A new report offers an on-the-ground picture of the Border Patrol’s operations in southern Arizona, and their efforts to contain the flood of migrants — who are increasingly used to carry drugs — crossing the border from Mexico.

The report, published by Proceso, details the US agency’s struggles to stem the tide of illicit traffic along the border. According to officials, while the strip of Arizona-Sonora border south of Tucson has long been known as a pathway for Mexican migrants sneaking into the US, the flows of both migrants and drugs have grown far more substantial since 2009.

For drug traffickers in the region, the logic would seem to be simple: a larger number of immigrants sneaking across the border creates cover for the minority carrying drugs, making it less likely that they will be detected.

Less clear is whether the same group is controlling both black-market traffic flows. One official told Proceso that the dominant group in the region is the Sinaloa Cartel, which uses the migrants as “mules” to carry drugs into the US either on foot or via automobile.

This report comes amid a broader shift of Mexican criminal groups toward more diverse revenue streams. Whereas in the past virtually all the income of Mexican gangs came from drugs alone, many groups have now diversified into other activities, such as kidnapping, extortion, and, not least, the smuggling of Mexican and Central American immigrants.

While the profit margins in cocaine smuggling are much higher, criminal groups — especially those left out of the transcontinental cocaine trade — can draw substantial revenues from these alternative activities. Reliable estimates are difficult to come by, for obvious reasons, but several hundred thousand Mexicans and Central Americans seek to slip past US border authorities on a yearly basis. If these migrants pay an average of $3,000 to a handler, also known as a “coyote,” the size of the industry likely approaches or even exceeds $1 billion.

However, the migrant-smuggling industry has historically been populated by relatively small-scale, independent operators, rather than transnational criminal groups. Furthermore, the Sinaloa Cartel is typically viewed as the Mexican criminal organization least engaged in practices other than drug running. If the group is indeed actively participating in the human smuggling racket, rather than just exploiting it, that would mark a significant change for the criminal group usually described as Mexico’s most powerful.

The following is InSight Crime’s translation of extracts from the Proceso article:

Stopping the passage of drugs to the United States — more than the crossing of undocumented immigrants — has turned into the principal work of the 4,200 agents of the Border Patrol (BP) that keeps watch over the border between Arizona and Sonora.

Every day they seize shipments of marijuana, Mario Escalante, chief of public relations at the Tucson office of Customs and Border Protection (which is charged with guarding 421.6 kilometers of border between the US and Mexico) admitted in an interview with Proceso.

Escalante showed the reporter statistics that indicate that the Migra (as immigration agents are commonly known) has more work seizing marijuana and other drugs than trapping undocumented immigrants in the Arizona desert.

“In this area since 2009 we have begun to see a change in the tactics of the Mexican drug traffickers in passing the narcotics that they take to Tucson and Phoenix,” said agent Escalante, who then pauses to clarify. “The new tactics of the Mexican cartels are taking the shipments in by foot and by car … that is, they are using the undocumented immigrants as mules.”


When we arrive, two of [agent Crystal] Amarillas’ colleagues inspect two Mexican youths who have their hands up and their legs apart next to a bus. One of the Mexicans, the taller and more muscular one, seems worn down; he doesn’t answer the agent that inspects him and asks him about the piece of carpet that he has tied to his shoes.

“Did you have a marijuana shipment,” the reporter asks the young man, who is wearing mining boots with carpeted soles and who limits his answer to a smile.

“Did you throw it out in the desert when you realized you were going to get caught,” he is asked again.

The young man nods slightly.

Pursuit in the desert

On the patrol trucks’ radio the following is heard:

“Attention! At the Brickyard outpost a man dressed in camouflage just entered the US … he’s very suspicious.

And minutes after the crossing of the camouflaged man a white car driven by a woman also passes through the outpost. She is travelling alone.

“The situation is very strange because after the woman crossed, a few minutes later a white Dodge Durango 4×4 also entered. Detain the woman, we have to check her, she is on Route 19.”

“You’re in luck”, Amarillas says to the reporter. “The girl is going to pass directly in front of us.”

One of her colleagues runs to the other side of the road and from a box hidden in the sand he grabs a long cable studded with metal blades, a spike strip.

“They’ll put it on the road to detain the woman,” says Amarillas.

Soon, the action comes to us. The woman being chased approaches the trap at full speed, but she discovers it on time and swerves to avoid the spike strip. She drives off the road, and her vehicle lifts a cloud of dust and spins several times when she returns to the asphalt. The driver seems to be an expert in extreme driving and she avoids crashing when she slams on the breaks, and the car slides into some bushes.

“Come out of the car with your hands up,” Amarillas yells at her, pointing her 9-millimeter pistol.

In the blink of an eye the border agent was a yard from the driver.

“F—!” is the only word that the woman says upon getting out of the car with her hands up. In seconds, Amarillas puts them behind her back and handcuffs them.

While the agent takes the woman to a patrol car, personnel from the BP, from the US Marshals, and from other agencies check the car. On the flood of the back seats there are traces of dirt and grass. “Someone was sitting back here,” one of the marshals says.


The official statistics regarding marijuana and weapons seizures and the arrests of people that the CBP carries out in the Tucson corridor — and that Escalante hands over to this magazine — speak volumes about what it is happening in this part of the Arizona desert.

In fiscal year 2008 (which starts on October 1 and ends on September 30), the BP tasked with the Tucson corridor arrested 31,696 immigrants.

In 2009, there were 241,673 undocumented immigrants arrested. In 2010, 212,202. In 2011, 123,285, and from October of last year through the end of March 2012, 634,397.

In fiscal year 2008 the BP seized 370.3 tons of marijuana. In 2009, 546.4 tons. In 2010, 468.6. In 2011, 471.4 tons, and 248.06 from October of 2011 through the end of March.

They also seize weapons. Some the BP finds abandoned or buried in the desert. There were 81 guns and 43,565 bullets confiscated from October 1, 2010, through March 31, 2011. And thus far in fiscal year 2012, 74 guns and 40,974 bullets have been confiscated.

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