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Restrictions due to coronavirus slow drug smuggling along Arizona border
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Restrictions due to coronavirus slow drug smuggling along Arizona border

From the April's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: 1,200+ Pima County cases, stay-home order extended series
Border Wall

The new border wall sections are 30 feet tall and spaced too closely at 4 inches apart to let large mammals squeeze past.

The coronavirus pandemic ended the daily bustle at ports along the Arizona-Mexico border, and apparently some of the cover it provided to drug smugglers.

Drug-smuggling busts “dropped quite a bit” when U.S. travel restrictions took effect last month and are now “less than half” of what they were, said Scott Brown, special agent in charge of the Phoenix field office of Homeland Security Investigations.

U.S. officials blocked nonessential travel from Mexico on March 21 in response to the virus’s spread, leading to a sharp drop in tourists, shoppers and others who legally cross the border every day and inadvertently give cover to smugglers trying to sneak past customs officers. In desert areas, Border Patrol agents are quickly expelling migrants to avoid the spread of the coronavirus and overall illegal crossings have slowed in recent weeks.

With less legitimate traffic at ports of entry like Nogales and Douglas, smugglers now have a harder time blending in with other travelers, Brown said. Beyond the declining traffic at the ports, people generally are staying home to avoid the coronavirus.

In Sonora, the Mexican state directly south of Arizona, officials recently instituted stay-at-home measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Photos posted on social media by a reporter for Radio XENY in Nogales, Sonora, show deserted streets that normally would be bustling with people.

The travel restrictions were in place for just 10 days in March, but they had a swift impact. Legal crossings in passenger vehicles along Arizona’s border with Mexico in March were 22% lower than they were in March 2019. Legal crossings on foot were down 26%, according to Customs and Border Protection.

The total crossings for April likely will be even lower, judging by the frequently empty lanes leading up to the Mexican sides of ports of entry in Nogales, which can be viewed online via cameras run by the Sonoran newspaper El Imparcial.

Shortly after the travel restrictions were put in place, drug-smuggling prosecutions plummeted in Tucson’s federal court. However, court records now show a much narrower view of drug smuggling than they did before the pandemic.

A federal judge shut down grand juries in mid-March to avoid the spread of the coronavirus at federal courts in Arizona. He also delayed trials until at least June and gave prosecutors more time to file charges. Officials at federal agencies, including HSI and the Border Patrol, also are concerned about transporting and holding prisoners without knowing whether they are infected with the coronavirus.

In normal times, most drug busts would lead to prosecutions within a few days. Now, some prosecutions are delayed until “we get back to some semblance of normalcy,” Brown said. Suspects may see their prosecution delayed if they do not have a criminal history and authorities are confident they can find them later.

As federal authorities navigate the new situation caused by the pandemic, they are setting up procedures they say will ensure “nobody gets a free pass” when it comes to drug smuggling.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is working with the courts and “taking into consideration the health and safety of prisoners, law enforcement personnel, and the public at large, all of which has an impact on custodial decisions and the timing of charges,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a statement to the Star.

“One thing is for sure, though, if you are caught illegally bringing drugs into the United States, you will be held accountable,” according to the statement.

Drug couriers caught by Border Patrol agents at highway checkpoints in Southern Arizona continue to face federal charges, as do marijuana backpackers caught in the desert, court records show.

Prosecutions of drug smugglers in the desert and on highways dropped by about half in late March, according to court records. Drug smuggling cases at ports of entry, on the other hand, have almost entirely disappeared from court records. Only one drug bust at a port led to a prosecution since March 21.

Instead of appearing in court records, port busts can be found among news releases and social media posts from CBP officials, who tout seizures as large as 66 pounds of meth and as small as one-tenth of a pound of fentanyl.

Taken together, court records and CBP announcements showed about 20 drug busts along the border near Tucson from March 21 to April 17, compared with about 40 drug busts from Feb. 22 to March 20. Those tallies may be an undercount because CBP officials do not announce every bust they make. CBP referred questions to HSI.

One byproduct of the new situation is that fewer U.S. citizens are being prosecuted for drug smuggling, compared with citizens of Mexico, Honduras and other countries, court records show.

In the weeks before the travel restrictions, U.S. citizens made up about half of the suspected drug smugglers who faced federal charges, court records show. Since then, only two were prosecuted, out of 19 total defendants.

In the case of marijuana backpackers, their cases often go to court as they normally would because most of them are not U.S. citizens and don’t have ties to Arizona, which means they likely will be harder to track down later, Brown said.

So far, federal prosecutors are not leaning on state courts to handle drug busts at ports of entry. The Santa Cruz County Attorney’s Office, which prosecutes some cases from the Nogales ports, said federal agencies had not sent them a port bust case since March 19.

Beyond local factors, the coronavirus may be slowing down drug smuggling from the other side of the Pacific Ocean. Drug cartels in Mexico depend on Chinese companies to supply precursor chemicals for meth and fentanyl. But those companies reportedly were hit hard by the coronavirus and are cutting off some of the supply of those chemicals.

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

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