Drug Traffickers Prey on Poor, US Charitable Efforts

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THE ARIZONA/MEXICO BORDER -- Every year, the United States sends billions of dollars in food aid around the globe. The goal is to feed the poor and hungry with excess grain and other products while advancing American interests abroad.

But as CBN News found out, those acts of charity can have unintended side effects.

For decades, the U.S. government has fought against malnutrition in Latin America. In Guatemala, food distributions help build relationships with rural communities and educate natives about proper sanitation and sustainable farming practices.

"Poverty rates are higher in the indigenous population, largely in the western highlands, not exclusively," explained David Delgado, food security advisor for USAID Guatemala. "The U.S. government's focus is in the western highlands, trying to address chronic malnutrition and poverty."

The remote areas also happen to be close to the Mexican border where drug cartels grow marijuana bound for the United States.

"As long as you're poor, as long as you have no jobs, you are vulnerable. Our job is to give people opportunities and alternatives to drug-related, gang-related employment," Delgado told CBN News.

Marijuana Backpacks

One warehouse located outside Guatemala City has more than 500 tons of food donated by the American people to help Guatemala with its hunger problem. From there, food gets sent out to villages all over the country and given to needy families.

But those bags are starting to show up in very unlikely places -- like in the southern Arizona desert, where drug traffickers have used them for smuggling marijuana back into the United States.

Pinal County Sheriff's deputies said they see them all the time.

"USAID distributes goods and commodities to countries in need after natural disasters, famine, earthquakes, etcetera. The drug cartels use that same act of charity from America to bring drugs back to our country," said chief deputy Steve Henry.

It's unclear how bags from Guatemala end up in the hands of drug traffickers, but one USAID worker told CBN News the instances are rare.

"There are some times when food is stolen, when food is taken inappropriately or used inappropriately, and you make the corrections. You fix it," the worker said.

Drug Smuggling Hub of U.S.

Back in Arizona, CBN News toured a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration holding facility where confiscated marijuana is stored before being sent to the incinerator twice a week. The sheer volume of the drugs makes one wonder how much is still getting through.

DEA agents are finding burlap sacks out in the desert, fashioned into makeshift backpacks that are full of marijuana.

One sack that CBN News was shown weighed at least 50 pounds. Drug smugglers use whole trains of illegal immigrants that cross the U.S.-Mexico border wearing the backpacks.

They hike for five or six days until they reach a freeway, where they drop the backpack off, put the marijuana into a truck and then it goes throughout the whole country.

"During the course of a year we'll run probably close to 2 million pounds of marijuana through this facility," said Doug Coleman, DEA acting special agent in charge.

Coleman currently heads up the DEA's efforts in Arizona.

"Right now we see Arizona is a significant hub for marijuana smuggling into the United States," Coleman said. "You'll have maybe 10 or 15 guys. They'll come across the border in one of these areas that's hard to police. They'll come through the mountain range or something like that."

Drug Routes Squeezed

Stepped up enforcement along the border is one reason violence is so high -- as cartels battle one another for fewer smuggling routes.

"We're putting a chokehold on them, every time we can. We take off a big load of money. We take off a big load of dope," Coleman told CBN News.

"Well, somewhere down the line, somebody's accountable for that, which causes more fighting because somebody has to get killed in order to pay off that debt," he continued. "Or they get held hostage to pay off the debt. So the violence is a continuous cycle."

Between the DEA's border enforcement and the U.S. government's help pouring into remote parts of Latin America, the cartels are being squeezed from both ends.

But with billions of dollars in drug profits on the line, the cartels are proving they won't go down without a fight.

--Published Nov. 2, 2011 

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Chuck Holton

CBN News Reporter

Chuck Holton has been producing high-octane features and news for CBN since 2003. He has freelance reported from nearly all of the world's hot spots, including Afghanistan, Burma, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.