TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — A judge who says he repeatedly heard defendants over the years deny knowledge of drugs found in their cars says that the despicable conduct of three leaders of a smuggling ring now makes him wonder whether the denials were true.
U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins on Monday sentenced the smuggling ring leaders, who had pleaded guilty, to prison terms ranging from 8 to 10 years, the Arizona Daily Star reports.
Center to the ring's ability to smuggle meth and heroin into the United States at the twin border cities of Nogales was the use of unwitting drivers whose vehicles were planted with drugs while in Mexico.
The ring then used GPS devices to track the vehicles, and a ring member would remove the secreted drugs once the vehicles were in the United States.
According to court records, the ring smuggled 150 pounds of meth and 15 pounds of heroin over nearly two years.
In one instance, federal agents realized that a Nogales teacher's car was used to smuggle drugs after she reported to police that her spare tire was stolen while she was at work.
Like many others in the area, the teacher frequently crossed the border to go from her house in Nogales, Sonora, to her job in Nogales, Arizona.
The smugglers targeted her vehicle after noticing her regular crossings and then hid drugs in the spare tire, which a ring member then stole while she was at work.
Collins sentenced Marco Flores Enriquez to 10 years in prison, Angel Martinez Figueroa to about nine years and Eva Martinez Figueroa to about eight years.
"You had innocent people arrested and charged with trafficking drugs," Collins said.
Collins said he has heard claims from previous defendants "over and over again" that they did not know drugs were in the car. In this case, the drivers really didn't know about the drugs and the smugglers "took advantage of them," the judge said.
As a result, it is possible someone is in prison right now who had no idea drugs were in their vehicle, Collins said.
"I can't think of anything more despicable than what you guys did," Collins said.
In a 2017 incident, agents found a tracking device on the undercarriage of a vehicle belonging to a 95-year-old man traveling from Mexico to get dialysis treatment in the United States. Agents also found about 16 pounds of methamphetamine strapped under the vehicle.
"This man and his elderly sister were detained at the port of entry due to the (drug-trafficking organization's) actions, although no charges were pursued against them," prosecutors wrote.
Prosecutor Michael Lizano wrote in court documents that the case wasn't a run-of-the-mill drug-smuggling scheme.
"When a store clerk goes to his car in the morning on his way to work, he should not have to worry that drug dealers loaded it with methamphetamine in the night," Lizano wrote.