Drug cartel scouts living in mountains south of Phoenix

Hiking up the side of one of the peaks above Hidden Valley. (Source: Morgan Loew)

The mountain peak provides 360-degree views of the desert below.

To the east, the homes and businesses of Casa Grande dot the landscape. To the north, the lights of Phoenix glimmer in the distance. But to the west and south, there is just desert as far as the eye can see.

[PHOTOS: Click here to see photos Morgan took while at the encampment]

It is this vantage point that is coveted by Mexican drug cartel scouts, stationed up here for weeks at a time, and tasked with one job: guiding drug shipments north from the border.

“They’re radioing in, letting the smugglers know when it’s time to start going,” said Detective Eddie Castro, with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office.

Castro works on the smuggling unit. And business is brisk in this area, about 40 miles south of Phoenix, near Interstate 8. It’s a straight shot through the desert from the border with Mexico.

“We’ve seen the big marijuana loads. We’ve seen cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine. We’ve kind of seen them all come through here,” Castro said.

Castro points to the mountain range next to an area known locally as Hidden Valley.

“We’ve been told from five to seven scouts are sitting in this area and guiding them through here,” said Castro.

Pinal County has begun arresting and charging the scouts with conspiracy to smuggle drugs into the United States, but as often as they are arrested on top of these peaks, they are quickly replaced.

At this point in the story, it makes sense to switch to writing in first person, because the day after Detective Castro guided us through the smuggling hot spots, CBS 5 producer Gilbert Zermeno and I decide to hike up the side of one of the peaks above Hidden Valley to see if we can find evidence that the cartel scouts are really up there.

The side of the mountain is steep, with no trail to follow. We can see signs that others have been on this mountain. It makes sense because the range is so close to a neighborhood. But we do not see the tell-tale signs of illegal immigration or drug smuggling: garbage and clothing.

About halfway up the mountain, we decide that Gilbert will stop, film me from that spot, and I will continue to the top, using my cell phone video camera to capture what I see.

As I climb up the final rock escarpment and pull myself up over the ledge, I immediately realize that I’m no longer by myself. A lone man, sitting under a tree next to a cactus, dressed in camouflage, listening to a police scanner, holding a large bag of cell phones and extra batteries looks up at me, and his expression mixes fear, alarm, and hostility.

“Yo soy periodista!” I yell, as I put my arms into the air. In my broken and somewhat frantic Spanish, I tell him that I’m a journalist and that I am not working with any law enforcement agencies, but I do want to interview him.

I’m looking to see if he reaches for a gun, which he does not. He tells me he does not want me to take pictures of him or his camp, and tells me I need to leave the mountaintop.

I walk through the camp, trying to make small talk in Spanish, recording the conversation with my phone, but not videotaping him. What I see amazes me. It’s like a small military forward operating base. I see gear boxes covered in camouflage material, bags shoved into cracks in the boulders, a kitchen with a stove set up under a rock overhang (I assume to avoid detection by helicopters) and solar panels set out to recharge the scouts’ electronic equipment.

As I make it to the back side of the peak, I hear more voices. The thought of running into more of them gets me thinking that I need to start hiking back down the hill – and quickly.

I walk back through the camp, this time using my phone camera in a covert manner to take video. What’s the point of being up here and seeing this if I can’t document it?

The scout asks me again if I’m working with the police. I tell him that I am not, and drop down the side of the mountain. It looks like he was talking to someone on his two-way radio, and I want to get back down the hill before he changes his mind and doesn’t let me go.

All in all, it took 1 1/2 hours to get to the top of the mountain. It took me 12 minutes of running, falling and sliding to reach the bottom.

My final thought before getting into my car is that I can’t believe this is happening so close to the Valley. It’s just 40 miles south of Phoenix.

On Monday, Morgan Loew hosted a live chat on Facebook to answer viewers' questions about the story. Click here to watch that video.

Copyright 2016 KPHO (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.


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