Bill Richardson: Southern and central Arizona have long been destinations for organized crime. Thanks to years of neglect by state government, Arizona is now the gateway to the United States for the Mexican drug cartels.
"We are dealing with a lethal narco-insurgency!"
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz.
On April 7, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., hosted a border-related crime summit in Tucson. City, county, state and federal law enforcement officials from Arizona's border counties, Pinal County, Phoenix and Washington, D.C., attended.
Southern and central Arizona have long been destinations for organized crime. Thanks to years of neglect by state government, Arizona is now the gateway to the United States for the Mexican drug cartels.
David Gonzales, the U.S. marshal for Arizona, described Giffords' sit-down as a milestone in addressing the problems. Gonzales, a former southern Arizona undercover narcotics agent and gang unit commander, had high praise for Giffords.
The summit focused on the totality of the state's cross border crime problem, not just illegal immigration. Human smuggling is one of many profit sources for domestic and international organized crime that makes tens of billions of dollars from the United States' growing supermarket of crime. Border control is just part of the solution.
The congresswoman obviously sees and understands what's really going on. She wanted facts, not emotion and bravado. She got what she asked for, no holds barred!
Giffords assembled some of the best minds in the business. Ritchie Martinez, a criminal intelligence analysis supervisor from the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Center, told Giffords that cartel members are in Arizona to protect business interests and expand their markets. HIDTA is a significant source of federal funding and support for successful local law enforcement projects designed to combat cross-border and organized crime in Arizona.
Martinez has spent 36 years working the border and is one of the top criminal intelligence experts in the world.
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard told KJZZ radio (91.5 FM) following the summit that violence stemming from Mexico's ongoing drug war is here.
Gonzales, who also heads the Arizona HIDTA leadership team, said "organized crime groups with ties to the drug cartels are here, growing and joining forces with, or charging other criminals taxes to conduct criminal activity in the state."
In a March 25 Associated Press story, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, who also attended the summit, said, "the cartels are responsible for kidnappings, shootings, rapes and banditry" in his county.
In 2007 there were 30,600 violent crimes and 279,794 serious property crimes reported in Arizona. Statewide only about one in five is solved. U.S. Department of Justice officials have attributed 80 percent of all crimes committed to organized crime groups and have reported the presence of Mexican organized crime in Arizona. The Congressional Quarterly announced in March that Arizona is America's eighth most dangerous state.
Recent seizures of Mexican heroin in northern Arizona show how far-reaching the problem is. And the recent arrests of American street gangsters in Phoenix and San Diego for two separate multimillion-dollar fraudulent enterprises demonstrate a new level of diversification by cunning organized criminals who have long been thought of as only being capable of dealing drugs, drive-by shootings and stealing beer.
The congresswoman expressed concern about the state's need for resources and the ability of law enforcement officials to share information and move rapidly and collectively against the growing and increasingly unified enemy of organized crime. She told meeting attendees that "communication and cooperation are not optional!"
Unfortunately Arizona is lacking significantly when it comes to effective communications. For years, state officials have chosen not to spend a small portion of the millions in federal pubic safety aid it receives on an urgently needed cooperative statewide criminal information collection, sharing and communications system for law enforcement.
Even though the Legislature has pledged $1.6 million for Maricopa County immigration sweeps, the state won't fund a $2.5 million information sharing project to allow every police officer in Arizona to communicate and share information on crime and criminals.
Giffords' summit jump-started a long overdue, serious, apolitical and nonpartisan discussion of the crime problem that's permeated the border and made its presence well known throughout the rest of Arizona.
Her "take the point" leadership is extremely refreshing.
Retired Mesa master police officer Bill Richardson lives in the East Valley and can be reached at email@example.com.