Marijuana bundles

Backpacks with marijuana were seized by Border Patrol agents near Douglas.

Courtesy of Customs and Border Protection

While some migrants arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border after already paying for their illegal crossing, others must come up with the “smuggler’s fee” on their own.

And that may lead them to strap on a backpack loaded with 40 pounds of marijuana, turning an illegal crossing in search of work or to reunite with family into one of the more than 2,000 marijuana-related cases handled in U.S. District Court in Tucson each year.

Federal court records regularly show people arrested for backpacking marijuana tell Border Patrol agents they agreed to smuggle marijuana “in exchange for the smuggler’s fee,” “to have the smuggling fee waived,” “for assistance in crossing the border,” or “to be allowed to stay in the United States.”

The Border Patrol does not track how many smuggling arrests involve migrants hauling marijuana to pay for their crossing, but “it is something that we see on a daily basis,” said Border Patrol spokesman Agent Vicente Paco.

In the case of Alberto Ramirez Dominguez, a 47-year-old construction worker from Chihuahua, Mexico, the birth of his third child prompted him to cross the border illegally to look for better-paying work, his lawyer Raul Miranda said at a recent sentencing hearing in federal court.

Ramirez and four others were arrested Nov. 4 near Kupk on the Tohono O’odham reservation hauling backpacks loaded with about 180 pounds of marijuana, federal court records show. He told a Border Patrol agent he agreed to carry the marijuana in exchange for a waived smuggling fee and 500 Mexican pesos.

Drug traffickers control border crossings and charge people like Ramirez to cross, Miranda told Judge Cindy Jorgenson at the sentencing hearing.

“When they can’t find enough backpackers, they ask people,” Miranda said, adding “there’s always that underlying menace when you run into people from the cartel on the border.”

Ramirez was arrested for crossing the border illegally several times before, the last coming in 2012. Each time he crossed, he did so to pay for urgent expenses, rather than to live permanently north of the border, Miranda said.

Jorgenson sentenced Ramirez to 20 months in prison on a marijuana-trafficking charge, telling him: “You need to come up with another plan.”

For many illegal immigrants arrested hauling marijuana, strapping on that backpack was never part of their plan.

“It tends to be folks who haven’t made arrangements in advance,” said Erik Breitzke, assistant special agent in charge for the Homeland Security Investigations office in Sells.

Drug traffickers dictate where and when illegal crossings occur, he said. Human smugglers arrange crossings through their “business relationship” with drug traffickers.

Migrants normally don’t travel with cash for fear of being robbed, so if their family members in the United States haven’t already paid their crossing fee they must work out a “quid pro quo” with smugglers and carry a backpack of marijuana, he said.

Breitzke didn’t know how many of the people who smuggle marijuana in Southern Arizona are illegal immigrants crossing the border for work, but he said they make up a small portion of all smugglers.

However, they are easier to catch than professional backpackers who usually are in better physical condition, younger, and know how to avoid the authorities, he said.

Deported and threatened

Recruiters for drug traffickers wait for migrants as they disembark from buses in Caborca, Sonora, said Manuel Amador Sanchez, 49, a laborer in Nogales, Sonora.

“And it’s not just one guy. There’s a lot of them,” Sanchez said. “It’s a mafia.”

Caborca, and nearby Altar, lie in the heart of what authorities consider a main marijuana smuggling corridor: the area of northern Sonora south of Sasabe and Luke-ville.

Sanchez traveled from Guaymas, a Sonoran port city on the Gulf of California, to Caborca about seven years ago. He didn’t have the money to pay his way across the border so he accepted the recruiter’s offer. He and several others were given camouflaged clothes and backpacks loaded with marijuana to carry through the desert near Lukeville.

He rubbed his shoulders as he recalled the heavy pack he hauled for six days on a roundabout trek to Phoenix fueled by crack cocaine provided by their guide.

Smugglers regularly use stimulants to keep up on the grueling trek through the desert, particularly the over-the-counter pill Sedalmerck, a pain reliever that contains caffeine, said Paco of the Border Patrol.

While migrants like Sanchez choose to haul marijuana after arriving at smuggling hubs, interviews and court records suggest a variety of circumstances for making that decision.

