Border Violence Roundtable

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The federal government plans to spend more than $400 million upgrading ports of entry and surveillance technologies in an effort to stop drugs and arms smuggling and the violence along the U.S-Mexico border. Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris, DEA Special Agent in Charge Elizabeth Kempshall and ATF Special Agent in Charge William Newell discuss what their agencies are doing to stop the Mexican drug war in Arizona.

Jose Cardenas:
I'm Jose Cardenas, welcome to "Horizonte." Escalating drug war violence in Mexico threatens U.S. borders. What lawmakers' agencies are doing to protect the public and stop the illegal flow of guns and drugs here in Arizona. All next coming up in "Horizonte." Good evening and thank you for joining us. Border violence and drug trafficking have increased along the Arizona border. Our state is already coping with high numbers of drug related murders and kidnappings. The concern is the safety of the public brought on by human smuggling, weapons, and narcotics by Mexican drug cartels. Last month attorney general Terry Goddard and Phoenix mayor Phil Gordon testified before Congress about how border violence is impacting public safety in Arizona. Joining me tonight to talk about this issue is Phoenix police chief Jack Harris, Elizabeth Kempshall, special agents in charge of the drug enforcement administration in Phoenix, and William Newell, special agent in charge of the bureau of alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and explosives in Phoenix. Thank you all for joining us on "Horizonte" tonight. I do want to talk about the testimony in Washington, because I know Bill, you and Jack, you were there. But agent Kempshall, give USA picture, it seems like this is burst upon the scene, a lot of coverage on the Spanish language T.V., American media, secretary of homeland security Napolitano was just there in Mexico, so give us an overview, and then we'll talk more specifics.

Elizabeth Kempshall:
You're correct. This is an unprecedented time. When president Calderon took over as -- his administration took over in December 2006 he made a bold state right from the beginning of his term when he started extraditing major cartel members to the United States. That coupled with unprecedented pressure that's been placed on the cartels, both in Texas, California, and south of Arizona, has created stress on these cartels to fight for their routes. Currently right below us in Nogales are some of the most popular routes by one of the strongest cartels. And that is causing an increased flow of drugs into our area, and that brings more traffickers into our area. And what we've been seeing in the United States and in Arizona is an increase in violence among these trafficker-on-trafficker violence. It's not same type of violence in Nogales; the cartels are fighting one another and taking on law enforcement to deter their efforts against the cartels. So with the president's efforts and the U.S. government's efforts, we are stressing those cartels and their using violence to control the routes into the United States.

Jose Cardenas:
Chief, when you were in Washington with the mayor, you were talking I assume about the violence here in Phoenix, kidnappings, home invasions. What did you tell Congress?

Jack Harris:
That we've seen a dramatic increase in the number of calls related to kidnappings, and home invasions that we feel are directly related almost all of the cases to the drug smuggling or human smuggling business coming out of Mexico.

Jose Cardenas:
This comes at a time when the overall crime rate in Phoenix has gone down significantly so. The papers give the impression that everybody needs to be wary of this situation, but is that an accurate portrayal?

Jack Harris:
It really isn't. As Beth said, this is really for the most part criminal on criminal on the drug part of the smuggling, and with the human smuggling, it's the bringing into the country of a group of illegal immigrants that are brought in, held at a house, charged a thousand, $1500 to be brought across the border, and once they're at the house, their clothes are taken, they're held captive, they're tortured over the phone while talking to their relatives, in an effort to get the relatives to bring another thousand dollars or more to the scene to release the person that was brought over. But as you said, crime rate is down in Phoenix, the homicide rate is down by 24%. Violent crime is down 6%, property crime is down 8%. This is not crime that is related to the average citizen that is living in these communities. It's directly related to the drug smugglers and to the human smugglers.

Jose Cardenas:
Agent Newell, a lot of the discussion has talked not only about the drugs coming north through Mexico, but about the guns going south. We had a pretty significant criminal prosecution here, I want to talk about in a minute, but what did you tell Congress about that situation?

William Newell:
It's a vicious cycle. We've known for a very long time, drugs come north, but the money and guns and ammunition go south. The Mexican drug cartels are at war with the Mexican government as well as amongst themselves. That is well documented. We see that in the news everyday. They're fighting that war with guns they get from the United States. So that's an illegal source, we go after the illegal sources of fire arms, be it illegal purchase, illegal sale, illegal transfer of firearms. That's our main focus. Not just the violent criminals in Mexico, but on the streets of the United States that are using firearms illegally and acquiring them illegally in further ordinance of their illegal activity.

Jose Cardenas:
Tell us what happened in this recent prosecution. I think it was just last month, a case that had been brought against a gun salesperson in Arizona, in Phoenix, was dismissed by the judge.

