A K9 had barked an alert as they drove into the Border Patrol checkpoint north of Tubac on Interstate 19 late afternoon on May 6. Agents routed the car into the secondary inspection area. Nyla (only the first names of suspects will be used in this article) admitted during the search that she had a package of drugs "near her groin area," a criminal complaint says.
After agents "removed" the package from Nyla, a "personal use baggie" of what turned out to be heroin was found on the man, Edgar. Another sizable package was found where the third woman, Marlene, had been in the car.
All told, the agents seized 419.5 grams — just shy of a pound — of heroin.
During the short investigation, Edgar waived his Miranda rights and told agents that he was "knowingly transporting [Marlene] who was smuggling black heroin in her body." He knew she had heroin inside her, he said, because they had previously removed the bundle to take a small amount out of the package and then reinserted it. Edgar said he was promised $40 for gas expenses and that he would be given heroin on the return trip.
The three U.S. citizens are being prosecuted together and were indicted on September 30 for conspiracy to possess heroin with the intent to distribute, and for the two women, possession of heroin with intent to distribute.
Officials tell Phoenix New Times the case is part of a trend of more "body carrier" smuggling attempts that federal law officers have encountered in recent months.
Since pandemic restrictions began in March, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have seen a "huge spike" in people smuggling drugs both inside and outside of their bodies, said Edith Serrano, spokesperson for CBP's Tucson field office, which covers eight ports of entry at the international border and the major airports in Tucson and Phoenix.
Travel restrictions announced by the U.S. State Department in March, which were last updated in October, ban non-essential travel at ports of entry, though no such ban exists for air travel. The restrictions have devastated retail stores near the border that have traditionally relied on Mexicans coming over for a quick shop; now, visitors may be asked for documents showing they are coming for an essential purpose, like medical treatment or business reasons. This cut vehicle traffic at Arizona's ports from about 300,000 cars a month to 100,000, though that's since climbed back up to more than 200,000, U.S. Bureau of Transportation statistics show. U.S. citizens are supposed to have an essential reason to travel to Mexico, but that can be safely ignored, it seems. Coming back, no U.S. citizen can be denied entry, according to current policy.
For whatever reason, this combination of conditions has resulted in a new trend toward the age-old smuggling technique of body carrying. Serrano said it's not entirely clear what's driving it.
Vehicle smuggling is still occurring regularly as usual, but usually with a sophisticated concealment method that hides bulk shipments. Body carrying still allows for lucrative shipments, but pedestrians at the border skip the longer wait times for vehicles, she said.
The agency saw the number of body carriers more than double starting in April, "and it's just been increasing ever since," she said. "We're getting body carriers every single day. One, two, maybe three a day, if not more."
Last weekend, four body carriers were caught at one Arizona port of entry alone, she said.
A random look at federal court records of the past few months turned up numerous body-carrying cases involving U.S. citizens. In a November 10 case, a woman named Nichole walked through the DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales and triggered a K9 detection.
"An officer conducted a partial body search ... and observed an object protruding from her vaginal cavity," states the federal complaint. After denying she was hiding anything, the woman then removed a 207-gram package of heroin from her body.
Nichole claimed to investigators that she and her husband had traveled to Mexico to visit his family. While she waited in a taxi for her husband to come out of a store, an unknown man who "knew about her" got in the car and ordered her to take the package over the border, saying he "hoped her kids would get back to her safely." Her children were in the custody of the Arizona Department of Child Safety at the time. She was supposed to put the package in a planter after they crossed the border, she claimed.
Other drug couriers also alleged that they had been threatened by suppliers.
Caught coming from Mexico with 3.4 pounds of methamphetamine, a 58-year-old Tucson woman claimed to border authorities in July that a group of men in ski masks forcibly taped the drugs to her thigh, belly, and breasts.
She had just taken her dog south of the border to get a quote from a veterinarian when she was attacked, she said, adding that the men threatened her family. Yet under questioning from skeptical U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers, the woman soon confessed: She said she willingly crossed with the drugs for a promised payment of $250 and had done the same thing successfully the month before.
In another case, just one day earlier, at the same port of entry, CBP officers noticed during a "partial search" that a pedestrian, Yvonne, had a condom protruding from her vaginal area. "At one point [she] pulled the condom which resulted in the condom ripping." She was transported to Holy Cross Hospital in Nogales, where an x-ray exam showed a foreign object in her vagina.
"At approximately 3:35 a.m., while at the hospital [officers] heard an object hit the floor," the complaint says.
The object was a 54-gram package of methamphetamine.
Though she at first denied it was hers, Yvonne later said she had been informed that her 13-year-old cousin was with a person in Sonora, Mexico, and that if she didn't smuggle the package, the child was going to be "sold."
Scott Brown, special agent in charge of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in Phoenix, doesn't put much stock in the threat stories. The agency, which investigates the criminal smuggling cases, hasn't seen many legitimate claims of people being forced to smuggle drugs either in or out of their bodies, he said.
Not all the suspects are women. In one case reviewed by New Times involving a couple at the border, a woman had hidden fentanyl in her vagina, and the man she was with had meth hidden in his rectum.
Brown agreed with CBP that travel restrictions helped cause the recent trend in body carriers, because it started at the same time as the restrictions. But he also theorized the pandemic had effects "in the broader sense."
"It impact's people's financial well-being. It makes more people desperate for income," he said, adding that the method sometimes involves people who don't own a vehicle.
Nearly all of the smugglers and their couriers are tied to the Sinaloa drug cartel, Brown said, and the people hooking up the body-carrying couriers are the "same groups we've seen" in other smuggling investigations.
The officials hadn't heard of any recent reports of injuries or deaths from body carrying, but Brown said he knows from previous work at airports that drug "swallowers" sometimes die when a package bursts inside them.
One woman caught at the Mariposa Port of Entry in Nogales in September with half a pound of fentanyl had, in theory, enough fatal doses inside her body for tens of thousands of people.
"It's a tragic situation that people are willing to put themselves at risk to that extent," Brown said. "If one of those packages should come open, it's not going to be good."