By Curt Prendergast
Arizona Daily Star
Smuggling arrests in Southern Arizona often conjure up images of Mexican drug cartel foot-soldiers sneaking across the border in the dead of night.
But a decade of U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics — and a review of more than 100 federal court cases by the Arizona Daily Star — turn that idea on its head.
Actually, most suspected smugglers arrested in Arizona and along the rest of the U.S.-Mexico border either are U.S. citizens or went through the years-long process of becoming legal permanent residents.
U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents — CBP statistics do not distinguish between the two — accounted for 68 percent of smuggling arrests made by Tucson Sector Border Patrol agents in fiscal year 2015. Along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, citizens and legal residents accounted for 81 percent of smuggling arrests by agents.
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 pre-arranged 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.
And traffickers depend on them more with each passing year.
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