.
“Every time you walk out the door you always wonder is today the day,” says Lt. Thomas. “Who do I want carrying my casket? What type of funeral do I want?”
He’s developed a warrior mentality. You understand why, when he explains how the drug cartel has infiltrated the area.
“They’ve got bad guys in their communities that dress like good guys, act like good guys, but indeed they’re working for the opposition.”
There are bad guys in the mountains and on the desert floor. The person driving a tractor in a field by the road may only be posing as a ranch hand.
“That guy may be employed by the cartel on the side and has a cell or radio and as soon as I pass by and he recognizes me as law enforcement he just makes a phone call in and says ‘Law enforcement is at this location, that location.’”
As we approach a known “drop site,” it become clear, the cartels are watching us as much as we are watching them.
Lt. Thomas instructs us to stay by the car as he checks out the location. He tells us to radio dispatch with our location, should something go wrong.
“If you want to film anything you can get out, but just stay at the car, just in case.”
After giving us the all clear, Lt. Thomas shows us evidence smugglers are using this old ranch house to transfer drugs.
“There’s been activity here in at least week, that’s for sure.” Lt. Thomas points to a recent fire, “There’s no wind or water damage, so that’s fairly recent, like in the last few days.”
The smugglers are called mules. They walk day and night through the desert, carrying as much as 50 pounds of pot, heroin, meth or cocaine in home-made burlap back-packs.
“For us, that’s indicative of drug smuggling, specifically.”
When they reach the drop site, the mules drop everything – their drugs, their outer layers of clothing, their water bottles – and wait. They wait for word from the next person in the drug cartel chain of command. Another tell-tale sign that this is a drop site – booties made out of carpet. The smugglers fasten them to their shoes to disguise their footprints.
“They’ll clean up. They’ll rest. They’ll eat. They’ll let their bosses know, ‘Hey were at the pick-up point.’ Then a vehicle will come in and they’ll load the vehicle up.”
Another vehicle will pick up the people.
“Then they’ll shoot them back south and they do it all over again.”
Some mules, referred to as “quitters,” rely on law enforcement for a ride home. They’ll walk to the nearest interstate or highway and simply surrender, knowing police will transport them back to Mexico. For some quitters, it’s a short walk.
Lt. Thomas takes us to a drop site directly be an Interstate 8 overpass. He says as lookouts watch for the law, the smugglers load the drugs into a transport vehicle pulled on the side of one of the busiest roads in Arizona.
“They’re like a pit crew. Within five to ten seconds they’ll have that car loaded up with dope,” says Lt. Thomas. “Then they’re on the interstate and they’re shooting out.”
The fingers of the Mexican drug cartels reach across the country. Before they even cross the border, the drugs are brokered out to dealers, located in cities like Phoenix, San Diego, Denver and Dallas. They then travel north and northeast along the nation’s interstate system. I-80 and I-35 are two major pipelines, leading directly to Iowa.
TRAFFICKING PART II: Sonya Heitshusen investigates the drug cartel that makes its way to Iowa from Arizona
Evidence of drug trafficking litters the Arizona desert. Trails wind through the sand, water bottles, clothes – even vehicles are abandoned after they’ve served their purpose.
The gas cans in the bed of a white pickup indicate it was used to refuel other vehicles in the smuggler’s arsenal.
The convoy of drugs seems never ending. “The D.E.A. in Arizona, at one point, if it was less than 500 pounds, they wouldn’t prosecute,” says Lt. Matthew Thomas with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office. “That’s the amount of drugs we have coming through here.”
Thomas says the terrain in this area makes it ideal for smuggling. The desert valley is surrounded by mountains, which serve as look-out points for cartel members. “It’s a daily event, the more drugs the cartels can push through, the more money they make.”Thomas says.
Money is the motivator. One bust netted the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office 8,000 pounds of pot, worth about $4 million in Pinal County. The street value can triple by the time it reaches the Midwest.
“Just one branch of the Sinaloa Cartel has brought over 60,000 pounds of marijuana each and every month through our county,” says Sheriff Paul Babeu. “And it’s billions and billions of dollars of profit that these cartels make.”
Babeu has run out of places to put all the drugs seized by his office. An area that was designed to process vehicles for evidence is now being used to store drugs. It’s about six feet deep, four feet wide and 20 feet long. It’s packed with bricks of marijuana. Two more storage units are also loaded with drugs, saved until the people who brought it over the border are prosecuted.
