The crisis gripping the southern border of the United States is turning Cochise County, Arizona, into a dangerous raceway for drug and human smuggling, often involving Americans — including teens — who are recruited by through social media.
"We have over a hundred juveniles in the last 18 months that we've apprehended in this county smuggling, all the way to the age of 13 and 12 years of age down here, driving grandma's car, a friend's car, or mom and dad's car down here, and it's social media," County Sheriff Mark Dannels told CBS News.
To combat the growing problem, Arizona implemented stringent felony human smuggling legislation last year. The majority of the more than 400 people arrested since then are American citizens who came from outside the county, Dannels said.
Many of them were lured into the illegal trade by drug cartels through social media posts and messages promising substantial financial rewards for speeding migrants away from the border.
One teen, 18-year-old Gerardo alarcon-Martin from North Carolina, was arrested in June after leading deputies on a lengthy car chase. He has since pleaded guilty to assisting a human smuggling operation, telling investigators he was directed to pick up three migrants in the desert after responding to a message on TikTok.
"It is 100% Uber for the cartels," said deputy Chris Oletsky, a 20-year Marine veteran who joined the local sheriff's department three years ago to be part of a five-deputy team focused solely on intercepting human smugglers.
A typical night in Cochise County sees law enforcement officers engaged in high-speed pursuits as they chase criminals. The dangerous chases, often captured on body cameras, have sometimes ended in violent crashes and run-ins with law enforcement.
In 2021, a 16-year-old suspected smuggler crashed into a 65-year-old headed to her own birthday dinner. She died.
Recently, Oletsky's team intercepted a vehicle from Phoenix, three hours north of Cochise County, driven by a 23-year-old who claimed he was doing it to pay rent. In the back, an undocumented migrant was found.
Minutes later, law enforcement pursued another suspected smuggler who refused to stop. In their pursuit, Oletsky laid down a spike strip, but the situation took a dangerous turn when the deputy slipped and fell off an embankment, requiring him to be airlifted to a Tucson hospital.
The driver, identified as 47-year-old Bernadette Fuaga from the Phoenix area, was arrested after her vehicle's tires were punctured by the spike strip. At least six suspected migrants ran from the scene. She was charged with human smuggling and DUI, with potential additional charges stemming from Oletsky's injuries.
Oletsky is currently in stable condition but has suffered a broken femur, pelvis, wrist and elbow, with doctors expressing concern about possible head trauma. Despite the dangers, Dannels said Oletsky told his wife he remains committed to patrolling the rural roads.
Dannels said the disregard for human life displayed by the cartels is the reason why members of Congress need to step up and help.
"It pisses me off because we've been talking about this for almost three years. I've testified in front of Congress. I've met with anybody that'll listen to us and every day that goes by I see another tragedy," said Dannels.
The dangerous chases raise the question of whether it would be safer to not pursue suspected smugglers who are speeding. But Dannels said they have revised policies, and indicated the pursuits are necessary to help protect the community.
"When you have a car going a hundred miles an hour and you turn your head and go the other way and they kill a family, how do you live with yourself? You can't," said Dannels.
The number of migrants apprehended by U.S. immigration agents after crossing the southern border illegally soared to near-The influx has strained , prompting local Democratic leaders to openly criticize the Biden administration and call for federal action.
Cochise County, covering approximately 6,200 square miles – roughly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined – boasts 83 miles of border with Mexico but only 99 sworn deputies. Deputies are often alone as they patrol.
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