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Smuggling — Out Wickenburg Way, Part I: Foreword

Illegal border crossings by human and drug smugglers — and the seemingly uncontrolled level of violence along our border with Mexico — have dominated the attention of Arizonans and the nation for months, if not years. Wickenburg and nearby communities are, it seems, never mentioned in connection with smuggling.

You might reasonably think the problem is isolated to the border, where there are remote desert preserves, wilderness areas, the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation and closed military ranges.

You might even imagine that being 146 miles north of the border serves as a sort of magical buffer for Wickenburg — insulating us, as it were, from these unpleasant realities. You would be wrong.

Human Smuggling Site

Figure 1, Human smuggling site near Wickenburg

Not only is that distance immaterial to smugglers, the terrain and road systems in our area are decidedly useful to their purposes.

The uncomfortable truth is that smuggling operations abound, even within a ten–minute drive from Wickenburg. Active sites exist south of town, west to Aguila, and further south toward Interstate 10. It is an area more than 1000 square miles in size, with washes, rugged mountain ranges and isolated trails that are ideally suited for concealment. This area is sparsely populated. Importantly, an understaffed Sheriff’s Office struggles to provide minimal coverage. Meanwhile, the Border Patrol pays no attention to it because these sites are beyond their operational area.

During the course of my research, I have documented thirty–eight sites in two distinct smuggling corridors whose locations range from less than eight to 30 miles from Wickenburg. Most of these sites are either “active” or “recent.” All of them show evidence of persistent, long–term use — in some cases, for more than four years. All of them show evidence of human smuggling activity and at least one site provided grim evidence of human trafficking. Weapons have been found at one site. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that drug smugglers use these sites as well; but I have found no direct evidence thus far.

This series begins with an examination of one individual whose path to Wickenburg led from Ecuador to Peru, then to Central America and Mexico, before he illegally crossed the border into Arizona in July 2010. His name is Panki Pinchupa.

Tracking Panki Pinchupa

Federal agencies and immigration organizations describe many reasons why foreign nationals seek to enter the United States illegally. Examples include grinding poverty and high unemployment in their country of origin; the presence of family members who have already entered the U.S.; the promise (or hope) of low–skilled jobs; escape from violence in their homeland; or the desire to avoid prosecution for criminal activity in their native country. [FOOTNOTE 1]

In assessing the calculus of personal risk, there is the realization that millions before them have succeeded. There is also the awareness that an initial failure to make it across the border from Mexico is usually nothing more than a temporary setback. After all, when the U.S. Border Patrol apprehends fewer than one in three illegal border crossers, the probability of success is decidedly in favor of the illegal alien. [FOOTNOTE 2] One or more of these factors probably influenced one such individual to leave his native Ecuador.

On June 14, 2010, Panki Pinchupa finalized his travel arrangements for what would be an arduous and high–risk trip, beginning the next day. He confirmed the following economy flight reservations:

June 15 @ 07:25 — TACA # 42 from Quito, Ecuador to Lima, Peru June 15 @ 10:30 — TACA # 40 Lima, Peru to San Salvador, El Salvador June 15 @ 19:20 — TACA #411 San Salvador to San Pedro Sula, Honduras

He also booked reservations for six nights at the Hotel Villa Nuria, on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula. Pinchupa’s travel arrangements concluded with a multi–segment return flight to Ecuador on June 21. While giving the look of legitimacy, Pinchupa’s elaborate reservations were a ruse, provided for him by the smuggling ring he had engaged. (See the map in Figure 2 to follow his route through Central America into Mexico.)

Pinchupa Route to Chiapas

Figure 2, Pinchupa’s Route to Chiapas

The next morning he arrived at the Quito airport and was issued boarding passes for E–Ticket #133 3820522477. His most difficult connection would be from Lima to San Salvador (see point 3 on the map), since he would have only twenty–five minutes to deplane and get from the terminal out to the tarmac for TACA #40. From the moment he boarded his flight in Quito until he landed in San Pedro Sula at 8:10 pm, nearly fourteen hours would elapse; but there were still things to attend to after arriving in Honduras (point 4 on the map). First, he (or someone acting on his behalf) would cancel his reservation at the hotel, as well as his return flights to Ecuador. There was no purpose in incurring a $528 (U.S.) hotel bill when he would not be in Honduras for more than a few hours.

