Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Cartels Using Arizona Mountaintops to Spy on Cops

Spartan, military-style observation posts facilitate smuggling across desert.
By Mark Potter
NBC News

Hiking through rough Arizona desert terrain a few miles north of the Mexican border recently with a group of armed DEA agents, we were approached by a lone U.S. Border Patrol agent. He warned we should be careful up ahead, because two people believed to be spotters for a Mexican drug cartel had just been seen running down a ridge to elude U.S. authorities.

By now, agents told us, the men were probably hunkered down in a cave or crevice to wait out the patrol. But just to be safe, the DEA agents spread out to cover more ground as they moved forward again, watching closely for the suspected Mexican surveillance team likely sent by drug traffickers to spy on American law enforcement officials on their own soil.

Making our way slowly to the rugged hilltops about a mile away, we came across several caves carved out of the rock by wind and rain. On the floor of one of them, we saw clear evidence that a surveillance team had been camping out. Two blankets were spread out next to a pair of shoes. Nearby were boxes of food, tarps, water jugs, toothpaste and a portable stove, on top of which was a pan with fresh cooking oil still in it.

Agents also found radio chargers and car batteries used to power communications gear. They told NBC producer-photographer Al Henkel and me that Mexican surveillance teams will work in these mountains for 30 to 60 days at a time.

“They locate themselves up on these ridgelines, up in caves, hidey holes, ‘spider holes’ we call them,” said DEA agent Todd Scott. He and the agents wondered if this particular “spider hole” was home to the two men just seen running away.

A small caves used by spotters to store food, water, tarps and radio equipment.

Estimated 200 to 300 drug scouts
Federal drug agents say Mexican cartel surveillance teams have set up observation posts on most of the mountain-tops in the Arizona west desert area, from the Mexican border to Phoenix more than 100 miles north. Most of that land sits inside the vast Tohono O'odham Indian reservation, which is the size of Connecticut, but is sparsely populated by only about 20,000 residents.

Officials say in recent years they have seen a dramatic rise in drug smuggling cases on Tohona O'odham land, attributing it to law enforcement crackdowns in others areas of the border, which have forced Mexican smugglers to increase their activities in the remote tribal lands that border Mexico.

“Before we used to see it maybe once or twice a week, but now we see it almost every day,” said Detective Charles May, of the Tohono O'odham Nation Police Department.

In the last few years, officials have seized hundreds of tons of marijuana there, along with a smattering of other illicit drugs, and have seen a rise in related crimes.

“All of this contraband is going right through where their villages, where their homes are,” said Lt. Michael Ford, also with the Tohono O'odham police. “People are concerned about where their kids are. They're concerned about the areas where they go to do traditional hunting or traditional gathering.”

Supporting the smugglers who cross the barren desert on foot or in vehicles, DEA agents said, is a small army of Mexican spotters hired by the cartels to climb the mountains, watch out for police and help coordinate illegal drug shipments.

“Typically these are low-level members of the Sinaloa cartel, the Mexican cartel, and we estimate at any given time there are about two or three hundred scouts working in these positions,” said Scott, the DEA agent. “With night-vision goggles, binoculars and things like that, the scouts check for Border Patrol presence, DEA presence, any law enforcement and they help guide and coordinate the smugglers on the ground.”

To speak with each other, and with the smugglers below, agents said, the spotters use sophisticated radios with rolling encryption, the sort used by military organizations. They also use radio repeaters and set up solar panels to charge the equipment.

“Basically, their job is to observe and report, as any other spy or military spotter,” said another DEA Agent Todd Smith.

As the smugglers move north into the United States, the surveillance teams in the mountains act almost like air-traffic controllers, handing off or contacting the traffickers as they leave or enter the spotters' area of control. “It's almost like a military operation,” said Smith. “Person to person all the way from the international boundary all the way up into the Phoenix area.”

For most of the 75-mile-long border crossing the Tohono O'odham Nation, this fence is all that separate Mexico from the U.S.