Some migrants, particularly Central Americans, head to Sonoyta, the Mexican city directly south of Lukeville, knowing they will carry a backpack of marijuana to pay for crossing the border, Breitzke said.

Smuggling attempts often come after migrants are deported without cash or their belongings, said David Hill, a volunteer with the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths who works with deportees in Nogales and prisoners in Texas convicted of immigration and drug-smuggling charges.

“It reflects the fact that you probably really are dealing with people whose primary aim is just to migrate to the United States,” as opposed to experienced smugglers who criss-cross the border, Hill said. “They take up ‘la mochila’ (the backpack) only on a subsequent attempt.”

Many clients of Walter Goncalves Jr., an assistant federal public defender in Tucson, are “tricked” by smugglers into hauling marijuana.

They are driven to a remote location and told they will be picked up and taken across the border. Instead, a man with a gun tells them they need to smuggle marijuana.

“It’s not like you can just walk out of there,” Goncalves said.

Breitzke said he has heard claims that migrants were coerced into carrying marijuana, rather than doing it as a way to cover the smuggling fee, but he has never seen those claims substantiated.

How it works

People have hauled marijuana in backpacks across the U.S.-Mexico border since the 1960s, said Guillermo Alonso Meneses, a researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana.

In the last 15 years, organized crime groups in Mexico have “diversified” to include human smuggling, with coyotes paying “taxes” to drug traffickers, he said.

Ramirez’s case is typical of Breitzke’s observations and more than 110 defendants in about 60 federal court cases reviewed by the Arizona Daily Star: A handful of backpackers and a guide, all of whom are men, walk across the border south of Ajo, near Sasabe, or in Cochise County.

In nearly every case, the men plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of possession of marijuana, after a felony charge of possession with intent to distribute is dismissed. Most were sentenced to 6-8 months in federal prison.

Nahum Chavez Sanchez, a 29-year-old Honduran citizen arrested in August 2015 near Sasabe with another man and about 100 pounds of marijuana, was one of the few cases reviewed by the Star that included charges of both marijuana smuggling and crossing the border illegally.

Defense lawyers said their clients typically are not charged with illegal entry or re-entry, the legal terms for crossing the border illegally. A spokesman with the U.S. Attorney’s Office could not clarify why they aren’t charged for crossing the border illegally.

‘The last gamble’

On a recent afternoon in Nogales, Sonora, a Honduran man and a friend from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca whiled away the heat under a tree near a migrant shelter.

They plan to cross the border east of Nogales soon and walk through the mountains and desert to Tucson. But they want to do it without the help of smugglers, who they can’t pay and don’t trust.

“They’re always saying ‘come with us, we’ll take care of you,’” said one of the men, who traveled from Honduras several months ago. “But they leave people behind.”

When asked whether they were scared of crossing on their own, the Oaxacan man said: “Every way is scary.”

In recent years, Breitzke has seen a “bit of an uptick” in migrants smuggling marijuana in lieu of paying a fee as more Central Americans, particularly Hondurans, arrived at the border.

The decision to backpack marijuana comes after Honduran migrants have made an arduous trek through Guatemala and Mexico, said Tony Banegas, Honduran consul in Phoenix from 2006 to 2016.

With ramped up enforcement on Mexico’s southern border and in Central America, “just to get out of Honduras is more difficult now,” he said.

They arrive at the border with no sleep, no food, and worn down, he said. Then they are presented with the option of smuggling.

“They don’t know the implications,” he said. “They get so far and then here’s the last gamble.”

Higher fees, more backpackers?

Smuggling fees “depend on how hard you want to work,” Breitzke said.

If migrants are willing to walk for several days, smugglers charge them about $3,500. If they want to walk a short distance to a vehicle waiting for them north of the border or ask for fraudulent identification, the price can be as high as $12,000, he said.

And prices are going up, he said. People still want to cross the border, but crossing is getting harder.

In early March, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said human smuggling fees in some mountainous areas rose from $3,500 to $8,000 since November. Kelly attributed rising fees to changes in U.S. policy, such as the detention of apprehended aliens.

If smuggler’s fees to cross rise, then more illegal immigrants could be forced into smuggling marijuana because they can’t afford those fees, Goncalves said.

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