San Pedro Sula, a city of slightly more than one million residents, is in northern Honduras, about 37 miles inland from the Caribbean Sea. While it is considered the industrial center of the country, its attractiveness to human and drug smuggling organizations stems from its strategic location — it is approximately twenty–one miles from the border with Guatemala (see point 5 on the map). San Pedro Sula is also the murder capital of Honduras — a reputation it owes to drug gangs. [FOOTNOTE 3] The area northwest of the city is mountainous and forested, and it is relatively easy to bypass the official border crossing point at Corinto by using a network of old logging roads leading to Guatemala.

Pinchupa’s travel time from San Pedro Sula across the frontier is unknown, but the trip probably began soon after he landed. The most likely scenario is that he traveled with a group of other Central and South American migrants to a site near the Honduran border. From there his group would be guided across the frontier, on foot, to a rally point a short distance inside Guatemala. Then he probably resumed motorized travel to a holding point in or near Puerto Barrios, a port city about eighteen miles inside Guatemala (see point 6 on the map).

This much is certain: He was in Puerto Barrios on the 16th, where he purchased a bus ticket. It is doubtful whether he had any control over the selection of bus routes, since those important choices would be managed by the smuggling organization. If his route had taken him into the interior of northern Guatemala, it is likely that he would have entered Mexico on the eastern (Gulf of Mexico) side of the country, either in the state of Campeche or Tabasco. That route would have eventually taken him to a border crossing point somewhere in Texas. In that case, Pinchupa would have been under the influence, if not outright control, of the Los Zetas Drug Cartel. [FOOTNOTE 4]

Instead, he purchased a ticket that would take him 185 miles to Guatemala City that day (see point 7 on the map). For him, at least, this was fortunate; members of the Zetas Cartel murdered 72 migrants — all from Central and South America — at a ranch about 100 miles south of the Texas border on August 24, 2010. There were two survivors — one from Honduras and one from Ecuador.

As with San Pedro Sula and Puerto Barrios, Guatemala City is a major staging point for illegal immigration and drug smuggling to the U.S. [FOOTNOTE 5] To characterize the border between Guatemala and Mexico as “porous” is something of an understatement. Smugglers maintain at least thirty–one well–established “unofficial” crossing points and the principal points of entry are along the Suchiate River, which separates western Guatemala from the state of Chiapas, Mexico. [FOOTNOTE 6] Here, illegal migrants can wade across the 100–foot wide river or pay 50 cents to ride one of the many rafts operating within a few hundred feet of the border station (see point 8 on the map).

Migrants Riding a Train

Figure 3, Migrants riding a train from Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas Mexico. [FOOTNOTE 7]

The western routes from Guatemala City to Chiapas are largely controlled by the Sinaloa Drug Cartel, as well as gangs such as MS–13 and Barrio–18 that battle for control of the human smuggling business. In spite of these obvious risks, illegal migrants are attracted to this region because it provides access to the Chiapas–Mayab railroad at Ciudad Hidalgo and Tapachula, both near the border with Guatemala.

The date of Pinchupa’s crossing from Guatemala into Mexico and his route to the Arizona–Mexico border is unknown; he kept no records of those events. If the Sinaloa Drug Cartel controlled his travel — even indirectly — his path would have taken him north from Chiapas through the western states of Mexico. His method of travel would have been a combination of trains and car or truck transport.

To be sure, the control of drug trafficking in some areas of Mexico is fiercely contested by rival cartels. We are gruesomely reminded of this in the news from border cities such as Tijuana, Nogales and Juarez, where drug related murders commonly reach double digits each day. Figure 4 illustrates the drug cartel’s main areas of influence in Mexico. The Sinaloa Cartel controls the area of Chiapas where Pinchupa mostly likely entered Mexico.

