Heavy Traffic

Border drug lords get rich while attorney Mike Barclay gets worn out defending the poor smugglers

Rarely do the mules know. "The dealers are smart enough not to expose themselves directly to the smuggler. On both sides of the border, the transaction is filtered through several layers."

The repeat offenders who smuggle dope as well as aliens, however, are a different matter. Having had a taste of the excitement and easy money, alluding capture has become a game. "Some," Barclay says, "have become quite smart, very inventive."

This sprawling, barren region is different from the high-traffic drug routes that lead to El Paso or Laredo, through which trailer truckloads of drugs and aliens are being smuggled. In the six-county desert that stretches from east of El Paso to Del Rio, smaller cargos flow with remarkable, frustrating ease.
Mike Barclay came to the Tex-Mex border to retire but instead has found new passion in defending "mules" and "coyotes."
Gail Diane Yovanovich
Mike Barclay came to the Tex-Mex border to retire but instead has found new passion in defending "mules" and "coyotes."
Seventeen immigrants were found in this poorly painted Ryder truck about nine miles west of Pecos.
Jon Fulbright/ Pecos Enterprise
Seventeen immigrants were found in this poorly painted Ryder truck about nine miles west of Pecos.

"The fact that arrest and seizure statistics are down slightly in some areas," says Marfa Sector Border Patrol spokesman William Brooks, "might--and I emphasize the word might--mean we've slowed the traffic." Or, he admits, it could mean that the approximately 200 agents working out of his office are simply being skirted by the inventive new ways smugglers slip their illegal wares into the jurisdiction.

Most recent numbers show that in fiscal 2002, Border Patrol agents based in Marfa alone seized 84,595 pounds of marijuana and 295 pounds of cocaine; they apprehended 11,374 undocumented immigrants. Although cocaine seizures and arrests are down slightly from previous years, smuggling of the high-grade marijuana grown in central Mexico has reached a record high.

So frequent are the drug busts in his circulation area, says Marfa's Robert Halpern, editor of the weekly Big Bend Sentinel, that not all are reported in his paper. "The joke here in the office," he says, "is if they seize only 50 pounds [of marijuana], we consider it to be 'for personal use.'"

He admits that the cases his paper has reported on quickly become a blur. "They got 2,000 pounds on one stop a few weeks ago," he says, "and that got my attention. But next week, they'll catch someone with 3,000, then 5,000. And on and on it will go."

What troubles Halpern is that a few local youngsters have become involved in trafficking. "It's sad," he says, "but they've decided to become big-time smugglers and are winding up in jail, their lives ruined. All to make a quick, easy dollar."

The big bucks, DEA agent Leon says, are in the trafficking of marijuana. "The profit margin is incredible. On the other side of the border, the going rate [that dealers pay] is $100 a pound. In Dallas, the sale price is $600 to $650. Farther north, in Chicago and New York, it goes up to $800 to $900."

That is not to say the smuggling trade in heroin, cocaine and methamphetamines has waned.

"Actually, the other drugs are easier to get across because they're not as bulky," Leon says. "A pound of heroin, for example, is no bigger than a baked potato. And cocaine and pills are much easier to hide. But the fact remains that the greatest profit margin is with the marijuana. And profit is what drug smuggling is all about."

Will his agency and the Border Patrol, more high-profile than ever since Homeland Security became an everyday concern, ever get the upper hand on the matter? Not likely, everyone from officers in the field to jurists in the courtrooms say.

"The technology the smugglers are using," Leon says, "continues to improve. And many of them seem to be getting smarter." Time was, he points out, when the drug dealers were comfortable with the high risk of bringing in their contraband in large truckload amounts. When more checkpoints were established along the busiest highways, equipped with X-ray machines, drug-sniffing dogs and well-trained lawmen, the smugglers began looking for alternate routes.

They come not in huge trucks but in automobiles, pickups and SUVs, each transporting no more than 50 to 60 pounds of marijuana. "Basically, the dealers are still trying to get the large amounts into the States," Leon explains, "but they feel their chances are better if they split it up into smaller loads. The thinking now, in fact, is that there is a very good chance some of the vehicles they're sending will be caught. But they're playing the odds, hoping they can make it through with six or eight out of 10 or 12 loads."

Drugs are hidden in door panels, dashboards and headliners, false gas tanks, metal containers inserted into the tires and the space where the passenger-side airbag normally would be stored. Recently, a fake battery was found filled with black tar heroin (while the real battery was mounted beneath the car). Cocaine is hidden in a motor's manifold since smugglers have learned the engine heat will not melt or damage the drug. "I had one guy," Barclay says, "tell of driving straight through from Chihuahua City [Mexico] to Wichita, Kansas, with his manifold packed with coke. The only problem he had was having to wait several hours for the engine to cool before he could make his delivery."

Even law-abiding citizens have become unwitting accomplices. Mexican dealers will spot the parked vehicle of a vacationing family from Texas or New Mexico and wait until night to place a cargo of drugs in some hidden spot. That done, they take down the license plate number and do a computer check to determine the owner's home address.

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