A fence topped v razor cable separates the U.S. Native Mexico in Nogales. The fence does tiny to stop would-be drug smugglers, however. In fiscal year 2020, agents seized more than 42,645 pounds of cocaine, 5,222 pounds of heroin, 324,973 pounds the marijuana, 156,901 pounds that methamphetamine and also 3,967 pounds of fentanyl. (Photo through Kenny Quayle/Special for Cronkite News)

ARIVACA – A harsh wind bellowed with the desert as a tumbleweed drifted across the land. Jim Chilton gazed the end a home window of his adobe house toward the Mexico border, just 20 miles away.

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The 82-year-old rancher and also his 78-year-old wife, Sue, very own 2,000 acres of land and also lease 48,000 an ext in Arivaca, a tiny neighborhood an hour’s drive south of Tucson.

Chilton’s proximity to the border comes through complications, including drug smugglers moving the deadly fabricated opioid fentanyl. The 5 miles of Chilton Ranch not protected by a border fence leaving the property particularly vulnerable come cartel activity, he said.

People and also drugs have actually been flooding throughout the border for years, and Chilton has much more than a thousand hrs of his very own security footage to prove it. He has actually noticed transforms over time.

“We had lots the bags that drugs 4 or five years back – big backpacks the marijuana,” he stated as the navigated his pickup end the rough terrain. “But the bags and backpacks have diminished in size. Now, that evidently cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, meth.”


‘Anything end 2 milligrams will certainly kill you’

Overdose deaths in the U.S. Fight a document high in 2020 and also are proceeding to rise, driven primarily by synthetic opioids – particularly illicitly made fentanyl, which regularly is laced in pills or cocaine.

Although marijuana traditionally has been just one of the most lucrative cash cows for Mexican cartels, secure legalization of cannabis in U.S. States has prompted a adjust in course. Fentanyl additionally is much more profitable, through a gram going because that $150 to $200 on the street, compared with around $15 because that a gram of weed.

Fentanyl, which was arisen in 1960 to manage pain in cancer patients, is smaller and easier come transport, resulting in its enhanced flow throughout the border.

Chilton stated one strategy used by smugglers is come wait because that asylum-seekers to be choose up by Border Patrol agents, keeping them busy so the smugglers deserve to make a run for it.

“Everybody’s always in camouflage,” Chliton said, “and they simply bolt as soon as you gain up on castle sometimes.”

Jim and also Sue Chilton own 2,000 acres of land and lease 48,000 an ext in Arivaca. “We had actually lots that bags of drugs four or five years back – large backpacks that marijuana,” that says. “Now, that evidently cocaine, fentanyl, heroin, meth.” (Photo courtesy of Jim Chilton)

He claimed the loose border fence only makes the trouble worse.

“In short, it’s a nationwide security issue.”

Although Mexico continues to be the key foreign resource of marijuana in the joined States, “Mexican marijuana has actually largely to be supplanted through domestic-produced marijuana,” follow to the medicine Enforcement Administration’s 2020 nationwide Drug hazard Assessment.

Marijuana seizures through U.S. Customs and Border security along the southern border have declined by 81% because 2013, from 1.3 million kilograms to around 249,000 kilograms (548,950 pounds) in 2019.

Those numbers coincide v legalization in the U.S., wherein Colorado and also Washington were the an initial states to provide recreational marijuana usage in 2012, adhered to by Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., in 2014.

In Arizona, medical marijuana was legalized in 2010, and also voters in November approved recreational use. Clinical use that marijuana is allowed in 36 states, while recreational usage is currently legal in 18 states, according to the nationwide Conference of State Legislatures.

Enter fentanyl, a lab-made opioid that’s reasonably easy come create, through a fatality threat lurking behind every dose.

On a recent visit to the DEA’s Nogales office, special Agent Rene Amarillas shows me a photo of a miniscule quantity of fentanyl on a glowing penny, because that scale.

“That much can kill you?” i ask him.

Amarillas nods and also says, “Anything over 2 milligrams will kill you.”

The dab top top the coin is smaller sized than a serial of rice.

According come the Brookings Institution, CBP seized much more than 42,645 pounds the cocaine, 5,222 pounds the heroin, 324,973 pounds of marijuana, 156,901 pounds the methamphetamine and also 3,967 pounds that fentanyl in fiscal year 2020.

Although the fentanyl seizures may not it seems to be ~ like lot in comparison, the lethal potency of the drug renders the numbers particularly troubling.

From April 2020 through March 2021, over there were almost 97,000 drug overdose deaths in the U.S., and also 75% of those affiliated an opioid. In the same 12-month period the year before, 73,000 overdose deaths to be reported, v 71% entailing an opioid, follow to the Centers for an illness Control and Prevention.

