Story by Devin Browne

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Note: This is part two of a five-part series airing this week, courtesy of the Fronteras Project

Most illicit drugs arrive in the U.S. across the southwest border. The drugs are destined for many places north and east – Las Vegas, Omaha, Denver, Detroit. And it’s the job of drug traffickers in places like Arizona to get them started on their journey.

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Photo: Devin Browne

A smuggler's route: drugs move north through Arizona to points north and east, while cash moves south.

Roberto Hernandez was one of those traffickers. He is now in prison, and he will be until at least 2019, but before this, he ran a major drug trafficking organization in southern Arizona out of a town called Casa Grande. His organization did two things: move drugs north, to Phoenix, and move money south, to Mexico. At any given time, law enforcement estimates that Hernandez had between 50 and 100 people working for him.

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Photo: Photo courtesy Pinal County Sheriff's Office

Smuggler Roberto Hernandez was arrested in October 2009.

Det. Ray Hinojos, with the Pinal County narcotics task force, lists the range of job titles involved.

“The stash house workers, the actual load drivers, the people who are looking out for vehicles, someone to buy supplies,” Hinojos said. He goes on: “What’s called scouting…the drivers, the people looking for drivers…”

Detectives with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office learned this through a wiretap in 2009, the first wiretap investigation ever in Pinal County.

They learned that Hernandez’s chain began with backpackers – men, usually Mexicans, recruited to walk for as many as 10 days through the desert with 40 to 100 pounds of marijuana strapped to their backs. Their route was always through the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation, out of the U.S. Border Patrol’s jurisdiction.

Their destination? What the detectives call a “lay-up” – a little spot just off the interstate where the backpackers would radio in the mile marker and wait for a load driver. Hinojos described what happens next.

“Pull right up, stop, pop the trunk, throw two or three backpacks in and we’re gone,” the detective said. “A couple hours, maybe a little later, get the bodies, once they see the dope got off all right.”

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Photo: Photo courtesy Pinal County Sheriff's Office

Marijuana seized from a Mexican DTO (Drug Trafficking Organization).

The “bodies,” or backpackers, were taken to rest, before heading back to Mexico. Meanwhile, the drugs headed to Casa Grande. Scouts and look-outs, on mountaintops and in vacant houses, made sure that the drivers took the right route.

“They’ll get up to a high enough vantage point and that’s when they’re going to tell the desert people, it’s cool to get on the highway,” Hinojos said. “Or you know what, stop, stop, stop.”

The drug transportation business is an expensive one. The sheriff’s office estimates drug trafficking organizations spend $100,000 for every 1,000 pounds of marijuana they move from the border through Casa Grande to Phoenix. During peak season, Hernandez was moving that much every week.

“There’s actually lots of money being spent,” Hinojos said. “But if there wasn’t all that money to be made, where would they be?”

Hernandez and 32 others were arrested in October 2009 and nearly $30 million worth of cars, houses, weapons, and cash were seized. Later, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu told reporters at a press conference that this was a great victory.

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Photo: Photo courtesy Pinal County Sheriff's Office

Cash seized from a Mexican DTO (Drug Trafficking Organization) Hernandez led.

“This actually crippled an entire transportation network, bringing drugs from Mexico up through the Tohono O’odham Indian Nation into Pinal County,” Babeu said.

But Hernandez’s drug trafficking organization – or DTO – was just one of many that moved drugs for the Sinaloa Cartel, which controls this area of the border.

“They’re not entrusting just one DTO to move their shipment, you know, they’re liable to have 10 of them. Ten DTOs and no one knows about each other,” Hinojos said. “So that way, if one’s not doing a good job, I can start pushing more weight over this way for this one who is doing a good job.”

So with one transportation cell dismantled, another will now just take on that supply and move it north. Currently, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office said it has several more under investigation.