Despite David Petz's delight at finally signing a contract to sell his four-bedroom home in El Paso's swank Upper Valley--it had sat vacant for weeks--he insisted on a final walk-through check before the deal closed.
He hadn't left anything behind. But somebody else had.
Stacked neatly on the floor were big cartons. Inside the cartons were tightly wrapped bundles. He knew the shape of the containers instantly. He was an intelligence agent with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and the cartons were stuffed with more than 400 pounds of near-pure Colombian cocaine, enough coke to supply dealers in five Western states for weeks.
Border Stash House
The people to whom he was deeding his home were international drug dealers. His family's home was about to be a border stash house, cocaine warehouse and distribution center.
A stakeout nabbed a gaggle of unsuspecting home buyers, part of a criminal conspiracy that employed grandmothers as couriers and former police officers as soldiers. The ring distributed as far away as California and held ties to major Colombian networks based in Miami, according to the federal indictment. Eleven defendants were named.
"Here was a million-in-one shot, a Lee Trevino hole in one," says Phillip Jordan, special agent in charge of the DEA's field office in Dallas. "We plain lucked out."
The bust took place in June. It was one of the biggest on record. But it was followed by much bigger seizures. In August a ton of coke was confiscated from a vehicle at an interstate checkpoint between Las Cruces and Demming, N. M.
A month later came the big score. An unmarked tractor-trailer rig was halted near an El Paso border security crossing point.
'Didn't Measure Up'
"It was one of those long trucks where the outside of the cargo compartment measured 20 feet and the inside 15 feet," says Ernest Perez, resident agent in charge of the DEA's El Paso office. "Something didn't measure up."
Inspectors tore away a false section and were startled to find a seamless wall of alabaster, 3,600 pounds of glistening cocaine, nine times the volume of the huge DEA house bust.
The giant seizures recently in the Southwest and mounting evidence going back more than two years reflect two trends.
First: Drug-dealing Colombians and others squeezed by law enforcement pressure in South Florida have shifted operations to the 2,000-mile stretch of river and wire separating the United States from Mexico.
"There's been a great increase in shipments coming through the Southwest border regions," says Ray Vinsik, chief of cocaine investigations for the DEA. "There is clearly a movement afoot."
Roughly 30% or more of the nation's cocaine supply now moves across this new area, traditionally a smuggling ground for Mexican-controlled marijuana and brown heroin.
Joint Venture Struck
And second: A joint venture has been struck between the cocaine traffickers and the crime lords of Mexico. In exchange for a piece of the action, Mexican organizations grant rights of passage, including financial and material help, in smuggling the goods across the border.
"The Mexicans and the South Americans have joined in a criminal partnership," says Jordan. "Because of the alliance, Bolivians, Panamanians, Colombians and others, find the U.S. border irresistibly enticing."
Accompanying this tide of crime is death and exotic violence. In Dallas, newly arrived waves of Jamaicans have launched a crime spree accounting for at least 50 deaths in the last two years. "Of the 500 to 700 known (cocaine dealers) in town, 90% are Jamaicans," says Dallas police investigator Charles Storey. "They've arrived like killer ants, wiping out everything before them."
Houston has become a battleground between established coke dealers and young Colombian canoneros , or rogue thieves seeking to snatch drug wealth and out-terrorize the drug dealers. In recent months there have been 11 murders in the Colombian underworld, including at least three execution-style killings. In one case blood was drained from a victim's body after he had been ritualistically slaughtered. His tongue was bitten so his evil spirit would not haunt his superstitious murderers.
'Live, Breathe Violence'
"So many crimes are just senseless," says Jaime Escalante, Houston police investigator for Colombian homicide cases. "These guys live and breathe violence. They find a guy with cocaine. They kidnap and torture him. They take his money, his guns, his drugs. They gang-rape his wife. Then they kill him, a shot to the back of the head usually.
"The point is, they want to scare or eliminate the dealers who may come after them for vengeance," says Escalante. "They do a pretty good job."
Ironically, tips from established drug dealers, frightened for their lives and livelihood, are now helping police round up the free-lance thieves and killers.