Federal prosecutors have wrapped up what appears to be the largest takedown in history of smuggling cartel scouts, winning prison sentences for 18 people who were involved in an intricate scheme to spy on Border Patrol movements and help the Sinaloa Cartel sneak drugs into the U.S. without being detected.
The Mexican scouts camped on five mountaintops along a line that ran more than 60 miles into U.S. soil, marking a stunning level of penetration by the cartels, who were able to track Border Patrol movements all the way from the border to the interstate just south of Phoenix.
Scouts would stay in situ for months at a time, armed with binoculars and solar charging equipment to replenish batteries for the encrypted radios and cellphones they used to alert their masters back in Mexico — and sometimes directly to the drug backpackers themselves — giving the all-clear or warning to lie low if Border Patrol agents were nearby.
They were assisted by a thorough resupply network that would hike water, food and other necessities into the remote mountain locations.
It took a monthslong investigation, including a sting operation in which undercover agents posed as resuppliers for the scouts, and the legal case dragged on for two years after the December 2017 arrests.
The final defendant was sentenced last week for his role in the operation, which, according to a ledger kept by one of the scouts and recovered by agents, accounted for as much as 1,800 kilograms of marijuana, or almost 4,000 pounds. That works out to a street value of more than $650,000.
Agents believe they managed to nab another 1,967 kilograms (more than 4,300 pounds) carried by the same operation, which the government in one court filing labeled a “staggering amount” to be tied to one single scouting operation.
Michael Bailey, U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona, called the case “a significant blow to the cartel.” Scott Brown, special agent in charge of the Homeland Security Department’s investigations office in Phoenix, said the prosecution showed that the federal government can take out a complex hilltop-spotter operation.
“The west desert portion of the border poses various environmental challenges,” he said. “However, when federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement bands together, we send a clear message to the cartel: You will not operate on the border with impunity.”
The existence of cartel scouts deployed to U.S. locations is deeply controversial. During the administration of George W. Bush, a congressman raised the issue with the White House. Chief of staff Karl Rove ridiculed the idea that Mexican drug cartels had armed agents on U.S. soil.
Making criminal cases has also been tricky. Prosecutors often have to settle for illegal immigration charges and light penalties instead of drug smuggling convictions.
But a series of successful prosecutions over the past couple of years has exposed the breadth and sophistication of the cartel operations — and has shown that the Justice Department has figured out how to make cases stick.
In this case, undercover agents embedded themselves into the operation, acting as part of the supply chain and delivering food to the scouts, which allowed them to make personal identifications when the time came to connect the dots in the case.
Agents managed to seize two ledgers from scouts. One detailed payments owed to various people in the operation, and the other recorded the names of smugglers with check marks next to those who made it through and “X” marks next to those who got nabbed. Smugglers identified in the ledger as Simon, Tintan, Moreno and Mario made it, while Primo and Valdo did not.
Each group had one foot guide and usually five backpackers, each carrying about 20 kilograms, the scouts told authorities. The ledgers showed that 18 or 19 groups got through.
“That approximates to between 1,500 and 1,800 kilograms of marijuana that was not interdicted and successfully smuggled to the Phoenix area,” Elizabeth A. Strange, a first assistant U.S. attorney, told Senior U.S. District Judge Cindy K. Jorgenson.
Agents also calculated that they had seized nearly 2,000 kilograms of drugs tied to the scouting operation, suggesting the cartel’s success rate was less than 50%.
Most of the 18 nabbed in the operation were Mexican, though two were Hondurans, one was from El Salvador and one was a U.S. resident who lived on the reservation for the Tohono O’odham, an American Indian nation that spans the border and was on the land before there was a border.
Reservation police were part of the takedown of the scouts, in what authorities called Operation Rocky Top 2.
Some of the 18 acted as scouts while others were scout helpers, carting supplies to the mountaintop locations. Others were caught carrying marijuana.
Court documents show scouts and scout helpers were paid $200 each for every load that made it to Phoenix. One marijuana mule said he was getting $500 and was allowed to stay in the U.S. without having to pay the cartels the “mafia fee” usually required of anyone attempting to cross the border in their territory.
All 18 people pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance. Sentences ranged from 15 months to 87 months in prison for the two lead scouts.
Sen. Martha McSally, Arizona Republican, said the guilty pleas were wins for Arizona, and she credited the U.S. attorney, whose confirmation she said she pushed in the Senate.
The guilty pleas on drug charges are all the more striking because these kinds of cases can be tough to make.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year tossed a drug conspiracy conviction against a man found in a similar case.
Border Patrol agents nabbed him in the vicinity of an Arizona hilltop spotting camp near the point where Interstate 8 joins Interstate 10, along with two known drug smugglers. When agents spotted him, he dropped his Motorola radio — the type used by smuggling scouts — and ran. He was at the same spotting camp three months earlier.
The 9th Circuit ruled that wasn’t enough to prove he helped smuggle drugs in this instance. The judges said a jury would have reasonable doubt that the man was involved in the drug operation.
Ms. McSally, who has visited the border and seen scouting camps, has written legislation to create a specific penalty for cartel spotters, with a 10-year prison sentence attached.
“Ranchers and Border Patrol continue to be frustrated about the lack of consequences they face,” she said.
She told The Washington Times that she would introduce her bill again.
Rosemary Jenks, a vice president at NumbersUSA, which advocates for stricter immigration controls, has tracked the spotter camp issue for more than a decade.
“The cartel scouts have been a problem in border states for years, so it’s good to see DOJ actually prosecuting a group of them,” she said. “We won’t solve the problem, though, until we secure the border to make it harder for them to cross back and forth and engage in consistent enforcement efforts to apprehend and prosecute them,” she said.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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