“We bring in so much we can’t dispose of it, or incinerate it fast enough,” says Elias Johnson, the Public Information Officer for Babeu’s office. “It gets so heavy, the packs actually break up.”
Most of the packages are marked with letters, numbers, words or pictures. The markings are not random. The codes are used by the drug cartels to determine where these drugs will go. That could be anywhere from California, Colorado, even Iowa. Art Vogel, the resident agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Des Moines says the codes can also be used in reverse. “On occasion those markings, colors; etcetera indicate who the original packager or sender was. On the other hand, they can also indicate, once they’re across the border, what groups in the U.S. they may be destined for.”
The drugs seized in Iowa have similar markings to those seized in Arizona. “Those groups impact Iowa tremendously,” says Vogel. “All of the drugs we see come into Iowa originate in Mexico and work their way across the border.”
The drugs work their way up to the Midwest via the country’s interstate system – from Interstates 8 and 10 in Arizona, to Interstates 35 and 80 in Iowa. “So just by the nature that I-35 and I-80 run through Iowa and intersect right here in Des Moines, that does have a bearing on how many drugs we see here in Iowa.”
The vast majority of the drugs go undetected. The D.E.A. estimates it intercepts just 10 to 15 percent of the drugs traveling on the nation’s interstates and highways. “You’re talking about the heartland of America,” says Babeu. “You look at your corridors and the trafficking that comes into Iowa and it can travel East and West through the main distribution points.”
Stopping it, starts at the border. Those on the front lines say it’s a war, a war getting bloodier by the day.
TRAFFICKING PART III: Sonya Heitshusen investigates the impact drugs have had on our community
Illicit drugs flow across the Mexican border day and night. The supply matches what seems to be an un-ending demand.
Border patrols, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and local law enforcement are waging a war on the drug cartels.
Pinal County Sheriff, Paul Babeu says his officers are on the “front lines,” but many more are caught in the middle. “It’s criminals against criminals here in our state and sometimes that ends in shout-outs and people getting killed right here in our county,” says Babeu. “We have had this happen countless times.”
It’s happened all too closes to Scott Blevins farm. “Within a five mile radius of this farm, I know for a fact, that there’s been two people killed by the drug cartels.” Blevins has lived in the area for nearly a decade. About three years ago, he says he noticed a change. The cartels, emboldened and driven by greed, started closing in on his land. “I had a drug load that was seized on my property,” says Blevins. “To finally see it happen on the farm here, I just said something’s got to stop. We’ve got to do something. So I started speaking up.”
Blevins also started arming himself. A Glock is strapped to his ankle and he carries a bullet proof vest and a rifle in the cab of his tractor. Blevins says he won’t hesitate to use either gun. “If someone approaches me in the middle of the night, I will shoot. I’ll shoot to kill and ask questions later.”
“Things aren’t getting better,” says Babeu. “They’ve actually grown more violent.” From Mexico to the Midwest the bodies are piling up. There are tens of thousands of direct victims of the drug cartels, people killed in the battle to control the drug trade or send those fighting it a message. Others are casualties of the cartels’ commodity.
Lisa Nauman remembers her big brother by placing a cross at the motel where he died. “He was a huge part of my life,” says Lisa Nauman. “I talked to him every day.”
Chad Nauman died after a night of partying at the Relax Motel in Urbandale. “Some reports say they were up all night partying. I’m not sure when my brother passed out. Apparently at 8 AM he was unresponsive.” He lay on the motel room floor for nearly 12 hours before anyone called 9-1-1.
The cause of death: A heroin overdose. “We didn’t expect it at all.” Lisa says her brother, known as the “rock n’ roll carpenter” around town, was an alcoholic and at times abused prescription drugs. Heroin wasn’t on her radar. “I didn’t realize that was a problem in Iowa. I mean, I knew it was around, but I didn’t realize the extent of it.”
Police investigating Chad Nauman’s death told Lisa the heroin coming from Mexico is 85 percent pure. The high grade heroin is called black tar and blamed for at least two dozen overdoses in Iowa in the last two years.
“We are definitely keeping an eye on that,” says Art Vogel, the agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Des Moines’ operations. Add it to the list. Law enforcement admits it’s hard to keep up with the cartels. The money made off the drug trade is matched only by the amount spent to stop it. “Enforcement is only one piece of the puzzle,” says Vogel. “It’s enforcement, education and it’s treatment.”
Each bust is a small victory, but the question remains. Are we winning the war on drugs? “Well, we’re not gonna lose,” says Vogel. “Because to lose, somebody has to give up and we’re not going to give up.”