Arizona the Next Big Push for Drug Cartels as Border Crisis Worsens
Arizona the Next Big Push for Drug Cartels as Border Crisis Worsens

By Allan Stein

SAN LUIS, Ariz.—A tangled coil of razor wire marks the end of a segment of the border wall between San Luis, Arizona, and Mexico, but it’s just the beginning for illegal migrants entering the city day and night.

Separating two parallel wall sections with 30-foot-high steel bollards is a narrow stretch of dirt road coined “no man’s land” by law enforcement.

Within this humanitarian limbo are empty water bottles, cans of food, and old clothing, things no longer of any use or value to those crossing the border.

According to those trying the stem the human tide, they are all signs of a worsening illegal immigration crisis in San Luis.

San Luis, Ariz., Police Lt. Marco Santana said there have been many deaths at the southern border wall in San Luis in recent months as he inspects it on Jan. 27, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Wearing dark sunglasses, San Luis Police Lt. Marco Santana peered through four-inch gaps between the bollards at the refuse pile.

The situation in no man’s land is often chaotic, he said, as some illegal immigrants engage in a life-or-death struggle to enter the country by attempting to climb over both massive sections of the wall.

Those that make it over the first section risk almost certain death scaling the second.

“Are you kidding me? You’ve got to be an athlete to cross this fence. Many have died—well over 30 people,” Santana said.

“If you’re here, you’re an illegal—and a lucky person. If you can jump the first fence, you cannot jump the second one. I have not seen anybody make it over the second one.”

A Catholic priest blesses a group of newly arrived illegal migrants at the border wall in San Luis, Ariz. (Courtesy of San Luis Police Lt. Marco Santana)

Santana recalled a young man from Columbia who fell and hit his head on the concrete slab below the second fence.

“He died, unfortunately, and it was here”—in no man’s land.

Santana said each day, dozens of undocumented migrants enter San Luis from Mexico through unguarded areas of the border wall.

The majority of crossings occur at night.

Sometimes, they’ll wade through an aqueduct at various points along the border wall in San Luis, a city of 35,500 in Yuma County, dubbed “the lettuce capital” of America.

Republican Arizona State Rep. Michele Pena (L) from Yuma County listens as lawmakers describe the increasing toll of illegal immigration and drug cartels operating along Arizona’s southern border at a press conference in Phoenix on Jan. 26, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

“This is what you call the Colorado River,” Santana said of the deep, slow-moving water that turns into rapids further upstream.

On the other side of the aqueduct are golden fields of grass and shrubs in Mexico.

“If the immigrants come, they come through here,” Santana said. “And cartel activity, on the other side, charges people to cross. They’ve got a business on the other side.”

Illegal immigrants who don’t wish to get caught and held for processing will try to charge border law enforcement like Japanese soldiers’ banzai attacks in World War II.

While U.S. Border Patrol agents and other law enforcement try to intercept every illegal crossing, they are spread thin throughout the Yuma Sector.

It stretches along the southern border from the Yuma-Pima County line in Arizona to the Imperial Sand Dunes in California, with approximately 800 border security officers to watch over the sector.

The illegal immigrants that get away in San Luis continue their trek across active farmland, trampling or defecating on crops, and trespassing on residential properties on their way north across Arizona’s Sonoran desert.

A large group of illegal migrants waits to be processed on the U.S. side of the border wall in San Luis, Ariz., about a month ago. (Courtesy of San Luis Police Lt. Marco Santana)

As a result, there’s been an unprecedented spike in property crime and, in some cases, violent crime and shootings, Santana said.

“They’re people from all over the world,” Santana told The Epoch Times. “You’ve got people from Columbia, Peru. You’ve got people from the Dominican Republic. You’ve got people from Brazil—you’ve even got Russians, Uzbeks.

“Some of them fly, and some of them take boats. They cross over from Mexico. Their journey is lengthy—very lengthy.”

Often, it involves making a deal with the devil.

The Sinaloa drug cartel in northern Mexico is heavily involved in illegal drug smuggling and human and sex trafficking along the border with San Luis.

Many new arrivals have agreed to work as “mules” for the cartels, carrying illegal drugs such as fentanyl into the United States in exchange for safe passage.

Newly elected San Luis Mayor Nieves Riedel said the city is overwhelmed by the border crisis and believes it will likely worsen in the warmer months.

“We’re just a walking path for illegal immigrants,” Riedel said, “but they’re dying in our backyard.”

