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 yearslong process of becoming legal permanent residents.

U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents — CBP statistics do not distinguish between the two — accounted for about two-thirds 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 prearranged 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.

Smuggling subcontractors

Smuggling arrests in Arizona dropped by half from fiscal 2005 to fiscal 2015 as the busiest routes shifted to Texas, CBP records show.

But U.S. citizens and legal residents made up a larger portion of those arrests.

  • In 2005, U.S. citizens and legal residents made up 44 percent of the Border Patrol’s 5,300 smuggling arrests in Arizona. In 2015, they were 68 percent of the 2,100 smuggling arrests.
  • The two groups accounted for 35 percent of 1,600 smuggling arrests at Arizona ports of entry in 2005 and 57 percent of 1,400 arrests in 2015.

Years ago, smugglers would bring a load of drugs or people across the border and drive to Tucson or Phoenix, said former Border Patrol chief Michael Fisher, who headed the agency from 2010 to October 2015.

But with the evolution of cross-border networks, smuggling patterns now are more akin to “subcontracting,” Fisher said. Drug cartel smugglers often hire U.S. citizens to get drugs across the border or they get the drugs across and then hand off the load to a citizen paid to transport it to Tucson of Phoenix, Fisher said.

In a January incident, agents arrested Lynard High, 27, and Mason Walker, 41, near Sasabe after cameras saw four men emerge from the brush and load 185 pounds of marijuana into the Chevy Tahoe SUV that High and Walker were driving. The two said they were to be paid $1,000 for the smuggling job.

In May 2015, a group of 10 undocumented immigrants crossed the border near Sasabe and walked until they reached a dirt road. They had been told to wait there until they were picked up by a white pickup truck. Later that day, Jeffrey Taylor, 37, was arrested near Three Points with the immigrants lying on top of each other in the back of his white Dodge Ram. Taylor told agents he was to be paid by an unidentified individual to get the group to Tucson.

The multitude of arrests of U.S. citizens — most of which are “one-offs,” people without criminal smuggling records — represents the “democratization” of the smuggling industry, said defense lawyer Thomas Higgins.

Judging by his clients’ comments, Higgins said drug trafficking organizations have delegated the bulk of their smuggling efforts north of the border to independent operators.

Many of his clients are approached and recruited at bars in Nogales, Sonora, where traffickers keep an eye out for potential couriers, he said.

Cartel recruiters also find couriers by studying people who cross the border regularly, said Francisco Burrola, deputy special agent in charge for the Tucson office of Homeland Security Investigations, which handles smuggling cases at ports of entry.

If new recruits show interest, someone from the drug-trafficking organization contacts them and directs them to meet someone in Mexico, Burrola said. A cartel mechanic then builds a hidden compartment in the vehicle or the new smuggler straps hard drugs to his or her body.

In a January incident, an X-ray scan at the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales showed a hidden compartment under the carpeted floor of a 1988 Fleetwood recreational vehicle driven by Wickenburg resident Richard Lewis, 36. Inside the compartment, officers found 540 pounds of marijuana.

While many of the cases reviewed by the Star ended with sentences of probation or less than one year in prison, the January incident was Lewis’ second federal smuggling charge. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison and three years of probation.

U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are attractive to traffickers because they are established in their community, with a house to stash drugs or people, and have cars to move cargo to the next location, Fisher said.

They often come from families with smuggling histories or get recruited while in high school, where cartel recruiters look for drivers who likely won’t face criminal prosecution at the federal level, Fisher said.

Defense lawyer Jessica Turk is seeing more cases coming from Phoenix in which high school students are recruited through Facebook and told they can go to Tucson and make a few hundred bucks.

In one case, a high school senior was arrested Sept. 8 after a Border Patrol agent pulled her over near Tombstone with an undocumented immigrant hiding under a cover in the back seat of her BMW.

“Recruiters make it seem like a quick trip to Tucson,” Turk said.

But when they get to Tucson, she said, they are told to go a little farther and they end up at the border.

Easy money

Smuggling’s attraction often boils down to simply getting a paycheck.

