Some 2,300 children were split from their parents since early May under a zero-tolerance policy for those who cross illegally.

Thunderstorms closed the Border Patrol’s checkpoint near Whetstone on Aug. 4, 2016, but an agent on roving patrol glimpsed a maroon sedan that matched an alert issued the day before.

The agent started following the sedan, but the driver sped toward Tucson on Interstate 10. As Border Patrol trucks and an agency Blackhawk helicopter followed him, the driver texted with the woman who hired him to haul 90 pounds of marijuana to Tucson.

“Get off on kolb turn right then go to the nearest store where you can hide where theres alot of cars or on kolb to valencia,” the woman texted back. “Hide anywhere by houses or whatever but get the address so they can go for it there. Hide and throw that (expletive) and guy off.”

“Whats up where you at,” she texted the driver an hour later, according to a report filed by a Border Patrol agent.

Instead of a $3,000 payday, agents caught the driver, Chester Crews, in an alley near East 29th Street and South Wilmot Road. Agents seized the marijuana and arrested Crews and Eder De la Cruz Tecaupa, a 31-year-old Mexican citizen traveling with him.

The woman sending text messages to Crews was Brenda Mendez Ruiz, a 46-year-old Mexican citizen, who federal investigators had connected to numerous smuggling attempts in recent years in Cochise County, U.S. District Court records show.

On Wednesday, Mendez Ruiz was sentenced to three years and one month in federal prison. She pleaded guilty in December to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute marijuana.

Chief Judge Raner C. Collins told Mendez Ruiz she was “really pretty lucky” prosecutors did not charge her as a manager of the drug-trafficking organization, even though she was hiring drivers to smuggle drugs.

Smuggler: “Ashamed as a mother”

Five weeks after the pursuit on I-10, agents saw people dressed in camouflage place bundles of marijuana into a Hyundai near the town of Palominas. Agents stopped the car and found 145 pounds of marijuana. They arrested the driver, Matthew Bursik, a 20-year-old U.S. citizen, and Roberto Quinonez Garcia, a 62-year-old Mexican citizen. Bursik said Mendez Ruiz hired him, court records show.

The day before, Border Patrol agents followed Nuvia Valdez, a 41-year-old U.S. citizen, to an elementary school in Hereford and found her hiding in a garbage bin. She told agents Mendez Ruiz hired her to smuggle the 140 pounds of marijuana agents found in her SUV.

In another incident connected to Mendez Ruiz, an agent near Naco watched two people hide 95 pounds of marijuana bundles in the brush near a highway in December 2015. Minutes later, a Honda Accord pulled up and they loaded the bundles into the car, which agents stopped near a residence.

At the wheel was Mendez Ruiz’s daughter, Brenda Mendez, a 25-year-old U.S. citizen.

At Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, Mendez Ruiz told Collins she was “ashamed as a mother” for getting her daughter involved in smuggling.

“She followed my steps,” Mendez Ruiz said.

Larger role after big bust

In her plea agreement, Mendez Ruiz admitted she was “involved in marijuana smuggling most of her adult life.”

She was deported in 2002 after a human-smuggling conviction and started marijuana smuggling shortly after, Collins said.

“Must have been quite the life,” Collins responded when Mendez Ruiz told him she was paid $500 per drug load.

“Over 15 years, that becomes a heck of a lot, doesn’t it?”

Mendez Ruiz took on a coordinating role with a drug-trafficking organization after Border Patrol agents broke up a five-vehicle convoy loaded with thousands of pounds of marijuana in June 2015, a DEA agent wrote in a December 2016 application for a warrant to search messages sent through Mendez Ruiz’s Facebook account.

The convoy entered Cochise County through a hole cut in the international border fence, a practice authorities call a “drive-thru.” One of the vehicles was found near Naco with 2,600 pounds of marijuana inside, the DEA agent wrote.

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Federal court records show a Chevrolet Silverado from the convoy was found the same day near Interstate 10 with another 2,900 pounds of marijuana, as the Arizona Daily Star reported Jan. 2, 2017.

Shifting tactics

Due to the marijuana lost in the June 2015 bust, the smuggling organization shifted tactics, the DEA agent wrote. Rather than smuggle multi-thousand-pound loads in vehicle convoys, they focused on hauling small quantities of marijuana with backpackers.

Mendez Ruiz and another man, who has not been charged, were tasked with coordinating drivers to pick up marijuana smuggled by backpackers across the border in the Naco corridor, the DEA agent wrote.

One of the men the DEA agent said was hired by Mendez Ruiz to smuggle marijuana, Angel Gonzales, was kidnapped near Bisbee and forced into a trunk in a botched attempt to collect a cartel bounty of 30 pounds of marijuana in March 2017, as the Daily Star reported Nov. 27.

Gonzales told a DEA agent in November 2016 that, “Brenda Mendez had forgiven him for ripping a marijuana load in August,” the defense lawyer for a woman convicted in the kidnapping wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

Mendez Ruiz was arrested in March 2017 after crossing the border illegally near Naco, court records show. She has been in custody since then.

Mendez Ruiz’s lawyer, Peter Matiatos, told Collins he submitted photos to the court of Mendez Ruiz with bruises. She told Collins she was beaten for losing a drug load.

After she is released from prison, “What are those people going to do?” Collins asked her.

Mendez Ruiz said she would seek protection under international conventions against torture.

“You got yourself involved in a pretty horrible life,” Collins said. “Hopefully, you can change that.”

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