William Newell:
Right. That case began how a lot of them do, the straw purchasers. We convict over 10 straw purchasers, individuals who are buying guns third party for people that can not legally get them. We convicted several firearms traffickers, and we alleged and we believe we had a strong case against the actual owner of the store himself that was the source of between 750 and a thousand of these weapons of choice. We believe the judge made an incorrect decision, the state attorney general's office is appealing, and we'll let the system run its course.

Jose Cardenas:
Well, one of the things that you mentioned agent Kempshall, one of the major developments in Mexico is the extraditions and the impact that has. And we were talking before we got on the set here, bill, about the impact that had in Colombia.

William Newell:
Well, one of the things is the Mexican president, when he took over; he said from almost day one, the days of letting the cartels do business as usual are over. President Uribe did the same thing in Colombia. For many years the drug cartels -- D.E.A. is the expert, but as far as the violence, the president said those days are over. And of course drug cartels are going to respond with the one thing they know, which is what common thugs do, is violence. And the violence is with firearms.

Elizabeth Kempshall:
When the Mexican president started the extradition process, it sent a clear message to the cartel leaders and other members of the cartels that business is not going to be the same as it always had been. And this president was really serious about taking on the drug cartels, because that is the last thing the cartel members want to do is face our justice system and spend time in our jails in the United States.

Jose Cardenas:
But it's coming at great cost.

Elizabeth Kempshall:
It is.

Jose Cardenas:
In Mexico. And while the secretary of homeland security said she would not describe Mexico as a failed state or even on the brink of being one, she acknowledge there'd are contingency plans in the United States about what to do if that happens.

Elizabeth Kempshall:
I'll ask you to look back at history, go back to Colombia. During the late '80 s, you had cartel members that were causing all kinds of chaos in Colombia. People were saying that Colombia was going to be a failed state as well but when president Uribe took on the cartel members, now you see many pretty much the three cartels are pretty much no longer in existence. And the violence level has subsided. And what we need to do now is remain vigilant on our efforts in Mexico. And I know we're going to be successful and I know that if we continue to support president Calderon in his efforts, Mexico will experience the same success that Colombia did.

Jose Cardenas:
And there already have been successes. Materials you provided, the analysis have indicated that the reason for the increased competition for the drug routes is the success of the Mexican government in shutting down air and Maritime smuggling into their country. I think the figure was 90-95% decrease in traffic coming by air into Mexico, and 60% or 65% in maritime. So there have been successes, but it's generating fiercer violence.

Elizabeth Kempshall:
You look at the violence, and it's very discouraging, but you also have to realize it's a sign of success. The gulf cartel that operated south of Texas, it has suffered significant blows. And when you look at the seizure rates in Texas, relating to the cocaine, which the gulf cartel was primarily responsible for, in '06 and '07, it was 28,000 pounds of cocaine were seized. The following year it was only 16,000 pounds. It shows that we're making a difference. And it shows that with the violence the cartels have to find new routes to bring the cocaine, or the other drugs, methamphetamine, heroin, or marijuana, into the United States. And right now they are fighting over those routes just south of us, and that's why we're seeing the increased drug flow into the United States through Arizona and like we mentioned before, the increased violence. Because you have more drug traffickers entering into Arizona right now. But you need to take heart as well, our combined efforts in law enforcement here in Arizona; we're making a significant impact because we're working together. No longer are we satisfied with just seizing a load and saying, look, we seized a thousand kilos of cocaine. We're concerned with take out the entire organization and taking out their system to bring in drugs into the United States and guns and money southbound. And if we can attack the drugs coming in to the United States, we're also going to limit the profit they make. And that's what they need. They need the money to be able to fuel this war.

Jose Cardenas:
And chief, tell us about the cooperation that agent Kempshall was talking about what kinds of things are you doing with the federal government to deal with these problems?

Jack Harris:
It's actually very unique in law enforcement across the country to have the level of cooperation that we have here. Not just among the local entities, but the combined efforts between local and federal. And in Phoenix we developed the home invasion kidnapping task force that has representatives from all these agencies as well as I.C.E., the county attorney's office that works these programs. We have operation impact that goes after the human smugglers at the state level that involves D.P.S., the county attorney, and I.C.E. Phoenix has 10 I.C.E. agents embedded into the violent crimes bureau to coordinate with our violent crimes investigators because they have databases that we don't have access to determine who these people are that we're trying to track down. And all of those operations have been extremely successful. In fact, when we were in Washington, one of the things that we were asking from Congress was help in financing another 25 people to work the H.I.K.E. unit for Phoenix, because right now we have 10 officers, a sergeant, and a lieutenant. But the public needs to understand that when we get a call about a victim who is being tortured right now, and a relative has been contacted and called us to try to find them somewhere in the 540 square miles of Phoenix, that that is very manpower intensive. We've had as many as 60 officers working one case, and last year we had 300 -- over 350 home invasion cases and 350 kidnapping cases. So when one case can take 40, 50, 60 people, you can see how manpower intensive that is.

