PINAL COUNTY, Ariz. — When I and my Pinal County Sheriff's Office escort arrived at the pickup locations the Sinaloa Cartel smugglers use off of I-8, we didn't have to walk far into the brush to see we had just missed a group of border crossers.
The smugglers, who traffic both drugs and humans, are very knowledgeable of the terrain as the trails have been in use for decades. The very paths we were walking were used to smuggle alcohol when Prohibition was the law of the land in the United States. Now the contraband is hard drugs like fentanyl. It's because the trails have been there for so long that the cartels don't consider the actual U.S. border to be an issue. All they need to do is get to I-8.
Pinal County Chief Deputy Sheriff Matthew Thomas and Lt. Chris Lapre said once the smugglers get to I-8, all they have to do is wait for the car or truck to pick them up, and they are gone in a flash. Often the driver honks twice or uses the highway rumble strips to signal for the team to come out.
The rumble strips have been useful for law enforcement as, on more than one occasion, police inadvertently used them to make noise to draw out the smugglers from the brush, Thomas said.
The little hideaways in the thick bushes were filled with the trash that the border crossers discarded: empty water bottles, backpacks, and booties they wear to hide their tracks. One pair of booties was thrown away fairly recently.
The mountains that lie to the south of Pinal County are filled with scouts for the cartel, who have a whole logistical operation to support their smugglers to make sure they get to I-8. Thomas said it is both rudimentary and complex.
Thomas noted the cartels are adapting a lot more quickly to how the United States Border Patrol is responding to their incursions.
"They adjust their tactics and just then send more [people] over. So they're adjusting on the fly now," he said.