TUCSON, Ariz. – Human smugglers are exploiting the enforcement policies that President Donald Trump’s administration set in motion along the U.S.-Mexico border, including large-scale restrictions to stop the spread of COVID-19 and the ongoing construction of physical barriers.
Those U.S. policies – coupled with the precarious living situations for thousands of migrants that the pandemic has exacerbated in Mexico – are creating ripe conditions for smugglers. The result is a dramatic rise in human smuggling activity across southern Arizona over the past year, according to multiple federal and local law enforcement agencies in the state.
The Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY Network, conducted numerous interviews with experts and reviewed dozens of court cases and agency releases tied to human smuggling attempts in southern Arizona.
They point not just to an increase in criminal activity but a reversal to more unusual, dangerous and risky smuggling tactics, including the use of stash houses, which have not been as prevalent in recent years.
Once again, Arizona is a top corridor for migrants and smugglers making their illegal journey into the United States.
On July 12, border agents were conducting surveillance at a known stash house in Douglas when they spotted a nervous driver in an SUV circle the home, then approach it through the alley several times.
Agents followed the SUV to the parking lot of a mortuary, according to court records. They attempted to make a stop, but the driver told them he was carrying the bodies of two people who had tested positive for COVID-19 and urged them to back off.
After noticing that the driver was using only latex gloves for protection, agents approached the vehicle and found six migrants in the back of the SUV. The six people were lying next to a dead body that was covered in a blanket, court records showed.
The driver told agents he worked for a mortuary and was transporting the body to Bisbee. He later admitted that he agreed to smuggle people in order to pay off his debt to the cartel in Agua Prieta after he was caught trying to smuggle drugs through the Douglas border crossing.
On Nov. 2, U.S. Border Patrol agents responded to a call from police in the border city of Nogales. Officers told agents they had received a call from a woman in Tucson whose brother was being held for money by smugglers at a motel located two blocks away from the Police Department in downtown Nogales.
At the motel, officers and agents found three suspected smugglers holding seven undocumented migrants inside a room as well as cameras to monitor the entrance to the room. They also found weapons, including knives and a double-sided ax.
Migrants told agents one of the suspected smugglers had brandished several weapons and pointed a rifle at one of them, according to court records. The brother was able to send a Whatsapp message to his sister in Tucson asking for help before their phones were taken away.
Agents detained the seven migrants and arrested two U.S. citizens and a man from Mexico in connection with the case. The three face smuggling charges in federal court in Tucson.
“We’re not seeing anything new, but we are seeing a return to what I call the dark days in Arizona of human smuggling,” said Scott Brown, the special agent in charge in Phoenix for U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, the federal agency that investigates smuggling and other cross-border crimes.
The uptick in human smuggling activity across the entire U.S.-Mexico border is driven in large part by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brown said.
At the Supreme Court:President Trump’s war on illegal immigration takes on political overtone
The same is true for Arizona’s 372-mile border with Mexico, he added. But the increase has been greater in two specific areas of the state.
The notorious West Desert in western Pima County, which encompasses the Tohono O’odham Nation, always has been a highly trafficked smuggling route. That deadly corridor is where most migrant remains are found each year. The medical examiner for southern Arizona said recoveries already topped 200 this year, reaching their highest level since 2010.
On the other side of the state, Cochise County, a rural area larger than Connecticut and once a relatively quiet section of the border, has undergone a drastic change.
While physical barriers are going up along more than half of the county’s 80-mile-long border with Mexico, law enforcement agencies report a greater number of encounters with undocumented migrants, as well as more dangerous situations.
The morning of Nov. 13, a Tucson man driving four migrants led several agencies on a high-speed chase across the San Pedro Valley. He stopped and let the migrants out during the pursuit before reaching Sierra Vista, about 15 miles north of the border.
