(NewsNation) — The tactic of smuggling humans and drugs into one Arizona county has ramped up following new policies preventing some migrants from self-surrendering to border agents, leaving them with the option to evade.
But they don’t do it alone — U.S. citizens are doing the heavy lifting, transporting undocumented immigrants further into the country. NewsNation witnessed the well-oiled, sophisticated machine that is a human smuggling effort along the southern border in a ride-along with Cochise County’s criminal interdiction team.
U.S. citizens acting as smugglers are circumventing recently reopened checkpoints in Arizona, with the promise of being paid between $500 and $1,000 per person when they get to their destination.
Police stopped 15 vehicles in one day in the county. Deputies thwarted nine different smuggling attempts in just four hours. During one of those stops in below-freezing conditions, one migrant seemingly appearing out of nowhere got hung up on the barbed wire before surrendering to officials on the scene.
Like other smugglers, one driver from Tucson who didn’t want to be identified said he learned about “daily work for easy money” in an Instagram post.
“I feel like I’ve ruined my life,” he said. “I was recently let go from my job at Amazon and I had no way to pay for a day care or any bills.”
He says he communicated on WhatsApp for three days with his “boss,” who told him it was “just a transportation job” and specified a pickup and drop-off location.
His case was turned over to Border Patrol, who will decide whether to press federal charges.
The Cochise County Sheriff’s Office nabbed 1,578 people for state border-related crimes like smuggling last year — 1,500 of them were U.S. citizens, some even younger than the legal driving age.
“To see the cartels back feeding crime to these kids, ‘Come down here, we’ll give you $3,000, come to Cochise County,’ per person that seems so simple, seems so innocent, when it’s international crime,” Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels said. “They don’t care about these kids, and we’re seeing it.”
The sheriff says two underage drivers are currently sitting in jail awaiting hearings. One, just 13 years old, is being charged as an adult.
As one of the accused smugglers told NewsNation, the best advice is “just don’t do it and stay straight.”
If these migrants were not caught, they would have contributed to the roughly 300,000 gotaways DHS sources say have successfully evaded law enforcement since Oct. 1.