FLORENCE –– The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office announced a round of arrests of drug cartel scouts and affiliates after a months-long sting in Pinal County on Monday.
Sheriff Paul Babeu told reporters at a press conference that eight men were arrested over February and March in the operation. Three of those individuals – Francisco Noriega Nuñez, Jose Gambino Ruiz and Jose Aispuro – were sentenced to 21/2 years in prison for one count of conspiracy to possession of marijuana for sale, a class 3 felony. Four remain in custody awaiting trials.
By March 17, Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles had issued an indictment against the seven men. Voyles called this type of prosecution against cartel scouts “rare.”
Despite the small roles the men played in the large smuggling operations, Babeu said, prosecuting them is more important than deportation.
“We see them as a vital part of their operations,” Babeu added. “Here we are saying there is a consequence for being part of a criminal syndicate.”
A Feb. 20 traffic stop sparked the initiative after Ramon Garcia, a 22-year-old Mexican citizen, told the PCSO deputy he was communicating with scouts in the area on his cell phone, and they advised Garcia to run when they spotted the deputy’s vehicle.
Garcia told the deputy a cartel affiliate paid him $4,000 to pick up a van in Chandler and drive to the Silverbell area in northwest Tucson to deliver to “spotters” working for the Sinoloa cartel. The van contained 600 pounds of food and a dozen cans of gas.
Garcia, a Casa Grande resident, was sentenced to three years of supervised probation earlier this month after pleading guilty to assisting a criminal syndicate.
After that initial tip, PCSO teamed up with U.S. Border Patrol to search. “We launched several missions against these scouts,” Babeu said.
On March 7, the county SWAT team and Border Patrol agents conducted an early morning raid on a hilltop south of Maricopa in Stanfield known to be a lookout post for scouts. With the aid of a Blackhawk helicopter, agents found and arrested three men as they attempted to run and hide behind rocks down the mountain.
One man admitted he had stayed on the hilltop for eight to 10 days and helped four groups evade detection during that time. The man said cartel members promised to pay him $100 for each group to pass through safely.
The post contained multiple cell phones, solar panels, food, chargers, car batteries, water jugs, multi-tools, radios and binoculars.
Law enforcement officers conducted a similar operation three days later at a lookout post in Red Rock between Eloy and Marana, resulting in the arrests of two men. One man told authorities he had been at the post for a month and carried an AR-15 assault rifle with him.
A third operation back at the same Stanfield spot in March revealed two more scouts, who were quickly arrested.
Babeu called once again on President Obama to secure the border and for more help from the federal government to stop the flow of drugs and humans across the U.S.-Mexico border and Pinal County in particular. “It’s a slap in the face to the sovereignty of this country,” he said.