A Conversation With Terry Goddard, Attorney General of Arizona

Sunday, April 5, 2009; B02

As Mexico's war against its drug cartels heats up, Arizona is becoming a front-line state. Phoenix leads the nation in kidnappings. The border south of Tucson and Yuma has become the main conduit for smuggling drugs and illegal immigrants into the United States. Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard has made waves for employing controversial techniques to fight money laundering and for suggesting that the United States might need to rethink its drug laws. Goddard spoke with Outlook's John Pomfret about Mexico, marijuana and an operation known as Tumbleweed. Excerpts:

Is Mexico a failed state?

No. Not even close. The thing that I find appalling about the failed-state analysis is that the instability and the violence is precisely because the Calderón administration made the strategic decision to take on the cartels and to reestablish national sovereignty and the rule of law. And we're criticizing them for it.

Is Mexico's violence going to spread north?

Yes. I hate to say that, but I don't think there's anything about our current response that keeps it from coming north.

Talking to one of the border sheriffs recently, I asked: How long do you think it will be before there's a violent episode in your county? And his response was, I think it'll happen this year. It's going to be a gun battle between two criminal organizations and one of my rookies is going to get caught in the crossfire.

Most Americans think that drug smugglers make their big profits off cocaine, but you say otherwise.

Marijuana is the horse. Marijuana is the profit center for the cartels. We think approximately 65 percent of the total revenue that the cartels get from drug smuggling is based on marijuana. You could say indirectly that much of the carnage in Mexico is financed because of profits from marijuana.

Should marijuana be legal?

I personally don't think so. But I believe that we need to put all of the various options on the table. Legalization is one of those options. Would it reduce the profits of the cartels? Would it increase the risk to the population of the United States?

I don't have the ability to answer those questions. It might reduce the profits, but on the other hand, I don't believe I've ever heard an adequate answer for what is an acceptable amount of marijuana in a school bus driver's bloodstream.

What about preventing people from taking drugs?

We do a lousy job. I think there was so much adverse reaction to the Reefer Madness campaigns and some of Nancy Reagan's histrionics that there's a perception that prevention doesn't work. I don't happen to believe that. Here in Arizona, the Arizona Meth Project has actually cut the use by teenagers of methamphetamines in half in just two years.

The Obama administration wants to cut the guns going to Mexico. But in many states, including Arizona, if you buy multiple handguns you have to fill out a form, but you can buy an infinite number of AK-47s without filling out a form.

It does seem logical that if you could buy a two-shot Derringer, and if you bought more than one of them, you'd have to fill out a separate multiple-weapons form, which puts ATF on notice that you bought multiple Derringers. But if you're buying multiple AK-47s you don't have to fill out a similar multiple-weapons form.

So you favor closing that loophole?

Oh, absolutely.

Aren't you afraid of the NRA?

I'm not afraid of them. I'm respectful of them.

There have been problems on Arizona's border for decades. How does today compare with the times of Pancho Villa and General Pershing?

In 1916, Pancho Villa came across the border. It was a time of extraordinary unrest in Mexico. General Pershing sent 10,000 regular army troops to catch Villa. They spent a very frustrating year because the mountain areas of northern Mexico and southern Arizona are some of the most treacherous in the world.

Today we have an extraordinary amount of national treasure that's spent on surveillance and customs enforcement and just about every technique you can think of, and they jump over it, they tunnel under it, they use deceptive tactics to divert the Border Patrol and then come across in other locations. And they have been able to stay at least a half a step ahead of the authorities to the point that the smuggling that we're watching most carefully -- the drugs and human beings -- has continued unabated.

Tell me about a case.

Let me use Tumbleweed as an example. In five years we believe they took over two million pounds of pot into this country. This required literally truckloads on a regular basis to come across the border. You can't do that at any of the border entry points.

They had hydraulic bridges and they could hop the fence and then, using sophisticated night-vision devices, they could disappear into the canyons. They used spotters who sometimes were in the desert for two and three weeks at a time using carefully cached water and food and solar-powered transmitters to make sure that they had real-time information as to where the Border Patrol was. The only reason we found them was that we had even better technology with high-flying aircraft that the Border Patrol brought down from the Canadian border.

Why isn't there a coordinated federal response to the border problems?

Now you're beyond my pay grade. But perhaps the best example I can give is my own testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where I was there talking about money-laundering, the guy next to me was talking about gun-smuggling, the guy next to him was talking about drug-smuggling, and the guy next to him was from ICE and was talking about people-smuggling. We're the victims of the way law enforcement in the United States has segmented its response to criminality.

What's an ingenious way that criminals move money across borders?

The fact that somebody can have a million dollars in a stored-value card, and that people on the border have no idea that that's what it is, is atrocious.

You mean like gift certificates?

I can walk across the border with a cellphone and what looks like a credit card and be moving literally tons of cash.

The cases your office has worked seem like they jump out of a Louis L'amour novel. There's Operation Fly-By-Night, River Walker, Tumbleweed, En Fuego. Who comes up with the names?

You're touching on a sore subject. This is mostly the investigators themselves who sit around with their coffee pots, saying, "What are we going to call this one?" I think the names are as inspired as any part of this whole operation.

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