Federal agents arrested the suspected head scout for a drug smuggling organization that controls the corridor north of Lukeville.
Jose Angel Felix Ramirez, 28, also known as “Cinco,” was the head scout for the Sonoyta, Sonora-based “Cusa” smuggling organization that moves migrants and marijuana from the U.S.-Mexico border to the Phoenix area, according to a criminal complaint filed by a Homeland Security Investigations agent in U.S. District Court in Tucson.
After weeks of surveillance of the Pia Oik hills northeast of Lukeville, Border Patrol agents arrested Felix, a Mexican citizen identified in the complaint as the “lead scout in charge of the smuggling network for the smuggling season,” on Dec. 4.
Agents also arrested another suspected scout, Arnoldo Ojeda Zavala, a 31-year-old Mexican citizen. Both men were charged with conspiracy to commit drug trafficking.
The bust of the scouting site came amid a flurry of arrests this week that targeted scouts along the western desert smuggling corridor and Phoenix residents who supply scouts with food, batteries and other items.
Scouts spend weeks or months on mountainsides warning smuggling groups when law enforcement officers are in the area, often by using encrypted radios and cell phones. Scouts have worked in the west desert for more than a decade, but they became an increasingly serious problem for Border Patrol agents in the last five years.
Prosecutors had trouble charging suspected scouts with drug smuggling because they usually do not possess large quantities of drugs when they are arrested. Instead, the suspected scouts would be charged with illegally crossing the border.
However, a federal judge in Tucson convicted a suspected scout on a drug smuggling conspiracy charge in a 2015 bench trial. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction in January.
HSI agents also target the network of people who are paid to supply them, as was the case in February when 10 U.S. citizens and a Mexican man were charged with drug smuggling conspiracy for buying supplies in Phoenix and dropping them off near scout sites on the Tohono O’odham reservation.
Adriana Fonseca Dominguez, a 34-year-old Mexican woman living in Phoenix, was charged alongside Felix and Ojeda with marijuana smuggling conspiracy charges after she was connected to Western Union payments to scout suppliers.
HSI agents arrested Raul Edgar Arellano Garcia, 29, on Dec. 6 after he handed off groceries and supplies to men in Phoenix who delivered them to scout locations on the Tohono O’odham reservation.
Arellano told agents he is paid $200 for each bag of groceries he buys, according to a criminal complaint filed by an HSI agent. He told agents he usually gets a call from Felix, who tells him where to meet for the food drop-off.
He reportedly told agents Felix also asked him to wire money to Mexico.
Also on Dec. 6, Border Patrol agents arrested Carlos Ivan Estrada Nunez, a 31-year-old Mexican citizen, at the scouting site in the Pia Oik hills.
Estrada told agents he had been a scout for the Cusa organization for five years and was paid $200 for each smuggling attempt he helped. He also identified “Cinco” as the head scout for the Cusa organization, according to the complaint.
In another Dec. 6 incident, a Border Patrol agent spotted suspected scouts in the Sierra Blanca Mountains northeast of the village of San Simon on the Tohono O’odham reservation.
With the help of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter and an Air National Guard plane, agents arrested Jesus Felix Ramirez, a 21-year-old Mexican citizen who told agents he had been on the hilltop since late October. He also said Cinco was the head scout for his smuggling organization and knew that Cinco had been arrested.
The Cusa organization is part of the Sinaloa cartel and controls the smuggling corridor between Sonoyta and Rocky Point in Sonora, Mexico. Members of the Cusa organization were involved in an attack between a hit man and a “rip crew” that stole a load of marijuana in May 2016 in the Santa Rosa Mountains southwest of Casa Grande, as the Arizona Daily Star reported Feb. 4. One man was shot in the knees and six men involved in the attack were sentenced to federal prison terms ranging from 5 to 12 years.