Jose Cardenas:
Chief, I can probably guess what H.I.K.E. stands for, but I'm not sure we explained that --

Jack Harris:
Home invasion, kidnapping enforcement task force.

Jose Cardenas:
It was the E would I have gotten wrong. Agent Kempshall, you've been in a number of postings across the country, most recently in Texas. Would you agree with the chief in terms of the uniqueness of where we are here?

Elizabeth Kempshall:
Absolutely. I've been with D.E.A. for over 25 years now, and this is the level of cooperation in Arizona is unprecedented in my career. What's so unique is everybody puts their -- checks their badges at the door, and they come together and meet because we have one common goal. And that's to make Arizona a safer place.

Jose Cardenas:
Agent Newell, you were in Mexico last week, the city of eternal spring. A beautiful city outside Mexico City. But the focus was something very serious. Tell us about that.

William Newell:
Again, it was the highest level meeting that I've ever attended in the issue of firearms trafficking. That's the level that has gotten to in Mexico. We had the two attorneys general, we had secretary of homeland security Napolitano, her counterpart in Mexico, and the primary focus of the conference was how the United States and Mexico can work more closely in addressing the firearms trafficking issue. Respecting each others' laws we have on the books. Like -- she's got 25 years, I've got a few years less, but I worked the border a long time --.

Jose Cardenas:
You both look very young.

William Newell:
Thank you. Firearms trafficking have been around a long time. But this is the first time I've ever participated; the first time there's been a meeting at this level to address an issue of mutual concern. Because the tools of the trade of these violent drug cartels in Mexico and the United States, is firearms. And our job is to eliminate the illegal sources of those firearms. If we can take the firearms away from the violent criminals or eliminate the sources of firearms to the violent criminals, we hope to give the Mexican government and our own state and local officers a chance.

Jose Cardenas:
Did you come up with any concrete actions?

William Newell:
I think we took some very proactive steps in understanding each others' specific levels of expertise, and the laws that we're empowered with, and we put a lot of case examples out there of some recent successes we have had. Respecting each others' sovereignty. Because we have two different countries, two very different sets of laws when it comes to firearms. So I think we're progressing. Having -- just having the conference at that level is a she successful thing. Bringing the attention to that level. And then empowering everybody to move forward, and then have more success stories like we talked about at this conference.

Jose Cardenas:
What about Washington? You were there, you testified, got a lot of publicity. Anything concrete coming out of that?

Jack Harris:
Yes. The Obama administration, through the stimulus package, has made available hundreds of millions of dollars to law enforcement across this country to address these types of issues. There's a number of grants that we're applying for that have very short time frames for applications that we think we're going to be very successful in our application to get funding to be able to help us with some of these task forces and operations. They're very manpower intensive and very expensive.

Jose Cardenas:
These are, for example, the hike program were you talking about?

Jack Harris:
Yes. That's been a very successful program for all of us. They've arrested over 148 people, and closed down 25 cells that were responsible for some of these home invasion and kidnappings. They've been get can T. through our prosecutions, averages of between seven and 15 years per case. So they're very successful operations, but again, they're very manpower intensive and very expensive. So it's very helpful for us to be able to go to Washington and tell them what we need, and see them respond.

Jose Cardenas:
Bill, you sent over some pictures for us to look at. They look to the untrained eye, extremely sophisticated, these weapons.

William Newell:
The Mexican drug cartels right now are getting their hands on weapons that they specifically need in further ordinance of their illegal activity. They're going after the high-dollar, high-power, high-capacity firearms. They're at war with each other and they're at war with the Mexican military. And the Mexican federal agencies. So they're getting their hands on some high-dollar, high-capacity, high-power firearms.

Jose Cardenas:
And they're using grenades.

William Newell:
The Mexican drug cartels, especially the gulf cartel, we've seen an increase in the use of hand grenades. They're not coming through the United States. They are -- there's a market, a black market around the world, there's a black market in Central America for hand grenades. They're remnants of the civil wars in Central America of the '80s, really. And so they're availing themselves of those grenades from the black market.

Jose Cardenas:
Using some of them to intimidate local media in Mexico.