Not everybody who walks across the border is a “good guy,” she said.

“They kick in doors, basically going into private properties. Our police force needs to be bigger. We don’t have the resources to deal with this issue.”

Riedel said the crisis has continued unabated—”day in, and day out.”

“It’s inhumane. Our immigration system is not working. It needs fixing. I’ve heard this for the past 30 years, and they’ve done nothing. The border towns carry the bulk of the problem,” Riedel told The Epoch Times.

She said most communities aren’t prepared for what’s coming.

“We have a lot of farmland surrounding these areas. One of the things these people in Washington need to understand is our farming industry fits the rest of the country. If it collapses,” the nation’s supply chain will suffer.

“Nobody is looking at the impact on our fieldworkers,” Riedel added. “This is a problem where everybody is being hurt. It is a safety issue at all levels. And it is upon us.”

San Luis Police Lt. Marco Santana helps a group of children from Colombia at the border wall in late December 2022. (Courtesy of San Luis Police Lt. Marco Santana)

On Dec. 24, Yuma County Board of Supervisors Chairman Tony Reyes declared an emergency in the county’s unincorporated areas to address the health and humanitarian costs of the border crisis.

Reyes said while Yuma Sector agents made more than 300,000 apprehensions of illegal immigrants in 2022, the county is facing a “triple threat” of COVID-19, Respiratory Syncytial Virus, and the flu.

With increasing asylum seekers and illegal migrants entering Yuma County from Mexico, local resources are “stressed.”

In the meantime, Title 42 of the Public Health Services Act, implemented by President Donald Trump in 2020, is set to expire sometime in 2023. The act allows suspending people’s entry at the southern U.S. border as a public health safety measure against COVID-19 and other diseases.

San Luis Interim Police Chief Miguel Alvarez said the community is at a crossroads with the border crisis.

“We are already at a tipping point. We’ve been there for many years now,” Alvarez said. “The situation keeps getting worse.”

“As a resident of this community, it is very concerning,” he said. “We’ve had to lock down schools. As a lieutenant, I have given the instructions because people were crossing into other people’s property” as classes let out.

Alvarez said his biggest concern is the quantity of fentanyl, an illegal synthetic opioid, crossing over the border into San Luis due to Mexican cartel activity.

In recent years, one or two fentanyl overdoses were weekly occurrences in the San Luis high school. Then, the city took an aggressive stance and introduced education and the life-saving drug Naloxone, which reverses the effects of an overdose.

“There are so many sad stories of grandmothers having to use the [Naloxone] on their 13-year-old grandson because they overdosed,” Alvarez told The Epoch Times.

With a full-time staff of 22 police officers, Alvarez said the department is struggling with the border crisis.

“Our guys are working a lot of overtime, which is good for them but bad because they work 11 days straight without resting.”

The solution is to hire more staff and secure additional funding, though resources are limited.

Mayor Riedel said in one instance, the city’s three ambulances diverted to the border wall in response to health emergencies, leaving city residents without service for hours.

A pile of trash discarded by illegal migrants lies in the area between two sections of border wall in an area known as “no man’s land” in San Luis, Ariz., on Jan. 27, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

The local hospital is also facing problems dealing with the influx of illegal migrants, she said.

Riedel said better immigration laws and strong border enforcement would resolve many of these issues.

“It doesn’t make sense what’s going on,” Alvarez said. “We’re reducing law enforcement while we see an increase” in border crossings. “We’re becoming more lenient in border security when we should be more strict because fentanyl is a lethal drug—very different from marijuana and other drugs.

“Unfortunately, the federal government is not only putting a burden on federal law enforcement but on the communities that have to work alongside them.”

On Jan. 26, Arizona legislators and law enforcement held a press conference in Phoenix on the border crisis and the mounting toll of human smuggling, fentanyl, and sex trafficking.

Arizona Rep. Steve Montenegro (R), chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, said fentanyl overdoses are the leading cause of death among people 18 to 45 and are responsible for 70 percent of all drug-related deaths in the United States.

He described the monthly number of fentanyl deaths as the equivalent of “two 9/11s.”

“The problem is the cartels have taken notice, and they’re shifting increasing amounts of their product [from Texas] through the Arizona border instead,” Montenegro said. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is now a public health crisis. We need to take swift action to deal with what is happening to combat it.”