Nighttime smuggling groups
Federal agents complain that the mountainous terrain in the Arizona desert is extremely difficult to control and at times appears wide open to smugglers. There is a grim joke among drug agents that someone could “smuggle a battleship” through the area without getting caught.

For most of the 75-mile-long border crossing through the Tohona O'odham Nation there is only a low-lying wooden fence separating Mexico from the United States. On the Mexican side of the border, staging areas for smugglers of drugs and migrants appear right along the fence.

“At nighttime, that's when everything moves,” said Lt. Ford. “You can hear people moving around, you can hear people talking, you can hear people walking.”

The smugglers often use heavily-camouflaged vehicles with all the inside lights taped over to avoid being seen at night. When spotters in the mountains give the all-clear signal to move north, the traffickers will sometimes drive right across the desert, or will set out on foot carrying drugs.

“A vehicle may have anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 pounds in it and then you may have a human train of smugglers, 10 or 15 people each with a 40-to-60 pound pack on their back,” said Scott, the DEA agent.

In a large indictment announced in Tucson Thursday, law enforcement officials accuse 46 defendants, nearly half of them Tohono O'odham members, of helping the Mexican traffickers smuggle drugs through the reservation and then into Tucson and Phoenix.

They are alleged to have served as drivers, stash-house operators and suppliers providing food and water for the mountain-top spotters. Most of those charged were arrested in a sweep involving nearly 200 officers and led on the reservation by Tohono O'odham police.

Miles inside the United States
On top of a desert hilltop, near one of the spotter caves, a U.S. Border Patrol truck can be seen far below making its way along a dirt road. “You've got a clear line of sight all the way here to the roads that they coordinate the smuggling loads on,” said Scott.

In the distance, the intersection of two highways can be seen. On a clear day, a person standing here can see all the way south to the Mexican border and a long way north toward Phoenix. “You could see 10 miles from up here," said agent Smith, explaining the reason it's so hard to catch the Mexican spotters is that anyone approaching this area can easily be seen miles before they arrive.

The trash left behind by the spotter teams is testament to the spartan life endured by the men who spend days and nights here in desert heat and freezing cold.

“You have an interesting marriage of low-tech and high-tech. You have guys who live up here in these caves; we've seen them scratch calendars into the rocks to indicate how long they've been up here…with sophisticated radio equipment, transmitters, night vision equipment, all of which they utilize to help coordinate the loads moving down across this lower valley here,” said Scott.

And a point made repeatedly by the agents on patrol is that the elusive spotters who serve as the eyes and ears for a notorious Mexican drug cartel are operating miles inside the United States.


  1. You can't tell me the Indians aren't in on it all. They are getting paid off, and since we gave them nation status, we can't do a thing about this. The Indians have become like the mob.

  2. why cant we make arizona like area 51 get to close and your dead simple as that.

  3. always placing the blame. The US knows it has a drug usage problem. When is Mexico going to admit it has an evil thirst for sadistic and soulless killings of men women and children.

  4. Once the cartels are reclassified as terrorists and enemies of the United States we can call in airstrikes with several military jets all along the US/Mexico border and blow up their caves/spider holes, hopefully with them inside. Once they are reclassified we would not be violating the Posse Comitatus Act. I don’t think they will be doing that again once a few have been killed.

  5. ROFL, look ma, why arent the great armed forces of the U.S.A. going after the American Cartels?
    Well dear, its because theyre broke.
    and the local authorities are scared, so we fight them over there, so we dont have to fight them over here.

  6. One of the greatest tools the cartels have is the use of their plata o plomo? (silver or lead?) doctrine. Combine greed with intimidation, fear, coersion, etc. and you have a very powerful mix of trouble. This story reports that numerous tribal members were aiding the cartels/narcogangs/whatever. Once they co-opt you they can wield great influence (murder, rape, beheadings, familial intimidation;the degradation of human life immediately comes to mind.). All of this is done to expand their criminal enterprise. The narcogangs are profit oriented whose goal is the freedom of movement and expanding commercial territory. And they go to such great lengths to expand their enterprise that they undermine the legitimacy of the government and in some cases (parts of Mexico) the have replaced it. In the absence of legitimate government, any number of illicit activities freely takes place; tafficking of humans, extortion of business, intimidation of law-enforcement, politicians, killing of journalists, whatever it takes to keep the enterprise moving.
    SLowly but surely a narco-criminal-value system begins to challenge and replace traditional liberal democratic values like human rights, pursuit of happiness, self-determination, rule of law, and all the other values many take for granted.

