KOLD Investigates: Cartel hiring Arizona teens to smuggle undocumented immigrants, new law aims to close legal loopholes

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Jun. 27, 2022 at 10:08 PM MST|Updated: Jun. 27, 2022 at 10:36 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Arizona teenagers are being promised thousands of dollars a day to drive.

There’s just one catch, the job is illegal.

Dozens of people are making their way to Cochise County with to smuggle undocumented migrants in hopes of making big bucks.

“Now, at least in Cochise County, dope is not what they are trying to push, they are trying to push bodies,” said Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre.

McIntyre said he continues to see undocumented migrants crammed inside vehicles. Some of those vehicles are being driven by juveniles not even old enough to have their driver’s license.

The motivation? Fast cash promised by the cartel.

“They have groups of coordinators who are pushing out aggressively on social media and you make between $1,000 and I think I saw it go up as a high as $3,000 per body,” McIntyre said.

March 23, 2022 proved to be a busy day for Operation Safe Streets task force, a partnership made up of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department, Sierra Vista Police Department, and the U.S Border Patrol.

In a six-hour period, they pulled over four vehicles, and reported finding a total of 23 undocumented migrants.

One of the drivers was just 14 years old.

“He was stopped then attempted to flee, he backed his vehicle into a border patrol agent vehicle and, I believe, hit another vehicle as he was trying to get away,” McIntyre.

Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels said it is not unusual to see anywhere from two to ten pursuits a day.

“We have had 16 juveniles in the last five months drive down here that have been charged,” Dannels said. “These are kids who are supposed to be in school, playing sports or whatever, instead they are down here smuggling with the criminal cartel.”

Not everyone walks away unharmed.

In April, an 18-year-old from Phoenix led state troopers on a chase that ended just north of Tucson.

Three migrants died and seven people were injured.

Law enforcement also reported finding a pistol in the wreckage.

McIntyre said even if drivers are successful, their investigations have shown the cartel doesn’t always pay.

“What is the juvenile going to do? Is he going to go tell his mom, ‘Mom they didn’t pay me?’ Is he going to call the cops? No, of course not,” McIntyre said.

McIntyre says the cartel is exploiting legal loopholes.

“One is Arizona’s anti-smuggling statute is enjoined, meaning the federal courts told us we are not allowed to enforce this statute. So, they know we can’t charge someone just for transporting an undocumented person even if they are doing it for profit on the stateside, that is a federal issue,” McIntyre said.

But that may change. In April, Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation which makes it clear that an individual who aids illegal human smuggling organizations or operations will be held accountable for their crime.

“That statute would go into effect 90 days after the legislature closes and we are going to test it,” McIntyre said. “Even assuming some individual gets lucky, and the court system says, ‘Oh no, you are still trying to enforce federal law, you will spend a long time in my jail while that gets figured out.’”

As temperatures continue to climb this summer, McIntyre warns packing people into vehicles is becoming even more dangerous.

“When you kill people, because you will kill people, you going to be facing consequences you never anticipated,” McIntyre said.

On May 10, Ducey sent a letter to the heads of Twitter, SnapChat, TikTok, and Meta addressing how the platforms are being used by the cartel to target juveniles, saying in part, “It’s time for the entire social media industry to put a stop to this activity and prevent the exploitation of our youth.”

The governor’s office tells us they are having discussions with three of those social media companies.

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