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DIGGING DEEPER: Pandemic forcing drug cartels to change their methods

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TUCSON (KVOA) - For decades, Southern Arizona has served as a corridor for illegal drugs from cartels that are operating across the border.

The pandemic is now forcing those organizations to change the way they operate.

Drug smuggling is a multi-billion dollar enterprise for the cartels. With ports-of-entry virtually shut down right now, they are having to change the way they bring their illicit cargo into the United States.

"The No. 1 method was the ports of entry, and that was through the vehicles and pedestrian traffic," said Polo Ruiz, Special Agent in Charge of the
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Arizona. "But now, what's going on is that they're actually going through the clandestine areas other than the ports of entry."

Ruiz said drug smugglers are now using areas without a border wall or fence, and carrying drug loads on their bodies.

"They usually have a backpack, and it's laden with about 20 to 50 pounds of methamphetamine, marijuana or heroin," Ruiz said.

Ruiz told the Digger Deeper team the pandemic has also caused the price of illegal drugs to skyrocket.

"On the street, at a wholesale value, a pound of methamphetamine, for instance, was $800 about four months ago, five months ago actually," Ruiz said. "Now, it's going for almost $3,000."

It's not just drugs. Cartel members are also stashing huge amounts of cash, because the drug couriers who usually bring drug proceeds back into Mexico are not able to make their way back through the ports of entry. Ruiz told the Digging Deeper team that is creating a dangerous situation for communities.

"Because when you have these money stash-houses, what do you have?" Ruiz said. "You usually have trained assassins that protect these monies."

Another concern is that many people who use illegal drugs and are staying home under the governor's order, may look for other ways to feed their addiction.

"So, what do they do? They go on the black market, and they buy, for instance - fentanyl, or heroin or methamphetamine," Ruiz said.

Ruiz said the illicit drug use could end up leading to a deadly overdose. That is something the DEA is working hard to prevent.

"These drugs are coming over, they're still at a low price, and it's causing these individuals that are stressed out because of the COVID(-19), so they're popping a pill," Ruiz said. "They don't realize it could be the fatal dose in that pill."

Paul Birmingham

Lupita Murillo

Lupita Murillo is an investigative reporter. She is part of the Digging Deeper team that uncovers important issues focusing on crime that affects the community.

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