    Can you imagine the level of uncertainty and fear that pervades the community/state when the value system is supplanted by something evil? There is an extremely unhealthy socio-political disruption occurring in Mexico right now.

    This is the real threat to America. It has already been happening in Mexico, Columbia decades before, El Salvador, etc. Now we are experiencing more and more incidents of it in the U.S. Hits on narco-competitors in the U.S., co-opting of Law enforcement and local gov't in the Southwest, the strengthening of transnational gangs all over the place,epic narco kidnappings, etc. These are symptoms of numerous political-social problems that are too big to discuss here, not the least of which is US drug demand. But I am no apologist. Max Manwaring (2011) said "It is not poverty, lack of opportunity,and misery alone that kill, maim and destroy. It is men and women, sometimes boys and girls who are prepared to conduct all kinds of "intimidations" and dysfunctional activities in their personal searches for personal well-being."

    From a strategic standpoint, how vulnerable are we, or what level of resources, not to mention political will, is needed to counter the narco-criminal-value system from more fully penetrating our traditional American value system?

    There is a growing body of literature that suggests the "narcogangs" are taking on the characteristics of domestic insurgents. The political goal of these actors is to supplant their criminal value system over democracy.

    I have mashed quite a few ideas into this ramble without citing anything. Much of the scholarly literature on this subject requires subscription. I have located 2 free reports that covers all of the content I wrote about. If you have made it this far in my post and you are a Mexican or especially an America, I urge you to check out the below resources:

    A better report by scholar Max Manwaring (2011):

    God Bless the Republic!

    Northern Kingpin

  7. "always placing the blame. The US knows it has a drug usage problem. When is Mexico going to admit it has an evil thirst for sadistic and soulless killings of men women and children."

    Wether he is right or wrong, whose to say, but i believe Calderon has admitted the problems of Mexico which is why the cartels are fighting back stronger and more violent then ever. What good does it do, admitting who is at fault and who is to blame.

    And everyone knows the United States has a "drug usage problem" which is financing and supporting every cartel/gang in Mexico and the U.S. Let us not be naive. Or maybe the cartels just drop their goods across the border, and the idians or pochos or border patrol distribute it to the rest of the continental United States for them, without overseeing where their product is going and the money generated by the sales. No, im pretty sure they control all aspects of distribution down to the local dealers in some cases. Its sad but fact.

    "For most of the 75-mile-long border crossing the Tohono O'odham Nation, this fence is all that separate Mexico from the U.S." This cracks me up! The thing is that the fence in the picture would work just as well as the $5,000,000 per mile, fence we are building in texas that has openings for vehicles to drive through every half mile or so. These openings dont have gates or anything and they dont have bp patroling them but every so often. So there may be this big new border fence but the people who want to get into the US will always have a way, they are a determined people, the cartels, the migrants, whoever. I hate seeing the new fence and what it stands for and yet, the fact is, it has hardly any real purpose. Obama needs to talk about immigration reform like he said he was going to during his campaign.

  8. Texcoco Mex said.

    U.S. ahuilnemini.

  9. Plomo=lead, or bullet.
    Plata=silver money.

  10. When large amounts of people want something, i.e. marijuana, which has been made illegal, they simply go around the very few government enforcers. I cite prohibition as an evident example. The enforcers are trying to catch all the rain drops with their hands and buckets so that none hit the prohibited ground...The rain storm does not even notice their existence. One has to marvel at the official Don Quixotes trying to joust so many windmills.

