By Jeffrey B. Miller
NOGALES, Ariz (Reuters) - To Mexican drug traffickers, the tall new steel fence now carving along the southern boundary of this Arizona border city looks more like field goal.
Since its completion in July, police on the U.S. side of the 18 to 30-foot-tall fence have retrieved dozens of football-shaped bundles of marijuana.
They say the tightly wound packages are being lofted over the new bollard-and-steel mesh barrier from Nogales, Mexico to rogue receivers in the namesake city in Arizona.
"They are quarterbacking them (the bundles) over the fence and hoping the receivers are in the right spot to pick them up," said Santa Cruz County Sheriff Antonio Estrada of the new trend at the start of the U.S. football season.
The new state-of-the-art barrier stretches for nearly three miles. It was built at a cost of nearly $12 million by the U.S. government to make the border more difficult to breach and to help reduce attacks on U.S. Border Patrol agents.
The taller fence with foundations reaching several feet deeper under the ground it replaced a stretch of outdated fencing made from surplus aircraft "landing mats" that was notoriously easy to scale and burrow under.
Before the new fence was built, smugglers would routinely haul packages of marijuana weighing up to 50 or 60 pounds over, through or under the old fence. Police say they are now packaging the drug in the small bundles, tightly wrapped with brown plastic tape.
Weighing about one pound, they can be thrown over the fence with ease and land on the U.S. side with minimal damage to the contraband marijuana, which is a high-volume, low-cost staple for the powerful cartels operating over the border in Mexico's northern Sonora state.
"We have seen different shapes and sizes," said Carlos Jimenez of the Nogales Police Department, who said that last football incident was on September 9.
Officers that night followed up on a report of suspicious activity near the fence in downtown Nogales, and came across a car stuffed with 39 football-shaped bundles of marijuana with a total weight of 39.7 pounds.
"The car was unsecured and abandoned so when the officer opened the door to the car in plain sight he saw the black football shape marijuana bundles," Jimenez said.
In addition to throwing bundles over the fence, which separates the streets of the two cities by just a few feet, the recovery of several larger bundles in recent weeks leads authorities to suspect the smugglers may be using a catapult.
One night in August, an anonymous caller reported large packages being hurled over the border fence. Officers subsequently located five "cylinder shaped" marijuana bundles with a total weight of 62 pounds.
"The Drug Trafficking Organizations ... have found it difficult to have their smugglers climb and or defeat the fence," Jimenez said.
"So they have resorted to using catapult-type contraptions and basically launch the marijuana bundles over the fence."
(Editing by Tim Gaynor, Jerry Norton and Greg McCune)