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The Associated Press

A woman walked up to a blue SUV in a Food City parking lot in Nogales, Arizona, and started removing packages of prescription drugs from her groin.

She handed the packages to two men in the SUV who had crossed the border earlier that day and received pills from different carriers in the parking lots of a Walmart and the Food City in Nogales on Aug. 17, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson.

Oblivious to the Homeland Security Investigations agents following them, the men in the SUV, Juan Valenzuela Armenta, 22, and Jose Perez Val, 26, headed to the post office with 14 envelopes filled with pharmaceuticals, according to the Sept. 1 criminal complaint.

Over the span of three days, federal prosecutors said camera footage recorded the men trying to mail about 4,400 prescription pills divided among 29 different envelopes before agents intercepted them.

Prescription drug smuggling busts nearly doubled, from 59 seizures to 110, since last fiscal year at Arizona ports of entry, according to data provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Schedule III, IV and V controlled substances, which refers to a system used to categorize a drug’s potential for abuse.

The Douglas port of entry saw the largest increase in seizures of prescriptions drugs, according to CBP data. Seizures at the port jumped eight-fold from five in fiscal 2016 to 42 in the first 10 months of fiscal 2017, which includes October 2016 through July 2017. At the Lukeville port, southwest of Tucson, seizures rose from zero to nine and at the Phoenix airport, seizures rose from four to 15.

In the same 10 months, the number of seizures at the Tucson airport decreased to one-fifth of last fiscal year’s total, from 15 to three.

CBP spokeswoman Teresa Small said there is “no rhyme or reason” why the movement of drugs fluctuates between ports because it is determined by cartels. CBP stated in a letter sent in response to a records request from the Arizona Daily Star that it could not release the specific types of prescription drugs seized because “the information is classified.” CBP routinely releases information on types of other drugs seized, such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin and meth.

Prescription drugs, which are often cheaper in Mexico than in the United States, can be purchased in Mexico and brought back across the border legally for personal use. They also are smuggled into the United States to be sold for a profit.

Prosecutors said three days after Valenzuela and Perez finished packaging the pills at the Nogales post office, HSI and U.S. postal inspectors executed a search warrant for the men’s envelopes and found roughly 2,600 methylphenidate pills, 800 tramadol pills, 520 phentermine pills, 200 alprazolam pills, 100 clonazepam pills and 30 zolpidem pills.

Methylphenidate, also known as Ritalin, is a schedule II prescription drug used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy, according to the DEA.

The rest of the drugs in the envelopes were schedule IV. Tramadol is a painkiller. Phentermine is used for weight loss. Clonazepam, zolpidem and alprazolam are used to treat anxiety, insomnia and panic disorders.

Controlled substances are categorized into different schedules based on their potential for physical and psychological dependence, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. The higher the scheduling number, the lower the risk for abuse. Most of the drugs in schedule I and II, such as cocaine, meth, heroin and others, are considered to have “no currently accepted medical use.” Ritalin is an exception to these types of drugs in Schedule II because it is attainable with a valid prescription.

At a traffic stop on Aug. 31, Valenzuela and Perez admitted to Nogales police they had been transporting pills for about four months, according to court documents. Perez said he was paid $40 to $70 per job. They face three drug trafficking charges and their trial is scheduled to start Nov. 21.

Erica Curry, DEA spokeswoman, said many drug trafficking organizations distribute their products to the Midwest, the South and the Northeast after crossing the border.

She said sometimes the pharmaceuticals seized are counterfeit. For example, she said sometimes fake oxycodone pills contain fentanyl, which is a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Fentanyl sometimes is sold through illegal drug markets for its “heroin-like effect,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a separate case, Molly Burud, 32, was arrested in April while trying to enter Nogales, Arizona, from Mexico with 80 milliliters of steroids and 92 pills of steroids in her groin area, court documents said. Burud was also carrying 1,473 pills of alprazolam and two vials of a human growth hormone, somatrope.

She told a CBP officer her final destination would have been Phoenix, where her contact would pay her in 100 benzodiazepine pills, a type of drug with anti-anxiety and muscle-relaxing properties, according to an April 17 criminal complaint. She pleaded guilty to two drug trafficking charges, but has not been sentenced yet.

On May 1, Rodolfo Martinez Luna, 21, was arrested for trying to smuggle 9,800 pills of anabolic steroids, which the DEA described as synthetic testosterone hormones primarily abused by bodybuilders and fitness “buffs,” into Arizona through Nogales, according to court records. Martinez told a customs officer the car belonged to his sister and he was unaware of the steroids stashed under a jacket in the backseat.

Martinez pleaded guilty to a drug trafficking charge and was sentenced Oct. 18 to three years of probation.

CBP records show four busts of steroid smuggling at Arizona ports of entry in fiscal year 2017, up one from the year before and up two from fiscal year 2015.

It is legal to bring back prescription drugs from Mexico for personal use, but CBP recommends bringing no more than a 90-day supply of medicine through a port of entry and it should be in its original container with a doctor’s prescription.

Keith Boesen, director of the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center, said usually the discounted cost of prescription medications in other countries is the incentive for Americans to buy them abroad, although they should keep a “buyer-beware mentality.”

Boesen cautioned that other countries do not have the same set of standards in place as the FDA, sometimes the prescription drugs brought back from other countries can be counterfeit, contaminated, or the dosages can be inconsistent.

Jessica Suriano is a journalism student at the University of Arizona and an apprentice at the Arizona Daily Star. Contact her at starapprentice@tucson.com.