Photo: Joshua Lott for The New York Times
Horses at the Arizona Equine Rescue Organization in New River, Arizona.
by: Marc Lacey
Found tottering alone in the desert with their ribs visible and their heads hung low, horses play a backbreaking, unappreciated role in the multibillion-dollar drug smuggling industry.
Mexican traffickers strap heavy bales of marijuana or other illegal drugs to the horses’ backs and march them north through mountain passes and across rough desert terrain. With little food and water, some collapse under their heavy loads. Others are turned loose when the contraband gets far enough into Arizona to be loaded into vehicles with more horsepower.
“We would pick up 15 to 20 horses a month, and many more of the animals would get past us,” said Brad Cowan, who spent 28 years as a livestock officer for the Arizona Department of Agriculture before retiring a few months back. “They wear poorly fitted equipment. It’s obvious they were not well taken care of. The makeshift saddles rub big sores in their backs.”
Even once rescued, the horses face an uncertain future. Since they are not from the United States, the state of Arizona must draw their blood and conduct a battery of tests to ensure that they do not carry any disease that would infect domestic livestock. Then the horses head to auction, where some are bought and shipped back to Mexico for slaughter.
Others are luckier. They find their way to equine rescue operations, which help place them with homes.
“We just got a horse in, and he’s sticks and bones, and his feet are horrific,” said July Glore, president of Heart of Tucson, a rescue operation that nurses the horses back to strength. “We get calls all the time about abandoned horses. How many do I have right now? One, two, three.”
One, named Lucky, had his tongue almost cut in half from the sharp wire bit put in his mouth. “I was told he was a drug horse,” Ms. Glore said.
Farther north, at the Arizona Equine Rescue Organization in New River, Soleil K. Dolce said drug horses were just part of the problem. Ms. Dolce responds to police calls about horses that have escaped from illegal rodeos and are running down the street. Horses are also left at freeway off-ramps or tied to fences by owners who no longer want them, she said.
Rehabilitating them is expensive and time consuming, Ms. Dolce said, and there is the possibility that some horses will never be adopted.
“I can’t even describe the suffering these horses have gone through,” Ms. Dolce said, petting Rim Rock, who was abandoned in Tonto National Forest, east of Phoenix, several years ago and still suffers problems in his hooves.
It is sometimes not clear when a horse is discovered exactly how it came to be abandoned. State officials say the economic crisis has led to many more animals being let loose by owners no longer able to care for them. But the horses that are found with Mexican brands are presumed to be smuggling horses. And sometimes the authorities have no doubt: groups of horses or donkeys are discovered in the act, with bales of drugs on their backs and their human guides hiding.
Last year, seven horses laden with 971 pounds of marijuana were discovered by Border Patrol agents in the Patagonia Mountains in southern Arizona. The human smugglers had fled.
“I’d get angry when I’d see the condition these horses were in,” Mr. Cowan said. “The smugglers would buy them or steal them on the Mexican side and then work them almost to death. They have horrible sores that can take months to heal up.”
He recalled one horse he came across in Pima County, not far from the Mexican border, that had deep wounds in its hide, was clearly malnourished and was so weak that it was trying to sit back on its hind end to take the weight off its legs. Mr. Cowan and a co-worker had to carry the horse into a trailer.
Still, he said, horses are resilient. “They can come back from a lot,” he said.
Some of the abused horses end up back in the rugged border region where they were first found, Mr. Cowan said. Instead of smuggling, though, they are sometimes used by law enforcement agencies to pursue the traffickers who mistreated them.