Border Patrol checkpoints near Yuma nab hordes of pot users headed back from the beach

The small sedan slowed as it approached the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint on a deserted section of Interstate 8 east of Yuma. The car contained three middle-age women on their way back to the Valley after a planning retreat in San Diego.

The past three days had been idyllic and productive as the women lounged on the beach, making art and chatting over ideas for the future of their ceramics business.

The self-described hippies had taken marijuana to the beach and were returning with some of it in the car. One of them, Mary (like others quoted in this article, she agreed to talk about her experience only if New Times used a pseudonym) was unapologetic.

"I would never quit. I like my life, you know?" the 56-year-old says later of her pot use. "None of us drink. We're leftover people from the '60s and '70s."

Mary, the oldest of the group, was driving. She didn't sweat the traffic stop as her car rolled up. She'd been through this same movable checkpoint along the stretch of I-8 East before and had never had a problem.

This time, something was different. She noticed that the checkpoint seemed better staffed than usual. One green-shirted agent manned a small, white booth while others milled about near tents, office-trailers, and patrol cars. Another agent walked a dog, which held its snout high as it sniffed along a line of slowing vehicles.

As Mary's sedan neared, the dog tensed as if it had seen a rabbit, straining at its leash and jerking its human handler forward. Mary was told to park her car under a large canopy to the right of the road. An agent walked up to the driver's-side window and asked her if she would consent to a search of the vehicle.

"This was pretty intimidating," she recalls. "They had guns and were wearing fatigues. We're three little ladies from Phoenix who are calm, peaceful people."

The women were asked to step out and stand a few feet away as the dog trounced through the car.

A moment later, one of the agents confronted the group.

"Well, you obviously don't have any illegal immigrants in the car," he said. "My dog signaled for marijuana. Does anyone want to say anything?"

The women said nothing, but the agents soon found about a half-ounce of pot and a small wooden pipe. The women were made to sit in a holding cell in one of the Border Patrol trailers.

"I was, like, 'Come on. I'm a grandma,'" says Mary. But the agents showed no reaction to her plea. Mary took the blame for the pot and paraphernalia because she says it was "critical" that her business partners have no arrest record.

An agent handed Mary, who had never before been busted for anything harsher than a traffic violation, a citation listing two charges: possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia.

For additional photos from the border check points near Yuma, check out the slide show: Pot Shots

Stories like Mary's used to be rare, compared to what's going on at the Border Patrol's two Yuma Sector checkpoints nowadays.

In the past, small-time drug users were busted occasionally. The Border Patrol has used dogs at its checkpoints for at least two decades, mainly for the purpose of detecting human cargo. But until a few years ago, it employed far fewer than it does now, which meant dogs were not routinely placed at the checkpoints near Yuma. Also, the checkpoints were often closed because fewer agents were available to staff them.

Since late 2005, though, the number of Yuma Sector agents has risen 55 percent — to about 850 agents, up from 550, as of January. Augmenting those agents are hundreds of National Guard soldiers who are part of a 6,000-troop border-protection plan called Operation Jump Start, ordered by President Bush in mid-2006.

The number of K9 dogs also has increased, to more than 30, up from four in 1999. The animals are trained to sniff out hidden human beings, marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and meth-related drugs such as Ecstasy.

The beefed-up resources and the addition of more than 50 miles of fencing along the border south of the Yuma area have slowed illegal immigration in the sector to a trickle compared with what it was just two years ago.

These days, the checkpoints on eastbound Interstate 8 and northbound Arizona 95 near Yuma (a passageway to the I-10 and I-40 corridors linking Arizona and California) are open 24 hours a day. And with the addition of seven times more K9 dogs, they have become the biggest weed traps in the country.

Strictly in terms of quantity, other checkpoints catch more dope. The Border Patrol is allowed to set up roadblocks as far as 100 miles from any national border, and it operates 33 permanent and numerous other "tactical" or movable checkpoints on the Mexican and Canadian frontiers. In the Southwest, checkpoints are typically found on California's north-south I-5, numerous small highways near Mexico, such as Arizona's Highway 86, and along I-10 between Tucson and El Paso, Texas. The Border Patrol sometimes puts up movable checkpoints on I-10 between Phoenix and Los Angeles, but it's rare to encounter one.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern