NOGALES, Arizona — Federal law enforcement officials say they’ve seen a change in drug-smuggling tactics in the Nogales area since the temporary travel restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border went into effect in March.
While U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers used to regularly catch U.S. and Mexican nationals crossing narcotics through the local ports of entry, the restrictions have largely left U.S. citizens to do the dirty work themselves.
“What we’ve been seeing as far as seizures go, it is a lot of U.S. citizens,” CBP spokeswoman Edith Serrano said. “It’s because the travel restrictions are in place, which only allow the U.S. citizens and legal residents to make entry into the U.S.”
The Trump administration implemented the travel restrictions — which primarily affected Mexican nationals holding tourist visas – on March 21 in an effort to limit the spread of coronavirus by limiting the cross-border traffic from Mexico into the United States. Since then, the restrictions have been extended three times, and are currently in effect through July 21.
For its part, Mexico has not imposed any travel bans on U.S. citizens traveling south of the border, giving criminal organizations an opening.
“Obviously, the drug trafficking organizations are going to adjust their business tactics around the travel restrictions,” Serrano said.
During the weekend of May 29 to 31, for example, CBP officers in Nogales arrested nine women and four men — all U.S. citizens between the ages of 18 and 46 — after they attempted to smuggle small loads of methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl on their bodies.
Chad Plantz, deputy special agent in charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations in the Tucson area, said the practice in which border-crossers conceal drugs on their bodies — “body carriers,” as CBP calls them — has also been on the rise since the restrictions went into effect.
And he suggested that the two trends — U.S. citizens and body-carrier smuggling — could be related.
Less trust, smaller quantities
According to statistics provided by Serrano, CBP officers in the Tucson area of operations, which includes the Nogales ports, have made a total of 297 narcotic seizures involving body carriers so far in fiscal year 2020, which began last October. During that same period in fiscal year 2019, officers made 177 body carrier seizures.
Serrano and Plantz speculated that the difference in wait times at the pedestrian lanes versus the vehicle lanes could be a reason for criminal organizations to opt for body carriers, as they can get their drugs into the United States quicker if they are successful.
Plantz added that, given the fewer vehicle lanes open at local ports in recent months, drug cartels might also believe that there’s more scrutiny for travelers driving through the ports.
But another explanation for the increase in body carriers, Plantz said, is the lack of trust in the new recruits that the cartels are being forced to find in light of the travel limitations.
“They’re recruiting U.S. citizens they don’t know. They don’t trust them and they’re probably not giving them the same amount of drugs to cross,” he said. “They’re small amounts where they can just walk it across.”
He explained that drug cartels generally have closer connections with the Mexican nationals whom they typically recruit to transport the drugs, including knowledge of the individuals’ family relations in case the smuggling attempt doesn’t go as planned.
In order to recruit new U.S. citizen smugglers, Plantz said, one tactic the cartels are using is advertising on social media for people seeking to make quick money.
“I think it’s just anyone who is willing — anyone who answers the ad and is willing,” he said of the recruits.
But while U.S. citizens and legal residents are likely aware of the crimes they’re committing to make quick money, Plantz said, they probably don’t think through the severe consequences of smuggling the hard narcotics that cartels are now focusing on, as opposed to marijuana in past years.
“I think they would have to understand the impact and destruction that opioids and hard narcotics have in the community once they bring them in,” he said.
Doing the same job
The busts at the ports haven’t just involved small “body-carrier” quantities of hard drugs, either. On June 8, according to an official news release, officers at a Nogales port arrested a 63-year-old U.S. citizen who attempted to smuggle more than 100 pounds of fentanyl pills, heroin and cocaine hidden inside ceramic tiles.
And according to another CBP news release, Border Patrol agents arrested a 37-year-old U.S. permanent resident on May 30 after she attempted to transport 65 pounds of methamphetamine and 13 pounds of fentanyl through the Interstate 19 checkpoint.
Like CBP officials working the local ports, however, Tucson Sector spokesman Alan Regalado said that Border Patrol agents are still operating as usual in light of the shift toward U.S. citizen and permanent resident smugglers, processing people at the I-19 and State Route 83 checkpoints according to their regular training.
“We’re not going to change our tactics. We’re not going to change the way we were trained or the experience we’ve had,” Regalado said. “We just continue to do the same job that we do on a daily basis no matter what happens.”
Looking into the future when the travel restrictions are lifted, Regalado said it’s too difficult to predict if the trend of U.S. citizens and permanent residents smuggling drugs will continue.
“It’s hard to tell. We hope that less people get involved in this type of activity,” he said. “We hope it’s mitigated, we hope less people are recruited, but we’re just going to continue doing our job in apprehending those that are involved.”