“It’s easy money, tax-free,” former Border Patrol chief Fisher said.

Dallas Hochanadel, 31, was arrested at the I-19 checkpoint in February with a Mexican man hiding in the trunk of his Hyundai.

Hochanadel told agents: “I know I messed up, I was recently laid off and did this out of necessity,” court records show.

After her brother lost his job, Karen Burgueno, 22, agreed to smuggle meth, cocaine and heroin for $500, court records show. She met an unidentified individual in the bathroom of a Burger King in Nogales, Arizona, hid the packages that person gave her under her clothes and hopped into a taxi.

In addition to being enticed by easy money, court records show drug addiction plays a role in the choice to smuggle.

William Simmons, 26, was arrested at a Nogales port of entry in August 2015 with 95 pounds of marijuana under the floor of a Nissan Maxima. Court documents say Simmons took a smuggling job to pay off a drug debt.

Defense lawyer Turk sees a deeper pattern among her clients, many of whom live in economically depressed areas of Arizona: women who were sexually abused as children and men whose fathers were absent due to being incarcerated, often on smuggling charges.

“It’s like an equation,” Turk said. “You put in these factors and you get these results.”

The lawyer for a woman who suffers from mental illness wrote in a memo to the court that her client’s life “reads like a Dickensian novel” and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her family was a “Petri dish for mental illness and despair.”

She told a judge in September that her client smuggled three people in the trunk of her car so she could earn enough money to get to California, where she hoped her family would help her kick a long-term heroin addiction.

While easy cash and drug addiction are the primary lures for smuggling drugs and people, they are not the only ones, court records show.

Donald Soper pulled into the Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 19 in early May with four undocumented immigrants in the trunk of his Nissan Altima.

The 55-year-old Air Force veteran told agents he did it for a thrill, court records show.

Several defendants told federal judges they were acting under duress.

One man said his brother-in-law was kidnapped in Agua Prieta, Mexico, and the kidnappers demanded he and several relatives smuggle 170 pounds of marijuana in order to secure the man’s release.

A man who drove a load of marijuana from Sierra Vista to Tucson said he owed money to someone who threatened his wife and children.

The role of citizens

The Center for Investigative Reporting found that U.S. citizens were involved in 80 percent of 40,000 drug-related Border Patrol busts from 2005 to 2011 in which the suspect’s citizenship was shown.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review found that U.S. citizens were involved in 60 percent of 3,254 federal human smuggling cases in border states in 2013 and 2014.

The Star’s analysis of 295,500 arrests from 2005 to 2015 included both drug and human smuggling busts made by CBP’s Office of Field Operations at ports of entry and by the Border Patrol along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

The Star found that U.S. citizens or legal residents were involved in 75 percent of drug smuggling arrests during that period and 61 percent of human smuggling arrests. In 2015, they accounted for 77 percent of drug smuggling arrests and 74 percent of human smuggling arrests.

Far from being smuggling masterminds, most of the U.S. citizen smugglers are one link in an extensive cross-border smuggling chain.

Defense attorneys often argue for leniency, saying their clients were simply hired to shuttle drugs or people. They say their clients had no role in planning the smuggling attempt and did not stand to benefit from the sale of the drugs or collection of a smuggling fee.

After their arrest, defendants regularly tell Border Patrol agents they expected to be paid a few hundred dollars to drive people to their next destination — far less than the several thousand dollars people being smuggled pay someone to get them across the border and to Tucson or Phoenix.

Although more U.S. citizens are being arrested on smuggling charges in recent years, customs officers are not targeting them, said CBP spokeswoman Teresa Small. Officers look for an array of suspicious signs, such as nervousness or a vehicle riding low because of hidden cargo.

The increase in arrests of U.S. citizens and legal residents likely comes from the ever-changing tactics used by drug cartels, Small said.

Several years ago, for example, officers saw a spike in the number of teenagers caught smuggling drugs. Similar trends involved smuggling drugs in tires, then dashboards, then in truck beds.

Contact Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or cprendergast@tucson.com. On Twitter @CurtTucsonStar.