Jacob Guerrero, 31, was one of those fatalities. He died in may 2020 after taking cocaine that had been laced through fentanyl. His mother, Theresa Guerrero of Tucson, to trust the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in his drug use and death.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in Nogales seized almost $4.6 million in fentanyl and methamphetamine totaling close come 650 pounds in January 2019. Cartels are increasingly smuggling deadly fentanyl throughout the border. (Photo by Jerry Glaser/Customs and also Border Patrol)

“He was, choose so countless other people, really lonely, and also I psychic he would go on drives by himself simply to get out that the house,” Guerrero told Cronkite News earlier this year. “I need to wonder if he had actually been able come see various other people, would they have noticed what he was going through prior to I did?”

Cartels that cook and move fentanyl across the U.S.-Mexico border are mainly responsible because that overdose deaths prefer Jacob’s. They import precursor chemistry from India and also China to do the drug, but U.S. Officials report the cartels recently have started producing the chemistry on your own, basically eliminating the middleman.

“The mass amount of fentanyl currently in pill type is comes from Mexico. And it’s clandestinely developed in different cities,” Amarillas said, describing hidden labs tucked far in dry jungles. “And we have seen direct situations where university chemists have been involved.”

In April, DEA exhilaration Administrator D. Christopher Evans announced a new effort, task Wave Breaker, come disrupt the circulation of fentanyl right into the unified States.

“While a significant entry allude for fentanyl is the Southwest border, the cartels space spreading their poison right into communities across the nation,” the said. “Through this initiative, we’re tackling a very real public health, public safety and also national protection threat, identifying the many egregious street-level networks in our communities and also working our means up through the supply chain.”


“When ns was public works director, I used to fill these tunnels v concrete,” Nogales mayor Arturo Garino claimed in an interview.

The most sophisticated tunnel he found was 50 feet indigenous the port of entry, dug close to an abandoned hotel, that said. It resulted in a parking lot near the border, whereby the cartel drilled a “perfectly ring core” fit through a hydraulic jack to bring it back up come street level seamlessly.

“A car would park over there diagonally through a false bottom, and they would put the hydraulic jack down and also stuff packs of cocaine up into it,” Garino recalled.Mario Morales, chef deputy of the Santa Cruz ar Sheriff’s Office, claimed officers find the tunnels sporadically.

“It’s hit and miss. Friend can find a tunnel today and another one following week, or you deserve to go month without detect one,” that said.

Still, part smugglers are merely walking the product across the border in backpacks. Native December through February, Chilton’s protection footage taped 120 world carrying what he thought to be drugs.

The circulation of migrants and asylum-seekers across the border have the right to make the more challenging for agents to avoid the drugs.

“When Border Patrol is busy doing their paperwork, they’re to run the medicine through several miles in various locations,” Chilton said. “So in a sense, the asylum-seekers become decoys.”

There are far an ext to these operations 보다 drug tunnels and labs covert in the jungle, though. Public representative report the cartels now are recruiting American adolescents to relocate drugs across the border.

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“In Nogales High School, we’ve seen situations where youngsters have been recruited,” Amarillas said. “It is a concern, and it occurs throughout the border states. Mountain Diego had a situation in the last pair of years whereby they were recruiting students the end of a high college to serve as couriers.”

CBP certified dealer Alan Regalado developed a program called T.E.A.M. Youngsters to store that native happening. The organization partners v Arizona schools along the border and also in Phoenix and also Tucson, come teach kids about the risks and results of working through cartels.

Regalado started working with Nogales High student in 2017 through a program called Operation Detour, climate realized that cartel recruitment can start with children as young as 12.

“A most these children think due to the fact that they’re minors the there’s no going to be any results for them because that smuggling or because that being part of a criminal organization,” Regalado said in a call interview, however that’s incorrect.

“At the end of the day, the cartels yes, really don’t care about the kids’ lives. They room just focused on the financial gain,” he said.


Regalado claimed teens are consistently recruited with social media channels, such as Cartel TikTok, whereby videos screen semiautomatic weapons, poppy fields, piles of cash and armored cars.

He advises parents whose youngsters may it is in at risk of recruitment to watch for sudden alters in perspective or the salvation of expensive item – “the children are wearing quite watches or buying points that their parents no buying them,” the said.

Though many of the medicine coming across the border bypass Nogales for far bigger destinations, the city of 20,000 is not immune come the overdose crisis. The Santa Cruz ar Sheriff’s Office reported boost in all drug overdose phone call in 2020 – 19, increase from 6 in 2019 and four in 2018.

Abraham Cedeno own Huff & Puff exhilaration Shoppe, nestled behind the Candlewood Suites and also Holiday Inn express in Nogales. He’s had actually customers come in and ask because that drugs harder than the nicotine pens and CBD cream he sells. However he continues to be away from all of that. Both his younger brothers passed away of fentanyl overdoses in Nogales, Cedeno said.

Chief Deputy Morales note that various fentanyl analogues have far various levels of potential – ”some room up come 1,000 or 2,000 times the potency of heroin or morphine; some room 100, 200 times, some 60 times.”

“A lot of of people unfortunately have actually addiction problems, and also they’re looking for the next high and also it doesn’t take it much,” Morales said.