Montenegro said a “placeholder” bill in the state legislature would provide communities and law enforcement with the tools to measure and attack the fentanyl crisis.

“Many Arizona counties have yet to report 2022 numbers because they are overwhelmed. But the legislature needs these updates regularly,” he said.

“The days of getting new numbers once a year are over. We need them weekly or at least monthly.”

Nieves Riedel says Arizona’s southern border crisis is among the most significant issues she faces as the newly elected mayor of San Luis, Ariz., on Jan. 27, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Montenegro said fentanyl is also a public safety crisis. And while the raw materials used to produce the drug come mainly from China, production of fentanyl is almost exclusively done in Central and South America.

Deliveries of fentanyl often take place along the same routes used by the cartels for sex and human trafficking, and drug smuggling, he said.

“Today, many of those routes run across our Arizona border. And they present a threat to Border Patrol agents and county and local law enforcement.”

Montenegro said while Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, a democrat, has stated publicly that the border crisis is real, “her actions in gutting border-related funding to law enforcement says otherwise. It’s unacceptable.”

“We call on the governor—Governor Hobbs—to join us in this effort,” he said.

Arizona Rep. Kevin Payne, the House Military Affairs and Public Safety Committee chairman, said Hobbs has made it “very clear she has no interest” in promoting Arizona border security.

“This is a public health crisis of our time. It is time to step forward and take care of it,” said Arizona Sen. T.J. Shope, chairman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

“This will be about turning lives around if they can and are willing to do so.”

San Luis, Ariz., Interim Police Chief Miguel Alvarez says his department is feeling the strain of the city’s border crisis on Jan. 27, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Retired Capt. Jaeson Jones, formerly with the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division, said the impact of the Mexican drug cartels has reached “unprecedented levels” in the United States.

“What you are witnessing is the largest U.S. intelligence failure since 9/11. I want to say that again—the largest U.S. intelligence failure since 9/11,” Jones said.

As the dominant crime group in Mexico, Jones said the Sinaloa drug cartel is responsible for large quantities of fentanyl entering the United States, including sex and human trafficking.

Jones said the drug cartels are foreign terrorist organizations and should be labeled as such, operating like a parallel government.

“The Sinaloa cartel is responsible for the epidemic that has impacted your state and your citizens—one cartel. They control all the plazas on the Mexico side,” he said.

In 2022 alone, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) seized 50.6 million fentanyl pills in the U.S., and half of that amount was in Arizona.

“So when you hear you are ground zero, you are, and that unsecured border is directly responsible. Don’t let anyone tell you that what we’re dealing with is unfixable because it is fixable,” Jones said.

Former U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) director Tom Homan said 5.5 million illegal aliens have crossed the border into the United States under President Joe Biden, with more than 1.2 million “got-aways.”

Homan said that Texas lawmakers taking swift action on the border crisis in that state would only shift cartel activity west and into Arizona.

“It’s happened before. In my day, it was California. Then it was Arizona. Then it was Texas. And if you don’t think it’s not coming back to Arizona, you’re going to have to be ready,” Homan said.

“Arizona has more got-aways than Texas, California, and New Mexico combined. You think the cartels don’t know that?”

An illegal migrant family from Columbia waits inside a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle at the southern border wall in San Luis, Ariz., on Jan. 27, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Regardless of one’s opinion on illegal immigration, Homan said that sidelining 80 percent of U.S. Border Patrol agents has only made things easier for the drug cartels to operate.

“That’s when expected terrorists can come across” the border. “That’s when the record of sex trafficking of women and children happens.”

Homan said the fentanyl epidemic killed 100,000 U.S. citizens in 2022. And with sex trafficking at record levels, federal agents were also busy arresting 137 “known or suspected” terrorists at the southern border.

“It is not a coincidence that in an unprecedented year of the border crisis, we have unprecedented overdose deaths from fentanyl coming across that border,” Homan said. “Hold on tight because Arizona will be the new ground zero. You’re already ground zero with fentanyl.”

Hoisting a sign protesting against the drug cartels, Phoenix first responder Carley Morgan said she’s witnessed firsthand how the fentanyl crisis has hurt families and is “getting worse.”

A U.S. Border Patrol agent loads a family of three from Columbia into a vehicle for transport to a federal processing facility on Jan. 27, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

“It’s tragic. It’s happening to our families. We need to secure the border to close the lines of people coming in and out with fentanyl. That’s the first thing we need to do,” Morgan told The Epoch Times.

