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A 58-year-old Coolidge man insists the drugs he was caught with at a Nogales border crossing in March were planted in his vehicle.

COOLIDGE — A 58-year-old Coolidge man insists the $240,000 in drugs he was caught with at a Nogales border crossing were planted in his vehicle.

He agreed to do an interview with PinalCentral only on the condition that he not be named.

The man insists he was nothing more than a “blind mule” used by Mexican smugglers without his knowledge. He was arrested in early March when U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers found nearly 35 pounds of methamphetamine, 2 pounds of heroin and 5 pounds of fentanyl in the cargo area of his SUV.

The drugs weren’t hidden in secret compartments to conceal them, but rather they were just found inside a pillowcase and a duffle bag placed into the trunk with his luggage.

The concept that the drugs were not carefully concealed for the border crossing may open the door to the possibility that the man’s claim that he was a “blind mule” is real.

Over the past several years, Mexican smugglers have resorted to using unwitting people to smuggle drugs over the border for them. The “blind mule” has no idea that they are even carrying the drugs.

In September a Tucson judge, who said he repeatedly had heard defendants over the years deny knowledge of drugs found in their cars, sentenced three leaders of a Nogales smuggling ring to prison for a “blind mule” scam. U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins sentenced the smuggling ring leaders, who had pleaded guilty, to prison terms ranging from eight to 10 years.

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.

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.

The Coolidge man, who was arrested at the same Nogales crossing, also made regular trips back and forth across the border. He was living part time in Mexico and was in the process of moving from Coolidge to Mexico.

At the border, a CBP officer asked him why he was in Mexico. He told the officer he was moving to Mexico and entering the United States to get his Social Security check, according to court records. The officer went to the back of his vehicle and opened the rear hatch.

“In the cargo hold of the vehicle, there were several items on top of a pillow case. As the CBP agent reached for the pillow case, he felt several long crunchy items in the pillow case,” federal court records state.

The agent had the man open the pillow case for him and the man said, “hey, that looks like dope,” according to court records.

The man told PinalCentral he saw six to eight burrito-sized tubes wrapped in cellophane when he opened the pillowcase.

“I knew it was drugs. I had a feeling because I didn’t put it there. It’s kind of known for stuff like that down there,” he said.

He added that he had never seen the pillowcase before.

The man was arrested and detained as CBP agents searched the vehicle.

“During post processing and without elicitation from agents, the man mentioned he was ‘set up’ by a woman with whom he lives in Mexico. He indicated that the woman had asked him to drop off some tortillas at a house after crossing into the United States; however, there were no tortillas found in the vehicle,” according to the CBP’s probable cause statement in the court records.

The man said he was in the process of moving to Nogales, Mexico, and arrived in Mexico the night before with a trailer load of furniture. He said he rented an apartment for $100 a month, recently had foot surgery and lost the Coolidge home he was living in. He was receiving a long-term disability payment from his employer, not Social Security.

“The girl that set me up — I’ve know her for 14 years. I dated her in the beginning and the little girl she has was just 5 months old when I met her. We were together until the little girl was about 6. The little girl called me Papi. Even though I wasn’t with the mother anymore, I didn’t want to disown the little girl,” he said, adding that he would bring her Christmas and birthday presents and that he treated her like his daughter.

“Her mother, I believe, is the one that put the drugs in my car. No one else had access except for her,” he said. “Her and her boyfriend and a couple of his friends came and unloaded my trailer. I could barely walk. We probably finished at 11:30 or 11:45. The boyfriend was in the back of my car when I came out (of the house after unloading the furniture). He grabbed my jacket and threw it up into the back of the cargo area and I locked it.”

He said, “The next day when I crossed the border the agent asked me what’s in the white bag?”

He told the agent that he didn’t know what white bag he was talking about.

After being arrested, the man said he also passed a lie detector test.

As far as the delivery of tortillas, he said he indeed had tortillas with him on the trip and the CBP gave him the tortillas back when he picked up his personal belongings.

“That night she said, ‘Can you stop by my uncle’s in Tucson and drop off some tortillas and a little cash?’ He was not working and he likes the Mexican tortillas. I’ve met the man several times. In January, I went by there and did the same thing — dropped off some tortillas for him. Me and him sat in his kitchen, we made quesadillas and we ate them. When I got my items back there were tortillas in my items,” he said.

The accused man said he even noticed the tortillas featured in one of the evidence photos the CBP filed in the case.

“I know there’s a bag of tortillas because she handed them to me that morning in a tied-up grocery bag. My phone was sitting on top of them, charging along with my wallet. When I pulled my ID out at the border, I sat my wallet on the bag of tortillas in the front seat,” he said.

Though he is accused of moving nearly a quarter-million dollars in drugs, the man said he is not wealthy and has even lost his place to live.

“Now I’m living in my nephew’s camp trailer. I’ve lost my home and my job,” he said.