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Evolution of drug smuggling at the border

Posted at 6:58 PM, May 12, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-12 23:30:50-04

There are three ports of entry that make up the Nogales Port of Entry, facilitating traffic between the United States and Mexico -- the Mariposa Port of Entry, the DeConcini Port of Entry, and the Morley Port of Entry. Officers at these ports of entry are challenged by drug smugglers every day, and are consistently finding ways with new means of smugglers trying to get them across the border.

"It's a challenge that officers have to deal with on a daily basis," Port of Nogales Supervisor Marcia Armendariz said. 

Armendariz has 15 years of experience working at the border. She explained the drug officers used to find the most was Marijuana. However, she said now they're dealing with much harder drugs.

"We are experiencing a lot more of the hard narcotics," Armendariz said. "Cocaine, Heroin, Methamphetamine, and now -- Fentanyl. This drug is very, very dangerous, and people do not realize it's a deadly drug."

With more than a decade of experience in a variety of roles, Armendariz explained people will hide drugs anywhere.

"We've seen it inside tortillas, we've seen it inside a game console," she said. "We've seen inside an accordion."

One of the ways the evolution of drug smuggling has evolved, in her eyes? More body carriers, many of them often just kids.

"A lot of the drug cartels recruit these young kids, and, most of the time they probably tell them -- "you're a juvenile, they're not going to do anything to you, you can't get prosecuted," Armendariz said. "But, you can get prosecuted, they are going to get booked in jail, they are going to get arrested."

Security at all three of the ports is taken very seriously. At the DeConcini Port of Entry, there are eight lanes of traffic coming into the United States. Deputy Port Director Joe Agosttini showed KGUN9 some of the different ways officers are constantly monitoring the traffic coming into the United States.

"You have the license plate readers," Agosttini said. "You have the cameras taking pictures of the driver and passengers, the scanner that is reading all of the documents."

Like Armendariz, he has a significant amount of experience working at the border: 31 years under his belt. With more than three decades of experience, he's witnessed the evolution of drug smuggling first hand.

"You make every effort in good faith to stop the illegal drugs from coming into the United States," he said. 

While going over documents and a typical line of questioning, Agosttini explained officers have about two minutes or less to make a decision whether or not to send someone to secondary inspection.

"Once you're satisfied that they can come into the country, then you move into, "is there anything illegal here?" he said. "You need to couple the behavior along with what you see in the vehicle."

He added it's better to send someone to secondary inspection if there is any suspicion of illicit activity.

"It's better to send a vehicle to secondary than to let it go," Agosttini said. "So you've got to make the right decision."

That being said, both Agosttini and Armendariz believe almost everyone coming into the country are "honest, law abiding citizens." However, the challenge they say is to address the "2%, maybe 1.5%," that are not.

When it comes to searching a car, it will first go through an X-Ray scanner -- then officers will meticulously go through areas of the car that could be hiding places.

"Bumper to bumper, they'll put their drugs inside those areas," Armendariz said.

Agosttini elaborated even more --

"Inside the tires, inside the drive shaft, inside the panels, the dashboard, the roof," he said. "Just about every area that has a void from the factory will be used to bring in narcotics."

With his experience, Agosttini said this is a problem officers at the border will continue to face for years to come.

"What we'll never be able to change," he said. "The fact that there are people out there that will always attempt to bring narcotics into the US."

But it's their job to continue to be vigilant in the battle to keep the drugs out of the country.