The 53-year-old driver, Mark Anthony Provencio, then barricaded himself inside a Lowe’s department store, forcing police to evacuate the building for more than an hour, according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
He managed to escape to a nearby motel, where state troopers arrested him. Provencio now faces several state charges, with more expected.
“It’s more frequent than not that we’re dealing with some kind of human smuggling at least once a day in Cochise County. That’s human, not drug (smuggling),” Sheriff Mark Dannels said.
Smuggling is no longer just a nighttime activity, he said, but is happening in the middle of the day. In some instances, his deputies have been injured while in pursuit, Dannels added, but they are careful not to endanger the surrounding community while chasing suspected smugglers.
“They always run. They have nothing to lose. They don’t have to follow the rules. They don’t have to worry about liability,” he said.
Pandemic driving rise in smuggling
Border enforcement statistics published by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Nov. 19 showed that the apprehensions of undocumented migrants at the Arizona-Mexico border in October reached a new peak this year.
Agents detained 11,901 migrants last month in Arizona, a relatively low figure compared with historical trends. But it is a 30% increase over the previous month, and in the midst of a raging pandemic. The overwhelming majority of migrants, nearly nine in 10, are single adults.
Apprehensions have climbed rapidly since March, when the Trump administration implemented large-scale restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border to curb the spread of COVID-19. Those restrictions include a freeze on asylum processing and, under Title 42, the immediate expulsion of any migrant apprehended at the border.
As of March 21, the United States has expelled 266,367 migrants to Mexico or their home countries under an emergency order from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by way of Title 42 of the U.S. Code.
October had the largest numbers of expulsions borderwide to date, according to the CBP.
“You have a lot more people, a lot more desperate to get out of really hard conditions in Mexico, hard conditions for themselves, living conditions, public health conditions and economic conditions,” said Javier Osorio, a researcher and expert on organized crime violence at the University of Arizona.
“Criminal organizations see those opportunities, and they’re the ones moving people,” he said. “And the more demand you have, the more supply is going to be on the other side. It’s, like, very simple economics at play.”
The expulsions under Title 42 also are having other consequences. Osorio said that since migrants are quickly removed from the country, sometimes in as little as two hours, they are able to try again repeatedly.
Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, said Nov. 19 that recidivism rates, meaning the number of migrants who try to cross the border illegally after they are apprehended, stood at 37% since the pandemic restrictions started.
Adalberto Ramos runs a migrant shelter in the Mexican border city of Agua Prieta, across the border from Douglas. He said he sees anywhere from 10 to 20 migrants, mostly single adult men and women, returned each day to that city under Title 42.
“Right now, since the borders are closed, the ones taking advantage of COVID are human smugglers and organized crime. Why? Because they have to give their blessing to allow them to cross their territory,” he said.
His shelter remains on lockdown to avoid the spread of COVID-19, with only six families still waiting for their chance to apply for asylum once restrictions are lifted. As a result, the shelter has been unable to take in or feed migrants returned under Title 42.
Ramos said they are working on information and hygiene kits for migrants. In the meantime, the pandemic restrictions will continue to force those migrants into the hands of smugglers, he said.
“Migrants are still arriving to Agua Prieta, but with the permission of organized crime,” he said. “The smuggler makes the arrangements. I’m not sure how they handle it, but I do know migrants are arriving and that they’re crossing them through the mountains or the border wall.”
His observations illustrate a major shift on migration patterns at the border. Last year’s migrant surge dealt mainly with large groups of families willingly turning themselves in to border agents. Now, more migrants are looking to evade detection and are hiring smugglers who, in turn, have sought to exploit weaknesses in U.S. border enforcement.
Smugglers exploiting wall construction
One of the areas that smugglers are exploiting is the ongoing construction of barriers at the border.
Work crews have completed or are in the process of finishing about 235 miles of new 30-foot bollards. That’s the equivalent of nearly two-thirds of the state’s international boundary with Mexico.
