COCKLEBUR — In a combined investigation, officers of the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, Arizona Department of Public Safety and the U.S. Border Patrol captured another ring of Mexican marijuana smugglers.

In the early morning hours of Oct. 23, the combined anti-smuggling operation in the Table Top Wilderness Area of Pinal County identified a group of 12 people walking in the backcountry at night. The area is located in the southwest corner of Pinal County in the Sonoran Desert National Monument near Interstate 8.

“This area is known as a high-intensity drug and human smuggling area,” a court probable cause statement reads.

When detectives determined that four or five of the men were carrying larger backpacks than the others in the group about 2 a.m., it was time to pay attention.

“They also noted that the subjects were walking with a forward lean and were walking slower than the others. Based upon knowledge of the activity in the area, the description of the size of the backpacks and the suspects’ demeanor, I suspected the last group of subjects were carrying backpacks of illegal drugs,” a DPS trooper wrote in the probable cause statement.

Investigators sat back and watched the activity of the smugglers.

“As detectives monitored the subjects over the next four hours, they observed individuals in the front of the group ‘cycle’ to the rear of the group and take turns carrying the larger backpacks. At about 0600 hours (6 a.m.), U.S. Border Protection Special Operations agents interdicted the group of subjects. A total of 10 subjects were apprehended within the immediate area of two large packs containing large marijuana bundles,” the DPS trooper wrote in the report.

In the two backpacks, officers found a total weight of 47 pounds of marijuana.

“Based upon the information, it is believed that more backpacks containing marijuana were hidden within the area but could not be located due to the terrain. Efforts are underway to locate the missing contraband,” court records state.

During an interview with investigators, one of the captured smugglers told officers that they all crossed the U.S./Mexico border together with the two backpacks and passed the packs back and forth as they walked through the desert. Each one took turns carrying the packs.

All of the men arrested were undocumented Mexican citizens in the United States without proper paperwork or permission.

The 10 men arrested in the anti-smuggling operation are: Marco Alvarez-Esparza, 44 of Zacatecas, Mexico; Juan Esparza-Hernandez, 28 of Zacatecas, Mexico; Gamaliel Torres-Castorena, 33 of Tijuana, Mexico; Nicolas Borquez-Lopez, 36 of Sinaloa, Mexico; Victor Ramirez-Rios, 20 of Culiacan, Mexico; Edgar Neris-Llanes, 25 of Culiacan, Mexico; Jose Loza-Diaz, 23 of Aqua Grande, Mexico; Jefferson Lopez-Elvir, 27 of Honduras; Edgar Lima-Baltazar, 22 of Guadalajara, Mexico; and Saul Apodaca Sainz, 26, city unknown.

They were all arrested and booked into the Pinal County Adult Detention Center. Each is being held on a $25,000 secured bond and charged in Pinal County Superior Court with possession of marijuana for sale (more than 4 pounds) and two counts of transportation of marijuana in excess of 2 pounds.

This is the second smuggling group captured during the recent anti-smuggling investigation.

The day before these arrests, on Oct. 22, the same team caught six Mexican smugglers with 259 pounds of marijuana in the Interstate 8 corridor near Casa Grande.

On Oct. 22 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. “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 towards 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 on Oct. 22.

Arrested that day 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 of the men remains in the Pinal County Adult Detention Center pending the posting of a $50,000 secured bond.

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