By Conor Vilines/El Inde
On February 27, an unfinished tunnel for smuggling drugs connecting Santa Cruz County to the Mexican state of Sonora was discovered by Border Patrol and their Mexican counterparts. The secret underground tunnel began inside a drainage system under Nogales, Sonora and ended inside its American sister city.
It is one of many border tunnels found in recent years, but smuggling is not a recent phenomenon. A little over a century ago, evidence shows that Santa Cruz County had a smuggling problem, too. The Nogales Daily Morning Oasis’s February 13, 1918, edition reported a “large quantity of opium for smoking” — 76 tin cans’ worth — discovered during a stakeout by U.S. Customs officials months earlier and eventually turned over to U.S. Army medical personnel.
Cesario Fernandez, who resided on the Arizona side of the border, was accused and sent to trial in Tucson. According to the newspaper, customs inspectors were aware of the outlawed substance stash for a week before Fernandez ordered it delivered to him. The load was large, and evidently Fernandez “had a[t] stake … a prospect for large profits.” Each tin can full of opium was worth $40 of gold, and the Nogales Daily Morning Oasis reported it was worth double once sold in the United States.
Then, the June 8 edition of the Daily Morning Oasis reported at least two new smuggling stories on the same day. The paper’s front page detailed “one of the most sensational (trial cases) ever known in this region,” in which four U.S. Customs officials accused two Americans and two Mexicans of a “conspiracy to smuggle opium and cocaine into the United States.”
It was alleged that 17-year-old Robert Encinas had driven a car packed with a can of cocaine and 50 cans of opium from the Sonoran side of Nogales into the American side. The car belonged to American shop owner Frank Patterson, and the smuggled load was delivered to the home of Nogales broker Ralph Giraurd.
American customs officials said they “knew the contraband was coming in that car, and let it pass (through the border) for the purpose of catching the accused parties with the goods.” The American defendants said that they, Encinas and a Mexican border guard, were asked by the customs officials to smuggle and sell the drugs so that the officials could learn who was buying drugs in Arizona. The cans of drugs were found to hold nothing more than molasses and manufacturing salt. Clearly, though, smuggling was a topic on the minds of border town residents. Whether they knew it or not, drug smugglers then were paving a road for international cartels to follow a century later.
Some early 20th century contraband would be legal today. Another article in the same June 8, 1918 edition focused on alcohol smuggling. Prohibition laws from 1915 to 1933 created a rich market for illegally delivering alcohol. Two men were accused of “transporting liquor illegally.” It is unclear whether Francisco Flores and J.C. Prewatt smuggled prohibited alcohol directly from Mexico or domestically from inside Arizona, but both were found guilty. They received 90 days in the county jail and fines of $100 and $150, respectively.
Just as they do today along the border, encounters sometimes turned violent. On July 25, 1926, Border Patrol inspector Lon Parker was tracking liquor smugglers in eastern Santa Cruz County. Later that day, the Wills family found Parker dying from a gunshot wound on their ranch. Nogales’ Border Vidette newspaper speculated that he had been ambushed by smugglers. Nearby, the bodies of a smuggler and his horse, with “a heap of discharged [bullet] cartridges at hand and a large quantity (20 gallons) of contraband liquor,” lay on the ground.
A disturbingly similar event connects those frontier Arizona days to our own. In 2010 a Border Patrol unit encountered and attempted to apprehend five men connected to smuggling within Santa Cruz County. The suspects were part of a “rip crew” which stole from rival drug and human traffickers in remote areas. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was fatally wounded when the groups exchanged gunfire.
Border Patrol Agent Jesus Vasavilbaso said illegal smuggling remains widespread after a century of crackdowns. In December 2019, another international tunnel was identified in Nogales, along with 200 pounds of narcotics and two men accused of smuggling the drugs. Just under 130 tunnels have been found in Santa Cruz County since 1990.
“While our checkpoint near Sonoita and Patagonia isn’t as busy as Nogales,” agent Vasavilbaso said, referring to the border checkpoint along State Route 83, “it is a huge deterrence to smuggling in that community.”
Drug-running organizations have found it lucrative to smuggle both drugs and undocumented migrants. “The checkpoint along Interstate 19 gets stuff all the time,” said Vasavilbaso. In addition to apprehending more than 63,000 undocumented migrants in fiscal year 2019, agents interdicted more than 60,000 pounds of narcotics.
A century ago, border bandits aimed to supply contraband to American markets and use the profits to recover from the violence of Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution. Today, Santa Cruz County borderlands are still a gateway for smuggled contraband, part of a long story of people and goods crossing unregulated through Santa Cruz County communities.