Mexican Cartels

Figure 4, Mexican Cartels Areas of Influence. Map courtesy of Strafor.Org [FOOTNOTE 8]

Articles that deal with human smuggling routes frequently mention the area around Nogales, Mexico and the border towns of Sasabe, Sonoita and numerous small pueblos as principal staging points before crossing into Arizona. [FOOTNOTE 9]

If he traveled on foot after crossing the border, it would have taken his

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group at least six days to reach the smuggling transfer point south of Wickenburg. It is likely that he reached Wickenburg through a series of one or two day hikes to lay–up points, combined with several short distance rides. Smuggling organizations determine where — and when — it is safe to use vehicles in heavily patrolled areas.

Panki Pinchupa's Backpack

Figure 5, Panki Pinchupa’s backpack south of Wickenburg. July 15, 2010.

In the eyes of a smuggling organization, Pinchupa probably committed an unpardonable sin — he had kept all of his travel documents in his backpack until discarding it near Vulture Mine Road. These documents ceased being of value to him the moment he crossed from Honduras into Guatemala, and would certainly have been a liability when he illegally entered the United States. Nevertheless, his flight and hotel reservations, boarding passes, bus ticket, a calling card and other documents were neatly folded and hidden in a small compartment of his backpack. See Figure 6.

Documents

Figure 6, Boarding passes and bus ticket.

Pinchupa’s pack was one of nine found on July 15, 2010 at a smuggling point I have named “VMR1.” One reason they stood out from the background litter is they appeared to be fresh. An examination of the contents of all nine packs (six male and three female adults) revealed much information about how they reached this site — although the contents said nothing about the route itself. The condition of perishable food items indicated the packs had been discarded during the first week of July, so my discovery was about one week later.

Pinchupa and his group must have arrived well before the transportation that had been arranged for them. Instead of hurriedly dumping their dirty travel clothes on the ground, as is common, they neatly folded and wrapped their bundles with the black plastic garbage bags they had used as ponchos to conceal their movement on trails at night. These bundles, along with any remaining unused clothing and food containers, were neatly placed inside their discarded packs.

Sometime during that warm summer night, a vehicle arrived to transfer Pinchupa and his eight travel companions to another location. It might have been to a drop house or to other vehicles that would transport them individually, or in small groups, to their destination cities. On that warm summer night, on empty streets and under the cover of darkness, they slipped quietly through Wickenburg. Panki Pinchupa had avoided or survived contact with vicious criminal gangs, violent and ruthless drug cartels, corrupt police and militaries in Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.

Like the other uncounted illegal aliens who have passed through these 38 smuggling sites during the past few years, he had successfully evaded the U.S. Border Patrol and Arizona law enforcement agencies.

In Part 2 we will examine human smuggling sites and the routes used by illegal migrants to reach areas near Wickenburg and Aguila.