William Newell:
Absolutely. We've had attacks on T.V. stations, the United States consulate in Monterey, several attacks throughout Mexico. We have been working very closely with the Mexican military to track the use of those grenades to provide training on how to properly identify the grenades so they can track the use and lot numbers associated with them. We have most recently in January of this year seen a grenade used just outside of a town in Texas of a lot corresponding to a lot number used at the U.S. consulate in Monterrey. The USA of grenades is an increase of violence that concerns us a lot.

Jose Cardenas:
Now, agent, we talked about these things, grenades, the weapons, the really brutal violence that's going on. And it makes it sound like you shouldn't put your toe across the border, or you'll be killed or kidnapped or in some other way harmed. Is that an accurate picture of what's going on in Mexico? I know the Mexican government is extremely concerned about the image that's being presented to the rest of the world and the United States in particular.

Elizabeth Kempshall:
Well, there certainly are areas in Mexico that are extremely dangerous. A lot of them are right along the border where the cartel members are trying to control the border so they can have access to the United States to bring their drugs in. But I was with bill down in Mexico last week, and I felt perfectly safe. It's not unlike in the United States, there's pockets where there's violence, and the majority of our town is perfectly safe. So I applaud president Calderon's effort. He's making his country a better and safer place.

Jose Cardenas:
Chief, we've talked about the increasing stakes for the cartels and why that may result in increasing competition between them, increasing violence. As I understand it, in years past, anyway, losing a load of drugs, it was just the cost of doing business. So there wasn't much of a consequence if somebody stiffed them. But it's precisely because they're having more trouble doing business that as I understand it, we're seeing an increase in kidnappings here and torture and so forth.

Jack Harris:
You're absolutely right. The cartels can't afford to lose those large loads when you're talking hundreds of pounds of many elicit drugs, that's worth a lot of money to them. So when they front that narcotic load to a local dealer and then the dealer sells it, makes their money and doesn't pay for the load, then that's where we end up with the people coming into town to try to get their money back. And so the home invasion or the kidnapping, or the torture, or all three combined is connected to the drug deal to get their money back. So a lot of the time this is like we started the show with, bad guy on bad guy. We're getting a call that someone is being kidnapped, and they're being tortured, but many times that victim is also a drug dealer. So that's why the community needs to be very vigilant, but not to be overly sensitive that a citizen here in Phoenix is in danger of having somebody come and kick the door on their house. It's mostly drug dealer-on-drug-dealer or related to the humidity smuggling.

Jose Cardenas:
Your people have developed a fair amount of expertise in dealing with these. There was a big feature art in "The Los Angeles Times" about that. Can you elaborate on the skills that are involved and -- to the extent there's a typical kidnapping, how it's handled by your department?

Jack Harris:
Without going into great detail, it is a skill that we have developed because when I say 350 or so last year, that doesn't include the 250 or so the year before that. So those cases are continuing to be worked as well. So the case load gets very heavy, very quickly. They developed the skills of not only the technology that has to be developed to be able to track cell phone calls and other ways of communication, but then surveillance becomes very critical, being able to follow vehicles without being seen, and finding which house in the city of Phoenix or in the valley that these calls are coming from. It's very --

Jose Cardenas:
You've been involved in some of the negotiations, posing as relatives of the victim.

Jack Harris:
Yes.

Jose Cardenas:
It's pretty impressive. Bill, tell us about project gun runner.

William Newell:
Sure. A.T.F. is a primary federal agency that enforces the federal firearms laws. Having worked firearms laws for 40 years, in just a few months after the Mexican president took power and started taking the proactive steps, we started seeing an increase in our analysis of the firearms trafficking south into Mexico, working with our partners like D.E.A. and using their phenomenal intelligence they get. We started realizing, we're going to start seeing a tremendous flow, an illegal flow of firearms, because drug cartels are preparing for battle. So prepare for that and to take aggressive steps, what A.T.F. did, we formed project gun runner in early 2007 to go after these organizations that are in fact supplying firearms to the Mexican drug cartels and trying to dismantle them.

Jose Cardenas:
We've got less than a minute, and I'd like you to just tell us what you think we can expect to see in the next six months.

Jack Harris:
Well, I would say I think we're going to see assistance from the government financially to be able to help us to fight some of these major cases. But I think one point that we need to make is that people here in this country are the ones who are demanding the drugs. And we're the ones who are buying the drugs. Without that demand, this whole situation goes away.

Jose Cardenas:
And agent Kempshall, the chief used your time, my apologies. We're going to have to end the show. Thank you for joining us on "Horizonte." And that is our show for this Thursday night. I'm Jose Cardenas. For all of us at "Horizonte," have a good evening.

Jack Harris:Phoenix Police Chief;Elizabeth Kempshall:DEA Special Agent in Charge;William Newell:ATF Special Agent in Charge

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