The crisis gripping the southern border of the United States is intensifying, with Cochise County, Arizona, emerging as a perilous conduit for drug and human smuggling. A disturbing trend has emerged, where American teenagers, some as young as 12 and 13 years old, are lured into cartel activities through social media recruitment efforts.
County Sheriff Mark Dannels revealed that in the past 18 months, over a hundred juveniles have been apprehended in Cochise County, driving vehicles down to the border, often as a result of their recruitment through social media platforms. “It’s social media,” Sheriff Dannels emphasized during an interview with CBS News.
To combat this growing crisis, Arizona implemented stringent felony human smuggling legislation last year. Shockingly, the majority of the more than 400 people arrested since the legislation’s enactment are American citizens who came from outside the county, according to Sheriff Dannels.
Many of these individuals were enticed into the illegal trade by drug cartels using enticing social media posts and messages promising substantial financial rewards for aiding migrants in crossing the border. One example is 18-year-old Gerardo Alarcon-Martin from North Carolina, who was arrested in June after leading authorities on a high-speed chase. Alarcon-Martin confessed to assisting a human smuggling operation, stating that he had been directed to pick up migrants in the desert after responding to a message on TikTok.
Deputy Chris Oletsky, a 20-year Marine veteran and a member of a dedicated five-deputy team focused on intercepting human smugglers, likened the situation to “Uber for the cartels.”
A typical night in Cochise County often involves law enforcement officers engaged in high-speed pursuits of these criminals. Some of these dangerous chases have been captured on body cameras, leading to violent crashes and confrontations with law enforcement. In one tragic incident in 2021, a 16-year-old suspected smuggler collided with a 65-year-old woman heading to her birthday dinner, resulting in her death.
Recently, Deputy Oletsky’s team intercepted a vehicle from Phoenix, driven by a 23-year-old who claimed financial desperation as the motive. In the back of the vehicle, an undocumented migrant was found. Minutes later, law enforcement pursued another suspected smuggler who refused to stop. During the pursuit, Deputy Oletsky deployed a spike strip, but he slipped and fell off an embankment, requiring an airlift 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. Several suspected migrants fled the scene. Fuaga faces charges of human smuggling and DUI, with potential additional charges pending related to Deputy Oletsky’s injuries.
Deputy Oletsky is currently in stable condition but has sustained severe injuries, including a broken femur, pelvis, wrist, and elbow, with doctors expressing concern about possible head trauma. Despite the dangers, Sheriff Dannels stated that Oletsky remains committed to patrolling the rural roads.
Sheriff Dannels highlighted the callous disregard for human life displayed by the cartels and urged members of Congress to take action. “It infuriates me because we’ve been sounding the alarm for nearly three years. I’ve testified in front of Congress. I’ve met with anyone who would listen to us, and with each passing day, I see another tragedy,” he expressed.
The dangerous high-speed chases have raised questions about the pursuit of suspected smugglers who are speeding. However, Sheriff Dannels clarified that they have revised policies and consider these pursuits necessary to protect the community. “When you have a car going a hundred miles an hour, and you turn your head the other way and they harm a family, how do you live with yourself? You can’t,” he asserted.
The number of migrants apprehended by U.S. immigration agents after illegally crossing the southern border surged to near-record levels in September. This influx has strained resources in sanctuary cities and states, leading local Democratic leaders to openly criticize the Biden administration and call for federal intervention.
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 often patrol alone, adding to the complexity of their mission to combat cartel-driven smuggling operations in the region.