The U.S.-Mexico Border's 150 Miles of Hell
Credit: Photograph by Peter van Agtmael
The corridor's smuggling routes complete their convergence in Pinal County, which extends south from Phoenix. For the past five years, the county has seen unprecedented levels of drug trafficking and violence.

"It's hard to tell how much violence there actually is because there's so much shit that goes on out here we don't see," Lt. Matthew Thomas, commander of the Pinal Regional SWAT team, told me. The county's 220 deputies patrol 5,500 square miles. Thomas conducts some of the most aggressive anti-narcotics operations in the smuggling corridor.

I met Thomas one morning before dawn at a sheriff's office substation in the dilapidated desert town of Arizona City. We climbed into his unmarked silver Chevy Tahoe and turned onto Sunland Gin Road, a thoroughfare sometimes used by traffickers. He wore a long-sleeve SWAT T-shirt, desert army pants, and beige combat boots. He had a tactical knife in a scabbard strapped to one leg.

Earlier that morning, Thomas told me, blacked-out SWAT vehicles had dropped off eight deputies near surveillance positions in two nearby mountain ranges that smugglers use to move north through the county.

"If we keep relatively current on the activity of smuggling routes, we might catch somebody," Thomas said. "The smugglers switch routes, but they might keep a successful one going a little longer than they should."

Because the cartel's own surveillance coverage is so advanced and comprehensive, Thomas can never be sure whether his men will make it to their positions unseen.

"The bosses know when the dope is moving, and they'll start asking, 'What's out there?'" Thomas said. "They've mapped the area and all their scout locations. If it's hot they'll say, 'Shut it down,' and the smugglers will run their load into a wash, cover it with camo and brush, and wait. When they do that, it's very hard to find them. They're very good at hiding. And they'll wait as long as days."

The cartel's resupply vehicles sometimes spend all night provisioning scout positions, making the rounds from one peak to the next. Occasionally they drop off prostitutes for a day or two. Two weeks earlier, Thomas had impounded a car containing 200 pounds of dope and copious supplies for scouts. He pulled out his cellphone and showed me pictures of the supplies: packets of socks and underwear; Levi's jeans with the tags still on them; cans of beans and bags of tortillas; cases of Sprite, Coke, and Gatorade; bottles of ­tequila and beer; a carton of Marlboros; a Glock 9mm pistol; a two-way radio charger and two phone chargers, all wired to portable solar panels; Remington and American Eagle ammunition (9mm, .38 super, .22); and an all-weather Puma smartphone with embedded solar panels. Still in its case, the phone had just been released in Europe. It wasn't available yet in the United States.

Traffickers make their own roads, running one three-quarter-ton pickup right behind another, crushing vegetation and replacing tires and vehicles as needed. The drivers navigate a landscape of washes, mesquite thickets, irrigation berms, and foothill canyons.

"I'll tell you what, their drivers amaze me," Thomas said. If the SWAT team can't overtake smugglers, they'll try to push them toward Border Patrol tactical teams. "But at night we have to have an air asset in front of us with infrared and night vision, because if we're pushing them we need to know where to set up choke points."

SWAT operations yield apprehensions and seizures, but to be effective they mostly rely on the criminals making mistakes. Thomas and his men have to hope that smugglers will overuse routes, that cartel scouts won't discover SWAT surveillance positions, that traffickers' evasion techniques will fail, that an air asset will be available.

"There's no misconception that we're ever ahead on any of this stuff," he said. "They've got more time and more money and more manpower."

The sky lightened as we drove through cotton fields and mesquite flats. We entered a construction zone, slowed to a crawl, and passed a dented pickup in the opposite lane. Its occupants glanced at us, then glanced again.

"It's highly likely they're a lot more than farmworkers," Thomas said. From a distance, the Tahoe looked like any other SUV, but up close you noticed its antennas and the maximum tint of its windows. "If we think we've been made by scouts, we try to act natural. Let them think it's just some dumb cop on a regular patrol."

One by one, Thomas' men radioed in to say that they'd seen no activity that night and dawn had revealed no traces of movement along the routes. Another SWAT team member radioed in. He'd picked up a drug mule standing by the side of the road. The mule had delivered his load sometime earlier that night – he had the telltale backpack ruts on his shoulders – and he knew that he could only be charged with illegal entry. He would likely be processed and bused home, which he preferred to walking. The dope in his pack might sell for $70,000, nearly twice the salary of a first-year deputy.

Thomas agreed to show me the notorious Vekol Valley, the last leg of an alternate smuggling route running up the western edge of Pinal County. We drove west on Interstate 8 and entered the Sonoran Desert National Monument on Vekol Valley Road. Scouts often sit in the brush here, guiding smugglers north through the desert to load-out spots along the highway. We turned onto a Bureau of Land Management road, which was hardly graded and not easily distinguishable from the land itself, and stopped at a hollow below a ridge joining two low hills. Thomas told me a trafficker had recently killed a rip crew member here.

We climbed one of the hills. The Vekol Valley opened out below us. In some di­rections, you could see for 20 miles. Law-enforcement vehicles would be easy for an unaided eye to pick out. With night-vision goggles, you could spot a blacked-out SUV. Disciplined scouts with high-powered binoculars and infrared telescopes would see everything that moved in the valley.

We drove back to I-8 and pulled over. "There's so much traffic that any place that's a natural hiding spot along the highway, you can go in there and it's pretty much guaranteed to be a load-out spot," Thomas said. We climbed down an embankment and into a brushy arroyo. In the arroyo were backpacks, blankets, sweatshirts, empty bottles of the rehydrating sports drink Electrolit, disposable razors, burlap sacks for marijuana bundles, four pairs of "carpet shoes" (or "sneaky feet") to confuse trackers, and the same sort of improvised shelters I'd seen along the banks of the Santa Cruz River, 150 miles to the south.

On the way back to Arizona City, Thomas said, "Realistically, we know we're not stopping the flow. When you debrief people on the cartel side, when you get all the drugs and people you seize and you know how much actually makes it north, it's not much. On a good day we might get 20 percent. Normally we're probably getting five to 10 percent. And I would say that's everyone: Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the other task forces." A few years back, he said, Pinal SWAT seized an unprecedented 10,000 pounds of dope in a month. Later, one of Thomas' informants told him that the cartel was moving 15,000 pounds through the county every week.