  11. "ROFL, look ma, why arent the great armed forces of the U.S.A. going after the American Cartels?
    Well dear, its because theyre broke.
    and the local authorities are scared, so we fight them over there, so we dont have to fight them over here."

    What American Cartel is slicing people’s throats while alive as they cut off their heads; What American cartel is slicing the skin from the faces of people while alive; What American cartel is quartering people out with axes while alive; what American cartel is throwing grenades into nightclub killing innocent people; what American cartel is rounding up immigrants from other countries and butchering them when they won’t join them or cannot pay a ransom. I’ll tell you, NONE!!!

  12. > What American Cartel ... I’ll tell you, NONE!!!


    What's the cause of all that incredible carnage? What causes these cartels to form, to compete with each other, to get so brutal? Whose fault is that?

    The root cause is MONEY. The money is created by PROHIBITION. Prohibition is the root of the problem. It's OUR fault!

    End Prohibition. Leave people the hell alone. Put the cops and jailers and border guards to work doing something useful for a change.

    Repetition of disastrous approaches is just stupid. Or corrupt. Probably both.

  13. If all you can say is "So?" blame prohibition and wanting to end it then you really do not have anything of value to bring to the table as far as I am concerned.

    I for one have no blame in what is happening in Mexico nor does the United States of America have any blame in the violence in Mexico. The blame lies squarely with those who are perpetrating the violence due to their greed. Wake up!

  14. > I for one have no blame in what is happening
    > in Mexico nor does the United States of America
    > have any blame in the violence in Mexico.

    Of course you share the blame. Being oblivious of the root cause role played by our disastrously failed drugs policy, Prohibition, makes you part of the problem.

  15. how do you manage to blame the USA for all the non drug related bullshit/corruption?...come on how does the USA cause the greed and extortion,kidnapping,robbery....corruption from top to bottom in every facet on explain it to us

  16. @May 23, 2011 8:39 PM

    How?? Did you fail history? Because its obvious!! Pick up a book and read the subject of Prohibition, maybe just maybe you will learn something. And to answer your question MONEY is what is fueling the drug war..I don't see pesos being confiscated every time someone gets busted with money. Its dollars from America...our drug addicts....oh, wait a minute, maybe I missed some news reporting Budweiser gunmen shooting Heineken representatives and skinning them alive. Yes, that's it... don't legalize drugs, because look at the horrible booze cartels that kept growing after alcohol was re-legalized in the U.S...

  17. By fueling it with a fabulous price support program called Prohibition decade after decade.

    Prohibition empowers ruthless greed, encourages corruption, accelerates brutality and does virtually nothing to stem the consumption of drugs.

  18. so when a crooked cop robs me it is because of US pot prohibition?...when a pendejo busts my window and robs my car..the same?...when a taco vendor is hit with a mordida..the same ? have a very simplistic view of the problems in Mexico,,,senor libro

    jajjja....mebbe you should read more than one book amigo..

    read the history of Mexico ...entiendes the long history of lawlessness in Mexico...much of which predates any prohibition...

    FYI..i am all for ending mota prohibition...and decriminalizing otra drugs,,,treat it as a treatable sickness ..not a crime

  19. Esta claro, 'lito'brito, que la corrupcion en Mexico y otras partes del mundo precede la Prohibicion. Eso no nega que la politica de Prohibicion multiplica el problema en grande. La Prohibicion disminuye la probabilidad de que la corrupcion sea controlada. Mi pais es el que insiste en mantener esta estupida politica de la Prohibicion, y por lo tanto mi pais es culpable en gran proporcion de que la situacion de la corrupcion se incrementa, no se disminuye. La corrupcion ama la politica de Prohibicion por esa razon.

    Sure, corruption predates Prohibition, but Prohibition multiplies the problem and greatly diminishes the possibility of progress being made against corruption. The corrupt love Prohibition for that reason. Takes the heat off.

