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DIGGING DEEPER: Surge in migrant border crossers benefitting drug cartels

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TUCSON (KVOA) - Customs and Border Protection showed a record number of people are coming through the southwest border. Officials said drug cartels are reaping the benefit.

It is not just the humanitarian issue law enforcement is dealing with. It has also created a perfect opportunity for drug cartels to exploit migrant border crossers.

Art Del Cueto is the vice president of the National Border Patrol Council.

"We've never seen such a huge number in one spot in one month period," he said.

The Arizona-Mexico Border stretches 262 miles.

According to the recent numbers released by Customs and Border Protection, the apprehensions of unaccompanied minors in the Tucson and Yuma sector were up 149 percent compared to this time last year. The number of single adults apprehended were also up by 530 percent.

Unaccompanied Alien Children Encounters by Sector
SectorFY20 TD FEBFY21 TD FEB% Change
Big Bend222           588165%
Del Rio1,002        2,410141%
El Centro595           81637%
El Paso2,153        5,262144%
Laredo1,310        1,56920%
Rio Grande 5,242      11,242114%
San Diego863        1,41964%
Tucson3,271        4,75945%
Yuma464           945104%
USBP Southwest Border Total15,122      29,01092%
SectorFY20 TD FEBFY21 TD FEB% Change
Big Bend2,410      10,015316%
Del Rio9,057      39,715339%
El Centro8,069      16,376103%
El Paso12,465      41,288231%
Laredo16,038      39,666147%
Rio Grande25,933      69,283167%
San Diego16,244      38,603138%
Tucson17,255      52,795206%
Yuma 1,375        5,824324%
USBP Southwest Border Total108,846    313,565188%

"It's quite a mess," Del Cueto said.

He's lived and worked on the border his entire life.

In a recent interview, he said the crisis is benefiting drug cartels.

"The cartels they love it," he said. "That's why I say it's a bonanza for them because you're having agents instead of doing their law enforcement duties."

Such as taking those they have apprehended to various facilities.

"Now, they're having to transport unaccompanied juveniles to shower facilities," said Del Cueto.

This has taken agents away from the border, possibly resulted in it being unprotected from the cartels.

Polo Ruiz is the Special Agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Tucson.

"Now with this push, it's allowed to be open season," he said. "They use them as decoys and the decoys are then utilized on the backside, they end up moving the illicit drugs through the vehicles and through the clandestine areas."

Ruiz grew up along the Texas border and has worked along the border and in Mexico for over two decades. He said drug cartels control the routes.

So, he said if coyotes use it to smuggle in people, "if one of these individuals pays $10,000 to come across, that cartel leader for that particular area is going to get a percentage off that."

Then there are what the Border Patrol calls "The got aways." Those are individuals who were not apprehended that still paid their fees to the cartel.

Del Cueto said the unofficial number was 40,0000 so far this year.

As for the illegal drugs, Ruiz said they are working with the local, federal, and state partners to keep the drugs off the streets.

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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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