“You’ll notice that there’s a lot of movement of the construction vehicles. There are segments of the previous wall that have been removed or are being replaced. And because of that, there are opportunities for a smuggler to either make an effort driving through or smuggling people through there,” said Roy Villareal.
Villareal is the chief patrol agent for Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, which covers Cochise, Santa Cruz and Pima counties. On Wednesday, the Border Patrol announced Villareal was temporarily reassigned to its headquarters in Washington, D.C., to help with strategic planning.
Construction crews may be inadvertently aiding smugglers because the access roads they built or widened to allow heavy machinery to reach construction sites are often used by the smugglers.
The Tucson Sector has documented numerous instances this year of smugglers disguising their vehicles as construction trucks or using temporary gaps where older barriers once stood to simply drive across the border.
During one recent incident, on the evening of Oct. 29, Tucson Sector agents stopped a pickup truck on Geronimo Trail Road, several miles east of Douglas. The widened dirt road runs parallel to the border and leads to several construction sites where crews are replacing about 20 miles of permanent vehicle barriers with 30-foot bollards.
Agents could see seven people packed into the cab. As they approached, the driver jumped out and ran south to Mexico. They found another 10 migrants stacked on top of each other in the truck bed, concealed under a fiberglass cap.
Just two weeks earlier, on Oct. 15, agents had stopped a sedan a few miles away from that same location along Geronimo Trail Road. That time, they found 10 Mexican migrants inside, including three in the trunk of the car.
Trump immigration policies:Biden might need years to reverse actions on DACA, family separations, asylum
The Border Patrol determined the sedan drove illegally into Arizona through a gap in construction at the border. The driver used wood boards to drive over excavated footings for the new wall, according to the Tucson Sector. All 10 people were detained and returned to Mexico under Title 42.
Douglas Police Chief Kraig Fullen said border wall construction provides an opportunity for smugglers to blend into the community because a large number of the construction workers live, shop and eat there during the construction project.
“Some of the activity we’re seeing may be pushed to make it in before the fence project is complete,” he said.
Border Patrol officials regularly tout that the construction of access roads and physical barriers is part of a “border wall system” that also includes improved technology, such as sensors and lighting. Villareal said those tools will help agents detect any incursions and illegal activity at the border.
“When that wall goes up, my prediction is that we’re going to see a cessation in vehicle drive-throughs, high-speed pursuits through there,” he said. “It’s going to return to being somewhat of a quiet area once again.”
Fullen remains a bit skeptical.
He said this will be the third or fourth version of a border wall built in the Douglas area over the past two decades. The barriers resulted in significant drops in traffic in Douglas, he said, but larger concerns about human and drug smuggling have persisted.
“Each version of the barrier has been met with a renewed level of ingenuity, and in my time it has been tunneled under, climbed over, cut through, driven over, flown over, catapulted over, tossed over, shot over,” he said. “The risk will continue to rise along with the height of the fence.”
Local agencies seeing more smuggling
Local law enforcement agencies in Cochise County have reported increases in smuggling activity this year compared with the same period in 2019. They increasingly are pulled into combating the crime, even though investigating and prosecuting human smuggling falls under the purview of the federal government.
Sgt. Tim Williams is director of the Southeastern Arizona Border Region Enforcement team or SABRE, the Cochise County sheriff’s task force dedicated to tracking and fighting criminal activity tied to its location on the border.
“We’ve seen a fairly large increase of the human smuggling since about March of this year,” he said. “We probably tripled in the numbers than we used to see in previous years.”
As part of SABRE, Williams oversees a system of 1,000 remote motion-activated cameras placed strategically across various points throughout the Tucson Sector to monitor foot traffic at the border. Their work is in coordination with the Arizona Department of Public Safety’s Border Strike Force.
This year, the remote cameras have detected nearly 10,000 undocumented migrants crossing the Arizona border illegally, according to data shared by the Sheriff’s Office. That’s significantly higher than the past two years combined.
