U.S. postal inspectors put their stamp on two major drug busts last week, highlighting the unheralded efforts of the federal agency in the drug war.
With Tucson considered a major distribution hub of drugs through the mail, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service sifts through packages, looking for telltale signs — and smells — of drugs. Perfume, coffee, mustard — even dryer sheets — are used to mask the odor. Mailing appeals to dealers because it's cheap, reliable and relatively anonymous, inspectors said.
U.S. Postal Inspector Tim Weisend said Tucson is a hot spot for the national drug trade because of its relatively large size and proximity to Mexico.
"Tucson is a transshipment point of narcotics throughout the United States," Weisend said. "The primary drug of choice in Tucson is marijuana. We also see cocaine, crack and pharmaceuticals."
Weisend said drugs are rarely sent to Tucson.
"There's no reason to send dope here because it's already here," Weisend said. "The money comes in. The dope goes out." 5 suspects caught in 2 days
In the span of two days last week, postal inspectors hauled in five Tucson drug-dealing suspects.
"It was a busy week," said Weisend, who was present at both arrests.
On June 9, inspectors teamed up with the Tucson Police Department to track down Jaime Jose Cazares, 29, at Ten's Showclub on East Speedway. Cazares, suspected of drug dealing and money laundering and with ties to a South Side gang, had been on the run since March 4, when police discovered 17 grams of prepackaged crack cocaine in his car, Weisend said.
On June 10, postal inspectors and Casa Grande police captured four members of a suspected Tucson drug cell that postal inspectors said shipped more than 1,000 pounds of marijuana from Southern Arizona to Puerto Rico over the past several months.
Police arrested Angel Gabriel Montalvo Baez, 27, and Luis Rodriguez Cubero, 44 — both from Tucson — as well as Puerto Rico residents Cesar Pena Gonzalez, 26, and Isaac Barcelo-Olavarria, 31, on suspicion of possession of more than 4 pounds of marijuana for sale.
Barcelo-Olavarria also is wanted in Puerto Rico on suspicion of heroin trafficking.
Weisend said the men laundered drug proceeds by cashing U.S. Postal Service money orders in Tucson. The crew started off mailing packages from the Rillito Post Office, then moved up Interstate 10 to the Red Rock and Picacho post offices to avoid detection, then to Casa Grande, Weisend said.
He said there is a "huge connection" between the drug trade in Puerto Rico and Tucson, with many of the commonwealth's drug shipments coming through Tucson. Wiesend said Florida, New York, Detroit and Atlanta rank alongside Puerto Rico as Tucson's top drug-by-mail destinations.
Responsible for all of Southern Arizona, as far north as Casa Grande, the Tucson-based postal inspectors search mail for child pornography, monitor mail theft, investigate threats made against postal workers and investigate mail fraud.
The Postal Inspection Service offers rewards of up to $50,000 for information that leads to arrest and conviction of people who ship drugs through the mail, and Weisend said the tipster who helped police catch Cazares will get a reward if he's convicted.
Special agent Ramona Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Phoenix office, said cooperation between agencies is a key to catching criminals.
"It's sometimes a challenge for us, because drug traffickers are not readily foolish," Sanchez said. "They try not to make their packages detectable or transparent. They're very creative in transporting drugs."
Inspectors sometimes will masquerade as mail carriers, delivering drugs to their destinations and questioning recipients on the spot.
Any crime dealing with the mail is a federal offense, and postal inspectors are proud of their high conviction rate, although Weisend said he didn't know what the rate was.
The 1,565 postal inspectors nationwide made 1,118 arrests in fiscal year 2008, which runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30. In fiscal 2008, postal-inspector investigations led to 754 convictions and the seizure of $4.78 million in cash and 17,237 pounds of illegal narcotics. The arrest and conviction numbers don't necessarily correlate in a given year because many of last year's cases are still in court, Weisend said.
The local unit, known as the Tucson Domicile, consists of six postal inspectors and a supervisor. Three inspectors focus on mail theft and identity fraud, one on mail fraud and two on drugs.
"For years we were known as the silent service," said Jim Harper, U.S. Postal Inspection Service team leader. "We didn't talk to press; we just did our job and avoided publicity. Nobody ever heard from us."