Hiding Drugs And People In Suburban Neighborhoods

By Devin Browne
May 20, 2011

The Drug War At Home

This is one installment in a 13-part series of multimedia stories by Fronteras: The Changing America Desk that investigates our role in the illegal narcotics trade.

Photo courtesy Immigration & Customs Enforcement.
Agents found 53 illegal immigrants from Mexico & Central America inside a Phoenix home in January 2011.
Border states are the first stop for drug trafficking organizations moving their product – both drugs and illegal immigrants – north into the United States. Law enforcement agents throughout the southwest are working to stop this movement. In Arizona, their latest target are leasing agents who provide houses to cartels and their employees.

In 2007, Phoenix’s real estate market started to collapse. This was a stressful time for property owners, but it was a very convenient time for traffickers. They suddenly had a lot more options of where to do business. No longer where they just in the barrios. They moved into fancy neighborhoods too.

Last month, Capt. Fred Zumbo, with Arizona’s Dep’t. of Public Safety, busted a drop house in beautiful and affluent Chandler Heights neighborhood.

“It’s a very manicured subdivision. It had a beautiful fountain in it,” Zumbo said. “I pulled in there and I’m looking and I’m (wondering): ‘Am i in the right place?’”

Turns out, he was.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) confirms authorities have found 482 drop houses in the Phoenix metro area between Januray 2008 and March 2011. These houses, like stash houses, have proliferated in this era of foreclosures and short sales.

Source: Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Drop houses found in Maricopa County between 2008 and March 2011.

“They took advantage of the bad real estate market,” said Terry Goddard, a former Arizona attorney general. “They found that many owners were anxious to lease their property for anybody who would pay.”

The trafficking organizations had help: Leasing agents who were also willing to take advantage of the bad real estate market.

“Certainly, the leasing agent can make a lot of money,” Zumbo said. “Because of the drug trafficking and the human smuggling, (the cartels are) full of cash.”

The captain is a part of IMPACT (Illegal Immigration Prevention and Apprehension Co-op Teams), made up of officers and agents from Arizona’s Dep’t. of Public Safety, ICE and the Phoenix police department.

Zumbo gives an example of how agents and owners can meet.

“We’ve heard of corrupt leasing agents who have gone down to the…steps of the county courthouse, when they’re having auctions for houses, and an investor comes in to buy a house,” Zumbo said. “The leasing agent will approach this person and say: ‘I’m so and so…I have renters standing in line to rent your house.’”

And thet were not just any renters, Zumbo said, but ideal renters: Traffickers who are full of cash. As tenants, they will always pay the rent, and never complain about leaky faucets or broken appliances.

“The next thing they know, their income property is being used as a stash house for dope or a drop house for (illegal immigrants),” Zumbo said. “And they won’t find out ‘till we hit them with a notice: ‘Your property has been used as a drophouse.’”

Except sometimes, Zumbo said, these notices never actually made it it property owners.

Photo courtesy Arizona Dep't. of Public Safety.
Windows at drop houses are boarded up from the inside to prevent illegal immigrants from escaping.

Take Paul Obinyan. When asked about his property, which was busted as a drop house in 2008, he responded: “We’ve never been told of this. This is the first time I’ve heard of this.”

This is not an uncommon response. Obinyan lives in Northern California, so far from Arizona that he did not know what a drop house was.

“It’s a struggle. We use a property manager who speaks Spanish, because we don’t speak Spanish, so I’m somewhat shocked to hear that this is a drop house,” Obinyan said. “I didn’t even know what a drop house is. You just told me…this is news to me. This whole thing is like a bombshell.”

Goddard, the former attorney general, suspects leasing agents may know who they are renting to.

“You gotta figure that the person who is leasing the house is well connected with the rest of the conspiracy,” Goddard said.

He is not talking so much about property owners, like Obinyan, but property managers.

“He knows when and where the human traffic is coming. He knows who is conducting it,” Goddard said. “He’s been contacted by someone running money for the cartels.”

This leasing agent then could be a perfect access point into the cryptic world of the cartels, Goddard said. This is why he supported a new Arizona law which makes it a class 3 felony to knowingly rent to trafficking organizations. Last month, this bill was signed into law.

“So, what i believe can be accomplished in this statute…is the ability to sit down with the leasing agent and say: ‘Tell us what you know. Tell us who you’ve been dealing with,’” Goddard said. “How did you contact them? How did they contact you?”

Obinyan’s leasing agent did not return phone calls for comment.

Captain Zumbo said with this new law, his task force will be sure to contact every property owner and manager in the future. In fact, three property management companies are already under investigation.

Sample Of Drop/Stash Houses In Maricopa County