Footnotes

  1. In fiscal year (FY) 2010, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) removed more than 392,000 illegal aliens — half of them, more than 195,000 — were convicted of crimes, including murder, sex offenses and drug violations. Reported October 6, 2010, Immigration and Customs Enforcement. www.ice.gov/pi/nr/1010/101006washingtondc2.htm
  2. Estimates of Border Patrol apprehension rates in Congressional testimony and elsewhere have ranged from a high of one in three to a low of one in seven illegal border crossers. See the article at http://www.thesocialcontract.com/pdf/sixteen–one/xvi–1–54.pdf. Border Patrol agents privately estimate the current apprehension rate to be approximately 25%.
  3. Honduras has a murder rate of 67 per 100,000 (2009) and is second only to El Salvador, with 71 per 100,000. With a rate of 52 murders per 100,000, Guatemala ranks fourth. In spite of the extreme violence, Mexico ranks #14 with a murder rate of 14 per 100,000. See www.wikipedia.com. See also “Mexican drug cartels bring violence with them in move to Central America”, 2010/07/26 in the Washington Post.
  4. The Zetas reportedly kidnap thousands of Central American migrants each year for ransom in Tabasco and Veracruz states. See http://www.southnotes.org/2009/06/22/thousands–of–migrants– kidnapped–in–southern–mexico/
  5. The U.S. Embassy estimates that between 300 and 400 tons of cocaine passes through Guatemala each year. It has also become a producer of heroin; most of which is destined for the United States.
  6. “Due to the instability and 700–km shared border with Guatemala, Chiapas State has become a major entry point for these people to enter into Mexico. It is now estimated 95% of illegal aliens entering into Mexico do so through one of the unofficial 31 border crossings in Chiapas.” Mark Wuebbels, George Mason University Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center.
  7. Photo from “A Line in the Sand: Confronting the Threat at the Southwest Border.” House Committee on Homeland Security — Interim Report (2007) http://www.davickservices.com/Line_In_Sand0.htm.
  8. This map and a related article were republished with permission of STRATFOR, and can be read in their entirety at http://www.stratfor.com/analysis/20100514_mexican_drug_cartels_update
  9. Twenty–one people were killed and six wounded in a confrontation between rival gangs near Altar, Sonora. The territory is disputed between the Sinaloa and Beltran Leyva cartels. See
    www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2010/07/06/20100706nogales-mexico-drug-cartelkillings.html.

Last 5 posts by Ben Leucking

5 comments to Smuggling — Out Wickenburg Way, Part I: Foreword

  • Ben Leucking

    Author’s Note:

    The number of documented smuggling sites is constantly changing. Although Part 1 makes reference to 38 sites, three more have been found near Aguila since this segment was submitted to wickenburg-az.com.

    Part 2 is scheduled for release on December 20th.

  • Ed

    After reading this article Im concerned about hiking in the desert. I love to hike and explore, and ride the dirt roads, Im wondering now how safe is it to be out there south of Wickenburg? Have there been any reports of violence or confrontations on citizens in the desert? Thanks for the article, I didnt realize it happened around here.

  • Ben Leucking

    Ed,
    The questions you have raised are entirely reasonable and they speak to the fundamental issue of public safety, both locally and in other areas where human and drug smuggling activities occur.

    Let me first say that I am not in law enforcement. Second, my comments may differ from any opinions that might be expressed by this web site. Third, my statements reflect only what I have personally experienced or learned from others, and should not be construed as absolute for all locales or circumstances. In reverse order:

    Question: Have there been reports of violence or confrontations?

    To my knowledge, there have been no incidents involving citizens south of Wickenburg. Two sources that you might check with would be the Phoenix office of the BLM and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.

    Question: How safe is it south of Wickenburg?

    As a hiker, you may have been in this area many times during the past several years, yet you have always returned safely. For me, the finding of human smuggling sites has not kept me out of the desert, but my “situational awareness” is much higher in certain areas. For example:

    Activity at transfer points (pick up sites) seems to occur primarily late at night, when traffic on main roads is at a minimum. During the warm season, illegal migrant groups will “lay up” during the day and move on trails at night. The cool season (October – April) is conducive to day-time movement on remote trails, but activity at pick up sites still seems to occur at night.

    Lay up sites tend to be in more remote areas, several miles from where the transfer points are located. Most lay up sites are in or on the margin of desert washes, where there is good tree cover and shade.

    Part 2 will explain in greater detail how the routes and pick up sites work.

  • Leona Henry

    Did you ever release part II, as I am very interested in your followup post.

  • Ben Leucking

    Leona,
    Thanks for reading the article and visiting Wickenburg-AZ.com. This is a three-part series and all are accessible on the web site.

    Part II is “A Study of Smuggling Routes and Sites”
    Part III is “When Backpacks Talk… Studying Discards at Smuggling Sites”

    A link to both articles is included at the bottom of Part I or, you can type my name in the ‘Search Box’ in the top right corner of the Wickenburg-AZ.com web home page. It will display links for all three articles.