The latest available monthly figures show big differences in migrant traffic over the past year. In October 2019, the cameras picked up 617 migrants crossing the border; this year, they detected 2,544 migrants during that same month. In September 2019, cameras picked up 398 migrants, compared with 2,192 in September 2020.
Douglas police figures reflect a similar trend.
From July to mid-November, the Police Department recorded the arrests of 180 undocumented migrants by Border Patrol agents inside city limits. By comparison, agents made a total of 18 migrant arrests during the same period in 2019, according to Officer Jamilette Barrios, Douglas police spokesperson.
Both departments, along with Sierra Vista police, have reported an uptick in calls to their jurisdictions involving undocumented migrants, from agency assists to help the Border Patrol to responding to reports of trespassing and other local crimes.
Migrants placed in harm’s way
As human smuggling activity rises in southern Arizona, smugglers endanger the lives of migrants. The criminal groups’ turn to riskier routes and measures to avoid arrest has resulted in injuries and even deaths.
Homeland Security Investigations said it has seen an uptick in Arizona of smuggler use of firearms, overloaded vehicles and an increase in flight from law enforcement, sometimes using stolen vehicles.
The Border Patrol recognizes that smugglers are quick to adapt to changing U.S. policies along the Southwestern border. One constant, according to Villareal, is their disregard for human life.
“I think the true core element of evilness are the smugglers,” he said. “They’re not concerned about the well-being of the people they’re smuggling.”
So far in 2020, southern Arizona has recorded the recovery of 205 migrant remains, according to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, which tracks migrant deaths in the Tucson Sector.
That makes 2020 the third deadliest year for migrants at the Arizona-Mexico border since the medical examiner began compiling the data in 2000. With a full month remaining in the year, it is within striking distance to exceed 2010’s record of 222 bodies found in a single year.
The majority of recoveries were either skeletal remains or migrants who died from exposure to the elements, especially with this year’s record-breaking heat.
Dr. Gregory Hess, the chief medical examiner, said migrants also die other ways while crossing.
“Almost every year, we’ll get some folks that die being pursued by Border Patrol, or they lay down the spikes grip or something, and they roll over the vehicle to try to avoid apprehension,” he said.
One such incident happened June 2, when a high-speed chase near the New Mexico state line, east of Douglas, ended with the deaths of a 44-year-old migrant and a 17-year-old suspected smuggler.
The minivan that the teenager was driving with four migrants inside rolled over multiple times to avoid tire deflation spikes that pursuing agents had laid out. The three other migrants suffered injuries. One of them was put on life support but survived, court records showed.
Of the 205 migrant remains recovered so far this year, at least 11 of the people died from blunt force trauma or other non-exposure-related injuries, according to data provided by the medical examiner.
The most recent case is a 25-year-old migrant who fell Sept. 23 trying to climb the border wall near Douglas. He was taken to a hospital in Tucson, where he died a few weeks later.
These types of deaths will continue, Hess said.
“Regardless of what they do on the border, people are still going to find a way across,” he said. “They travel for miles and miles with the intent to come into the United States. They’re going to. There is no such thing as an impassible barrier. So it’s going to continue to occur as long as people continue to cross here.”
Osorio, the researcher and expert on organized crime violence, said that as it becomes more difficult to smuggle people and drugs across the border, criminal networks are trying to maximize resources.
One way is to increase the price to smuggle people across. Those costs had already been going up before the pandemic. They since have likely risen even more, Osorio said.
The other option is to smuggle larger groups to boost profits, which can help explain the proliferation of cases involving groups of migrants packed tightly into vehicles.
“You get more money through smuggling 20 to 30 people instead of one or two,” Osorio said.
Pandemic impacting prosecutions
Human smuggling is a federal crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine. But given its fleeting nature, there are challenges to prosecuting smugglers. Chief among them is making an arrest.
Many times, especially in incidents near the border, smugglers will seek safety by running or driving back into Mexico, abandoning migrants as necessary.