  20. Any person who gets up here and screams that an end to prohibition is an end to our problems just sounds dumb. There isnt an industrialized nation in the world where all drugs are legal. And it isnt going to start now. Save your breath or at least come up with a new plan. "repeal prohibition" HAH might as well be saying "nuke mexico"....the latter is probably more likely

  21. Yes, it would be a stretch to claim that the end of Prohibition will end our problems, but nobody makes that claim.

    While there's no panacea, a much better situation is possible.

    It's all about big money, and Prohibition is what makes it possible. The situation would be much better without such big money driving the problem.

  22. The situation is now much worse than it ever was in the US with just US Prohibition Against Alcohol in place. Then we had Federal cops and Local cops all running around in circle militarizing US cities onto the very bottomest boondocks. Now, we have a worldwide Made in US/ Made by the US 'war on drugs' in place, and the Pentagon! and its assorted allied national militaries ('local' cops) running around in circles, along with their allied private death squads organized by elite corporate execs, government hacks, and rogue 'generals' also doing the very same thing in every down and out barrio around the planet.

    Lesson here? Never underestimate the overwhelming stupidity and incompetence of America's elites, who are always ready to take the mistakes of the past and make them even worse in the future.... ... until it all comes crashing down.

  23. i agree ending prohibition would take the money out of it and would drastically lesson the power of the DTO's...and that would be a great thing

    as for Mexican endemic corruption..thats cultural and predates any prohibition

    but even though the USA is a drug market ..that dosen't justify the way Mexico has embraced lawlessness and corruption as a lifestyle...

    Mexico could have denied the DTO's the "right of way" through Mexico a long time ago...but from top to bottom they are ALL complicit because they chose to take the money and participate in supplying all the drugs to America

    this is GREED , LOVE OF MONEY ,AND TOTAL LACK OF CONCERN FOR THEIR AMERICAN NEIGHBOR..and this is on Mexico,and the Mexican people

    if you argue that prohibition should be ended because drugs are an evil addiction ..and the consumers are sick ..and should be treated as victims...

    is drug use /abuse a crime ..or a socially derived disease

    why end prohibition if it is a crime?...why continue it if it is a disease?

    if you advocate ending it as i do, then you must consider it a sickness

    just how much more does that damn Mexico for being so ready to take advantage of the situation and reap the profit...

    now who is the real asshole?....the pusher/Mexico...or the consumer/victim/USA

    think about it

    i also do say that the "drug war" has been used to make a police state out of the USA...

    thanks Mexico for the supply that created the conditions that enabled the police to further justify that ...

    yeah ..thanks a lot for that too Mexico...thanks for the fuckn drugs that poison my country and justify the take over by the police

    and thanks for blaming it all on us

  24. Drug consumption in America is the problem. I grew up in Arizona in the 80s and half of my class did drugs, so this generation has a huge appetite for drugs. Drugs land at night in the mountains in Mexico from Colombia. Americans love cocaine, so smugglers just fulfill their hunger for feeling high. Mexicans are caught between the manufacturing of drugs in South America and the insatiable appetite of Americans to get high. The U.S. government acts as nothing happens and they sell guns to both the Mexican army and the drug lords. Solution{ Both countries need to have 50,000 soldiers on each side of the border, so that I can open a Hooters on the American side and a Senor Frogs on the Mexican side, so I can service the needs of the service men. Stop blaming Mexico for the drug problem and two faced plans the US Government always has. Mexico should then stop corruption at all levels and we can all live happily ever after. By the way, Mexico was the party place...people are warm and fun. Friken Republicans supporting the NRA National Riffle Association and gun manufacturers are two faced and should stop consuming drugs themselves. Just ask Mr Universe - The Terminator Governor of California *Republican* he must have been high to get frisky with the housekeeper!!!! God Bless and stop the hate!!! Be smart and get the facts before bashing Mexico!!! Just watch the video below to get the real facts.

  25. Here is a huge part of the problem. US Government selling arms to Drug Cartels. Two faced!!! Maybe Governor Predetor should run your country. I hope he improves taste on girlfriends.


Comments are moderated, refer to policy for more information.
Envía fotos, vídeos, notas, enlaces o información
Todo 100% Anónimo;