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Drug Cartels Recruit Smugglers in High Schools and Bars

Smuggling arrests in Arizona often make people think of foot soldiers from Mexican drug cartels sneaking across the US border in the middle of the night. But according to 10 years of US Customs and Border Protection statistics, as well as a recent review of 100 federal drug cases by the media, this is not usually the case.

Most suspected smugglers that are arrested on federal drug charges in Arizona and elsewhere along the US-Mexico border are American citizens, or they are legal US permanent residents.

American citizens and legal permanent residents accounted for as many as ⅔ of the drug smuggling and cash seizure arrests that were made by federal agents in the Tucson Sector Border Patrol in 2015. Along the entirety of the US-Mexico border, legal residents and citizens accounted for 80% of the smuggling arrests that were made by federal agents.

Many of the smugglers are recruited from high schools, bars or by friends and family. They hide drugs in their vehicles and drive through border crossings. They also pick up packets of marijuana that are fired over the border via air cannons, and strap drugs and cash onto their bodies after handoffs in restaurant bathrooms in the southern parts of Arizona.

They also pick up illegal immigrants at motels and hotels and in convenience store parking lots inside the US border. Also, they wait at spots along the border or on highways for illegal immigrants.

After that, they drive to the border checkpoints along highways in Arizona and drive to stash houses in Tucson, Phoenix and other towns in Arizona. All of this is according to court records and statements that have been made to federal judges in sentencing hearings in the last year. Drug traffickers depend upon these smuggling subcontractors more than ever.

Smuggling Arrests Dropped in Arizona

Federal records show that drug and cash smuggling arrests in Arizona have dropped by 50% from 2005 to 2015 as the busiest corridors moved to Texas. But US citizens and legal residents are making up a bigger portion of these arrests today:

  • In 2005, American citizens and legal US residents made up 44% of the 5300 drug and cash smuggling arrests in the state. In 2015, they were almost 70% of the 2100 arrests made for smuggling.
  • The two groups accounted for 35% of the 1600 drug and cash smuggling arrests in Arizona in 2005, and 57% of the 1400 arrests that were made in 2015.

Many years ago, smugglers would bring drugs, cash or even people across the US-Mexico border and drive to Phoenix or Tucson, according to an ex-Border Patrol chief. But as cross border networks have evolved, smuggling patterns are more like subcontracting. Drug cartel smugglers will often hire US permanent residents or Americans to get drugs and money across the border. Or, they will get the drugs over the border and then will hand it off to a citizen to get it to Phoenix or Tucson.

In a January 2017 incident, federal agents arrested Lynard High, 27, and Mason Walker, 41, near Sasabe. Cameras saw four men get out from the brush and load nearly 200 pounds of pot into a Chevy Tahoe SUV that the two men were driving. They two were supposedly paid $1000 for the drug smuggling job.

In May 2015, a group of illegal aliens crossed the US border near Sasabe and walked until they came to a dirt road. They were told to wait there until a white truck came by to pick them up. Later that day, a 37 year old man was placed under federal arrest near Three Points with the four immigrants lying on top of one another in his white Ram truck. The man told the federal agents that he had been paid to get the four illegals to Tucson.

Experts say that the higher number of US citizens being arrested in these smuggling operations is growing. And many of those being arrested are ‘one offs,’ meaning that they do not have prior criminal records.

Defense attorneys for cash and drug smugglers say that major drug trafficking organizations have handed off much of their cash and drug smuggling to independent contractors who often hire American citizens and permanent residents for one time operations.

Drug cartel recruiters often find drug and cash couriers by studying people who go across the border on a regular basis. If the potential recruit shows any interest, someone from the drug organization in Mexico has them meet with a representative on the Mexican side of the border. A cartel mechanic will put a hidden compartment in the vehicle. Or, the drug smuggler will strap hard drugs to their body.

In a January 2017 incident, for example, an X-ray scan at a border crossing in Nogales showed there was a hidden compartment in the floor of an RV that was driven by Wickenburg, Arizona resident Richard Lewis, 36. In that compartment was 550 pounds of marijuana.

Many of the cases that were reviewed by the media recently ended only with probation or under a year in prison, but some of the convicted are on their second or third offense, and may get a few years in prison.

US citizens and legal residents of the US are very attractive to drug traffickers because they are known in their community and usually have a house where they can stash people, cash and drugs. They also have vehicles that they can use to move cargo to other towns.

Some of the Americans being recruiting for these illegal operations are high school students that are even being recruited on social media such as Facebook.

It is expected that American citizens and permanent residents without a criminal record will continue to be used for these cash, drug and people smuggling operations. Customs officers are not particularly targeting them; rather, they look for suspicious signs, such as nervousness or the vehicle riding lower because of cargo that is hidden.