Other times, they will lead agents and officers in dangerous pursuits through border communities, with speeds sometimes reaching as high as 136 miles per hour, according to court records describing a high-speed chase on Nov. 6. The driver had attempted to evade an immigration checkpoint near Elfrida, north of Douglas.
He crashed his pickup truck into a steep ravine. No major injuries were reported, but agents apprehended 15 undocumented migrants squeezed inside the truck. The driver now faces two felony smuggling charges.
Federal prosecutors were able to charge him thanks to new protocols the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona developed in April in response to changes to the criminal system because of COVID-19.
“Immigration prosecution is one of my priorities and a necessary priority for our office because of our location on the Southwest border,” Michael Bailey, the U.S. attorney for Arizona, told The Republic. “But the virus has probably impacted smuggling prosecution more than anything else.”
The issue stems from federal prosecutors’ reliance on using material witnesses to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspected smuggler knew the people they were transporting were in the country illegally. Often, these witnesses are the migrants whom the defendant was allegedly smuggling.
Court orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Arizona limited the transportation of defendants and witnesses to courthouses in the state, dealing a potential blow to prosecutors.
In addition, pandemic restrictions reduced operations in federal courthouses nationwide.
Brown, who oversees investigations into human smuggling at Homeland Security Investigations’ six offices in Arizona, said those restrictions present additional challenges in going after suspected smugglers.
“That impedes our abilities at times to bring charges or pursue grand jury indictments. We’ve had to postpone some of those activities,” he said.
In response to those challenges, Bailey said his team worked with the Border Patrol to establish new protocols ensuring that agents record any evidence to prove alleged smugglers’ guilt, so that material witnesses aren’t needed to testify in the courtroom.
“It could be something as straightforward as a confession, it could be the smugglers observed taking evasive action, it could be that the smuggler has individuals hidden in some way in the vehicle,” Bailey said. “All of those type of things are useful to prove the smugglers’ knowledge of immigration status.”
Under the new protocols, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona have brought federal charges in 160 cases of suspected human smuggling.
The court has granted prosecutors the limited use of material witnesses, especially in cases with extraordinary circumstances, such as the three accused smugglers who earlier this month held seven migrants inside the motel room in Nogales.
All eyes on the incoming administration
For now, the big question on the minds of law enforcement and experts in human smuggling is what will happen in the coming months, especially with an incoming administration that has pledged to shift immigration and border enforcement priorities.
Brown said his investigators will continue to build out smuggling networks at the border as part of an effort to go after the key decision-makers, rather than foot guides and their collaborators.
“Some of the regulations put in place as a result of the pandemic, Title 42 removals … if that should be rescinded, should the pandemic go away, I’m not sure how that will shake out,” he said. “Because what we are seeing is that because of those fast turnarounds, we’re getting more people that are making two, three, four attempts.”
As courts reopen, more migrants making multiple attempts to cross the border after getting caught will spend time in jail on illegal reentry charges before getting sent back, possibly reducing recidivism rates, he said.
Osorio said that deteriorating economic conditions in Mexico and Latin America spurred by the pandemic, along with existing poverty and violence concerns, are aligning to produce large waves of migrants who will attempt to reach the United States in the near future.
Without President Donald Trump’s strong-hand tactics to pressure Mexico into stopping these waves of migrants before making it to their shared border, he added, it remains to be seen how incoming President Joe Biden and the Mexican government will respond.
“We know it’s just a matter of time before we have a critical mass with people accumulating,” he said.
U.S. border officials are banking on the newly built border walls, once completed, to help stem the flow of drug and human smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Dannels, the Cochise County sheriff, said that if history is any indication, the challenges will remain throughout border communities like his.
“They’re still going to find ways to get across,” he said. “They’ve already cut through the fence too. … So again, it just tells me no matter what we put up there, there’s going to be that challenge of intrusion.”