El Paso -- The cartel war in Juárez is hindering the flow of illegal drugs and may be the reason for a steep drop in the amount of marijuana seized last year at "stash houses" in El Paso.
The West Texas Stash House Unit last year reported it seized about 4,200 pounds of marijuana, plummeting from total seizures of 23,700 pounds in 2008 and 41,000 pounds in 2007.
The drop is extraordinary considering that in past years it was not uncommon for narcotic investigators to make a ton seizure in a single raid.
There are believed to be hundreds of stash houses in El Paso, where drugs that have been smuggled across the border are stored before being transported to cities across the nation.
U.S. narcotics investigators said the drop in stash house seizures is due in part to difficulties smugglers are having, not only with law enforcement and the Mexican army, but also with enemy narco-traffickers in a war between the Juárez and Sinaloa drug cartels.
"Seizures are down, the prices of drugs are up, and further, the purity of cocaine is down," said Special Agent Diana Apodaca of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in El Paso.
In 2009, about 2,600 people were killed in Juárez due in part to a fight for control of smuggling routes and street drug sales. There have more than 100 slayings in 2010.
"The marijuana is there" harbored in Mexico, said Robert Almonte, executive director of the Texas Narcotics Officers Association. "The problem is them getting it across over here (to El Paso). With the escalation of the violence, there is a distrust of who can bring it over, when they can bring it over."
Because of the fighting in Mexico, the price of marijuana has increased, said Almonte, who helped launch the stash house unit while heading the narcotics section of the El Paso Police Department.
Officials with the DEA and U.S. Customs and Border Protection said smugglers have switched to smaller drug loads to lessen the risks.
In fiscal 2009, CBP officers in El Paso seized 162,180 pounds of marijuana, compared with 167,570 pounds a year prior.
For the El Paso sector of the Border Patrol, seizures remained about the same with 87,421 pounds of pot in fiscal '09 and 87,047 in fiscal '08.
A police sergeant with the West Texas Stash House unit said the number of cases and arrests last year was comparable to previous years but the difference was the amount of drugs found was smaller.
Despite the recent decline, stash houses operate throughout the city, including in new homes, warehouses and retail buildings.
"It's a wide range of locations and people involved in this activity," said the sergeant, who asked his name not be published because of the nature of his job. "Our success is based on the information received from the public."