“I’m hopeful that if we stand together, we can help with legislation to create better laws and security for our families.”

As for Hobbs and her southern border policy, Morgan said the governor is “giving incentives to come to Arizona to get free education and other free things.”

“She’s incentivizing the problem. She’s not helping to secure the border at all.”

Tania Pavlak, public affairs specialist with the Yuma County Sheriff’s Office, said the unprecedented nature of the border crisis is driving county resources to the breaking point.

A farm tractor works the field just outside the border wall in San Luis, Ariz., on Jan. 27, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

“All these people crossing in remote areas are looking not to get caught,” Pavlak said. “When we receive reports of deaths, it takes a lot of time and resources from our officers” to investigate.

In 2022, the Yuma County Sheriff’s Office investigated 69 illegal migrant deaths. Since Biden took office, the number has almost doubled yearly, up from 34 deaths in 2021 and 16 deaths in 2020.

“A lot of the deaths occur in remote areas of the desert,” often from exposure to the elements, Pavlak told The Epoch Times.

The illegal migrants arrive at all hours. While the majority—41 percent—hail from Mexico, other countries of origin include Peru, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Ecuador, Guatemala, Columbia, Haiti, and Belize.

“As people are getting processed, and as more people come in, depending on how quickly Border Patrol can process them, the crowd starts accumulating,” Pavlak said.

San Luis, Ariz., Police Lt. Marco Santana said more than 30 people died trying to climb over the border wall on Jan. 27, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

The county medical examiner’s office considers all migrant deaths homicides “until proven otherwise.”

Many “got-aways” are people who circumvent the heavily guarded commercial points of entry in Yuma County and penetrate the community undetected.

The problem is then, “We don’t know where they end up,” said Pavlak, adding that Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot has reached out to Hobbs with his concerns.

In recent months the border crisis in Yuma County has become so dire that county supervisor Jonathan Lines told Fox News the county is on the verge of “collapse.” And the response at the federal level has been soft at best.

“Our Border Patrol is overwhelmed,” Riedel said. “They’re not only underpaid, they’re overworked and demoralized. They’re a taxi for illegal migrants because that’s what they’re doing. Picking up people.”

First responder and paramedic Carley Morgan holds a sign protesting against Mexican drug cartels at a press conference on the border crisis in Phoenix on Jan. 26, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

“Right now, the cartels are looking at Arizona. It’s a long stretch of border, and most of it is unprotected. It doesn’t matter how much you try to protect it. We don’t have the manpower.”

Like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Arizona’s new governor is busing processed illegal immigrants out of her state.

“She’s enabling and sending them out throughout the country,” said Arizona Sen. Wendy Rogers (R).

Arizona Sen. Sonny Borrelli (R) recalled how “they ridiculed [former Gov.] Doug Ducey for that, but they’re giving her a pass.”

Borrelli summed up Arizona’s border crisis in two words: “It’s bad.”

“They discovered tunnels used by the cartels again in Yuma. They had to close those tunnels down,” Borrelli told The Epoch Times.

Arizona State Rep. Michele Pena said the border crisis is severe in San Luis, where hundreds of illegal immigrants enter the country almost daily.

“The numbers always change. What has to happen is they need to close the border,” Pena said.

Riedel said many illegal immigrants who risk crossing the journey to the Arizona border believe that life in the United States will be a cakewalk.

She said the reality is that for many illegal immigrants, it’s anything but free and easy.

San Luis, Ariz., Police Lt. Marco Santana leaves his vehicle to inspect a section of the southern border wall on Jan. 27, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

“I believe some people come across and feel we owe them something. And this is why the men and women of the Border Patrol are so discouraged,” Riedel said.

As a 20-year member of the San Luis police force, Santana said he has another decade to go in his career.

After he retires, he hopes to study and become a deacon in the Catholic church and help people as a civilian.

The suffering he’s seen at the southern border wall is heartbreaking, a humanitarian crisis of growing proportions. Many illegal immigrants told him they endured impossible conditions of brutality and political corruption before fleeing to the United States.

“They all start crying most of the time with what they went through. It’s just horrible,” Santana said.

Santana said he believes the U.S. immigration system is broken. But it falls upon the federal government to get control of the problem because too many lives are at stake on both sides of the border wall.

“I do not disrespect someone who is not trying to harm me. I see people who have survived some gruesome things. But I believe in immigration reform. It just has to be the right way of doing things,” Santana said.

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