Cartels recruiting drug, people smugglers in bars, high schools border tucson.com gas 10 ethanol

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These unlikely smugglers — many of them recruited in bars, high schools, or by family and friends — hide drugs in their car and drive through legal ports of entry, scoop up packets of marijuana fired over the border fence by air cannons, and strap packets of hard drugs to their bodies after hand-offs in the bathrooms of fast-food restaurants in Southern Arizona.

They pick up undocumented immigrants at motel rooms or convenience-store parking lots north of the border. They wait at prearranged spots near the border or along highways for undocumented immigrants to hustle out of the brush and into their backseats or trunks.

They then drive through Border Patrol checkpoints along Arizona highways on their way to stash houses in Tucson, Phoenix and small towns scattered throughout Southern Arizona, court records and statements made to federal judges at more than a dozen sentencing hearings show.

But with the evolution of cross-border networks, smuggling patterns now are more akin to “subcontracting,” Fisher said. Drug cartel smugglers often hire U.S. citizens to get drugs across the border or they get the drugs across and then hand off the load to a citizen paid to transport it to Tucson of Phoenix, Fisher said.

In a January incident, agents arrested Lynard High, 27, and Mason Walker, 41, near Sasabe after cameras saw four men emerge from the brush and load 185 pounds of marijuana into the Chevy Tahoe SUV that High and Walker were driving. The two said they were to be paid $1,000 for the smuggling job.

In May 2015, a group of 10 undocumented immigrants crossed the border near Sasabe and walked until they reached a dirt road. They had been told to wait there until they were picked up by a white pickup truck. Later that day, Jeffrey Taylor, 37, was arrested near Three Points with the immigrants lying on top of each other in the back of his white Dodge Ram. Taylor told agents he was to be paid by an unidentified individual to get the group to Tucson.

Cartel recruiters also find couriers by studying people who cross the border regularly, said Francisco Burrola, deputy special agent in charge for the Tucson office of Homeland Security Investigations, which handles smuggling cases at ports of entry.

If new recruits show interest, someone from the drug-trafficking organization contacts them and directs them to meet someone in Mexico, Burrola said. A cartel mechanic then builds a hidden compartment in the vehicle or the new smuggler straps hard drugs to his or her body.

In a January incident, an X-ray scan at the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales showed a hidden compartment under the carpeted floor of a 1988 Fleetwood recreational vehicle driven by Wickenburg resident Richard Lewis, 36. Inside the compartment, officers found 540 pounds of marijuana.

While many of the cases reviewed by the Star ended with sentences of probation or less than one year in prison, the January incident was Lewis’ second federal smuggling charge. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison and three years of probation.

The lawyer for a woman who suffers from mental illness wrote in a memo to the court that her client’s life “reads like a Dickensian novel” and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her family was a “Petri dish for mental illness and despair.”

The Star found that U.S. citizens or legal residents were involved in 75 percent of drug smuggling arrests during that period and 61 percent of human smuggling arrests. In 2015, they accounted for 77 percent of drug smuggling arrests and 74 percent of human smuggling arrests.

Defense attorneys often argue for leniency, saying their clients were simply hired to shuttle drugs or people. They say their clients had no role in planning the smuggling attempt and did not stand to benefit from the sale of the drugs or collection of a smuggling fee.

After their arrest, defendants regularly tell Border Patrol agents they expected to be paid a few hundred dollars to drive people to their next destination — far less than the several thousand dollars people being smuggled pay someone to get them across the border and to Tucson or Phoenix.

Although more U.S. citizens are being arrested on smuggling charges in recent years, customs officers are not targeting them, said CBP spokeswoman Teresa Small. Officers look for an array of suspicious signs, such as nervousness or a vehicle riding low because of hidden cargo.