CASA GRANDE — The joint efforts of the U.S. Border Patrol, Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office have resulted in the arrest of 15 Mexican nationals while they allegedly were smuggling hundreds of pounds of marijuana last week.

A joint law enforcement investigation in Pinal County’s Sonoran Desert was going on in the early morning hours of Oct. 22. Investigators know that cartel smugglers often use the Interstate 8 corridor to get their drugs from Mexico into Arizona.

At 5:30 a.m. “a vehicle was observed driving slowly on the Central Arizona Project canal near Midway Road in Pinal County,” a PCSO probable cause statement reads. “As law enforcement observed the vehicle, a subject was observed hanging out of the vehicle. The vehicle stopped and several subjects were observed getting into the vehicle from the desert. The group was observed loading large square packs into the vehicle, which through my training and experience was believed to be bulk marijuana.”

Investigators watched the SUV turn around and travel back toward Midway Road with all lights off. It traveled north on Midway Road past I-8 when a marked Border Patrol unit began following it. The agent activated emergency lights but the SUV continued north.

Investigators deployed spike strips and flattened the SUV’s tires.

“All subjects bailed from the vehicle in east and west directions,” court records state.

Inside the now-abandoned vehicle were 12 bundles of marijuana with a combined weight of more than 259 pounds.

Air and ground units were deployed, a perimeter was established and six men were arrested in the area and booked into the Pinal County jail.

Arrested were Dimas Ruelas Rivera, 40, Juan Atondo Saucedo, 19, Jesus Diaz Villanueva, 20, Mario Hernandez Sanchez, 35, Emiliano Barraza Laurian, 24, and Silverio Zavala Fernandez, 32.

Each was initially charged with assisting a criminal syndicate, conspiracy, two counts of possession of marijuana for sale and illegal control of enterprise.

Since their arrests, their information has disappeared from the Pinal County Adult Detention Center database, meaning they were bonded out or transferred to another facility.

Arrested on similar charges the following day were Marco Alvarez Esparza, 44, Edgar Lima Baltazar, 21, Edgar Neris Llanes, 25, Vistor Ramirez Rios, 20, Gamaliel Torres Castorens, 33, Jefferson Lopez Elvir, 26, Saul Apodaca Sainz, 26, Nicolas Borquez Lopez, 36, and Juan Esparza Hernandez, 28.

All of these men were also booked into the Pinal County Adult Detention Center but are no longer listed in the database.

All of the 15 men arrested are listed as Mexican citizens and were in the United States without proper documentation, according to court records. Records do not indicate when they are scheduled to appear in court.


Jim Headley is a reporter covering breaking news, crime and justice around Pinal County. He can be reached at