It’s impossible to walk around downtown Nogales and not notice the empty streets, closed stores and rows of razor wire attached to a wall fence. The concertina wire was first installed in Nogales in 2018 as a border security tactic.
U.S Customs and Border Protection reported in 2019 that it was for “high-risk urban areas commonly exploited by criminal smuggling organizations.”
Drug trafficking has changed significantly in over a year, with American smugglers leading drug trafficking at the border.
“Since COVID began it's pretty much probably 90% U.S citizens and residents... because those with tourist visas can't come in because of the current travel restrictions,” said Michael Humphries, the area port director of Nogales, Arizona.
The border has been closed to non-essential travel since March 2020 due to the pandemic, but it has remained open to U.S residents and citizens.
Back in March 2021, Governor Doug Ducey linked immigration to drug trafficking during his visit to Douglas. He said in part, “President Lopez Obrador has referred to President Biden as the migrant president and officials shared with us that the administration is seen as the marketing arm of the cartels to traffic drugs.”
Is there really a connection between the number of immigrants at the border and the number of drugs coming into the U.S.?
ABC15 spoke with law enforcement in Nogales at both the federal and local levels, getting an in-depth look at the situation, which showed it goes beyond the rhetoric. Findings showed that most of the hard drugs coming into Arizona came in through the main gates.
“Last year we seized over three million fentanyl pills. This fiscal year that we're in, we're almost tripled the amount of fentanyl that we've seized in the same period last year,” stated Humphries.
Both Humphries and Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway say the number of Americans bringing in drugs is a concerning border security issue.
“It’s mainly through our main gates that’s where most of it comes in,” said Hathaway.
He says Americans don’t need to carry a backpack full of drugs across the desert, instead they’re using cars and their own bodies.
“Some of it is concealed in commercial cargo, body carriers, sometimes in vehicles but that is still, the bulk of it, comes through the legal ports of entry,” stated Hathaway.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection data for the Arizona sector shows most of the hard drugs are seized at the ports of entry.
Take a look at the latest official data on the amount of drug seizures at the border in the chart below.
“Border Patrol does catch some at the checkpoints or just while they're patrolling out in the rural areas, but most of it comes through the ports of entry,” said Hathaway.
While CBP says U.S. citizens and legal residents are the ones carrying most of the drugs across the border, it’s a claim Governor Ducey denied during his trip to the border in March.
“The first thing I will say is to get your facts straight on where this fentanyl and methamphetamines and illegal cocaine is coming from,” stated Ducey.
We had our facts straight, they come from CBP and the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.
“Most of the mules are now U.S. citizens because they can cross, and we see a lot of juveniles and elderly people like elderly women being recruited to avoid this suspicion,” stated Hathaway.
Mexican Drug Cartels Recruiting Americans
The ABC15 investigators looked into how cartels recruit Americans and went one-on-one with an American who was recruited by drug smugglers in Arizona.
“He said we need your car; we're going to take it and are going to inspect it. We're going to put a tracking device on it,” said “Andrew” a U.S. citizen arrested for smuggling meth.
For safety purposes, ABC15 won’t be disclosing Andrew’s identity.
Andrew says he was recruited online by criminal organizations based in Nogales, Sonora and Phoenix, Arizona.
“Somebody accompanies you all the way until you get to the line in Mariposa, somebody is in the car with you so, you get to a point where you can’t turn back, so you have to keep going forward, they get off and they leave, and you cross,” stated Andrew.
Andrew was arrested at the port of entry in Nogales. He was caught smuggling 21 kilos of crystal meth in his car, but claims he thought he was smuggling cash. While his time smuggling ended behind bars, it started online.
“They run an ad, it said, ‘we’re hiring people to bring cash from Phoenix, Arizona to Nogales, Sonora.’”
He says the cartels are looking for U.S. citizens in the Phoenix and Tucson areas. “They ask for your driver’s license, he told me specifically that the people that they hire the most are single moms in particular."
Andrew says they only want people without a criminal record, even running background checks on potential smugglers.
“They’re looking for people that don’t attract a lot of attention to cross to do these things whether they know it or not,” said Andrew.
Andrew smuggled three times; he says the pay increased from $1,500 to $2,500 quickly. He now says he regrets accepting their offer.
“You’re going to be dealing with drug dealers. They’re drug dealers, they're drug smugglers. This is one of the ways they get innocent people.”
Claudia Arevalo, a lawyer in Tucson, says there’s also an increase in cases of “blind mules,” people carrying drugs without knowing.
“I have seen victims that they have crossed to visit family, to bring relatives. However, they do not know what happens to their cars once they're in Mexico and when they cross the border they get caught with smuggling.”
Michael Humphries, the port director at the Nogales port of entry says, there’s another shift. Body carriers.
“This person has 1,700 pills concealed internally, in the rectum. It’s either strapped around the body or in a body cavity, really since COVID began,” said Humphrey.
Americans using their bodies to smuggle drugs is something that’s been increasing at an alarming rate lately.
“This person had 1,400 fentanyl pills vaginal cavity. This other one, 1,700 pills. This from March 30th had over 2,000 fentanyl pills. All kinds you know, male, female, young, middle age, older,” expressed Humphries.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Nogales, says, Mexican cartels know their market and are adjusting to it.
“They're just like any other company. They'll adjust to how they can make the most money with disregard of human life,” said DEA agent, Rene Amarillas.
For all law enforcement agencies interviewed, the demand for hard drugs in the U.S. is the real challenge.
“As long as you have demand in the U.S., you're going to have people finding a way to bring it,” stated Hathaway.