The tip identifying the drop house allows the Nogales (Ariz.) Police Department's K-9 unit to move in. Once the dog gets the hit and relays its scratch alert on the door, officers begin swarming the property.
The officers converge on the house. It's nondescript in a way that only a drug house can be. The front yard is clumps of crabgrass and swaths of dirt. There are no children's toys, potted plants, or the other signs of life that you see in front of a home. The residents have pulled off the address numbers and black curtains line the inside of front-facing windows to block curious eyes. This is a staging area for narcotic loads waiting to move north into the heart of America.
The officers have a search warrant. They line up at the front door with a handheld ram. "Hello. Police. Open the door.
"Policia. Abra la puerta. Orden de cateo."
No answer. The officers repeat the commands. Again, no answer. After a third set of commands, they pop the door. The pungent odor of weed wafts out of the building but the suspects have fled, leaving officers only a few 25-pound bundles to book into evidence.
Stash-house raids such as this one are routine here in Nogales, a border town of some 20,000 people situated in the rolling hills of the Sonoran Desert. For in reality, Nogales is two towns in one. A metal fence divides Nogales, USA from another Nogales: Nogales, Sonora, a much poorer Nogales where law enforcement is under attack from drug trafficking cartels and the cartels are under attack from many rivals.
Nogales is a flashpoint in the drug war, in the campaign against human trafficking, and in the politics of immigration. All of these problems stem from its proximity to Mexico, but like many border towns, Nogales also lives in a symbiotic relationship with its neighbor.
As in El Paso; Laredo, Texas; Pinal County, Ariz.; and other smuggling hot zones along the 1,951-mile border, Nogales is a commercial gateway for many legitimate commodities such as watermelons and tomatoes, as well as marijuana, meth, cocaine, and heroin.
The dependency that the locals have on legitimate trade with Mexico makes life complicated for the law enforcement officers who work the Nogales area. And that includes the 65 sworn officers of the Nogales PD who daily interdict smugglers on vehicle stops, on foot, and in the city's storm-water drainage channels.
Violent crime is not very common in Nogales. There hasn't been a murder in three years, but the threat of cartel violence is palpable. And as the Nogales PD takes a more active role in multi-agency task forces, cracking down on stash houses, and seizing larger narcotic loads from Mexico, some fear that the cartels may coil out and strike like an angry rattlesnake uncovered under a rock by a rancher.
South of the fence in Sonora, violence is all too common. The cartels racked up 130 murders during the first half of this year, as Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel and the Beltran-Leyva Cartel warred for control of the smuggling routes. Also, the paramilitary Los Zetas cartel operates across the border using counter-surveillance, assault vehicles, and even car bombs to intimidate police and exert control.
The officers of the Nogales Police Department work on the edge of this multi-faction cartel war. And sometimes they feel its impact.
A criminal informant recently passed along a cartel message that Nogales officers who seize narcotics while off duty would be marked for death. The threat came after officers snared 400 pounds of marijuana while riding horses on ranchland east of town. The note specifically warned officers not to cross the cartel off duty, saying that doing the job while on the clock was understood but off-duty enforcement would be punished.