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N4T Investigators: Majority of drug cartel smugglers now U.S. citizens

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NOGALES, Ariz. (KVOA) - The majority of the smugglers being used by drug cartels to smuggle drugs into the United States are now U.S. citizens, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. 

CBP now reports around 90% of caught drug smugglers through main ports of entry, on foot and by vehicle are U.S. citizens. 

The increase can be seen occurring since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Santa Cruz County Sheriff David Hathaway said what’s most concerning is these citizen smugglers are bringing in more dangerous drugs. What used to be mostly marijuana is now methamphetamine and fentanyl. 

“Our overdose rate for 2020 was three times higher than the year before,” Hathaway said. 

Despite the razor wire along the Nogales border Hathway said most of the smugglers are entering or attempting to enter through the main ports of entry. 

An expert on border issues, Tucson native and former Border Patrol agent for more than 20 years, Victor Manjarrez Jr. Is now the Assistant Director for the Center of Law and Human Behavior at the University of Texas-El Paso. He said it’s easier for the cartel to hide in plain sight using citizens.  

He said the majority of these arrangements are made online, on just about every social media platform and even video game forums. usually, the deal is based on money and not driven by threats. But on occasion, Manjarrez said the cartels could resort to making threats against the citizen or their family. 

“The bottom line is that lure of money kind of blinds, someone, in terms of the consequences,” Manjarrez Jr. Said. 

The Drug Enforcement Administration is also paying close attention to the new trend. 

Polo Ruiz is the DEA’s Assistant Special Agent in Charge in Tucson. He said the cartels are also targetting young U.S. citizens. 

“They are also enticing younger adults under 18 because they tell them 'look, you’re going to be caught and released. You’ll be arrested and released,'” Agent Ruiz said. 

Ruiz also acknowledged the drugs being seized from these citizen smugglers are more dangerous. His team often finds meth or fentanyl, which is a very deadly drug fueling the opioid epidemic. 

Ruiz showed the N4T Investigators several large cardboard boxes of DEA evidence, each box was filled with smaller plastic bags full of hundreds of fentanyl pills. Each pill containing enough potency to kill several people. 

Ruiz used salt to explain how dangerous the drug can be. Just two very small grains of salt, almost too hard to see, Ruiz said is a deadly dose of fentanyl. 

“We’ve seized well over two million pills here in Arizona [so far this year] in all of last year it was one million,” Ruiz explained. 

Ruiz said he doesn’t expect things to slow down, in fact, he said the cartels have been changing things up so quickly the DEA is having to be reactive instead of proactive. 

If you have a story you’d like us to investigate email us at or call our tip line at 955-4444. 

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Chorus Nylander

Chorus Nylander is the Chief Investigative Reporter for News 4 Tucson. He is focused on giving the voiceless a voice and holding the powerful accountable.

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