Nogales border officers make record 254-pound fentanyl bust

A 26-year-old Mexican truck driver has been arrested and charged in the record-breaking drug shipment, which was hidden under a load of cucumbers. Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

In a record seizure for Customs and Border Protection, officers confiscated 254 pounds of fentanyl — enough for millions of potentially lethal doses — hidden in a cargo of cucumbers at a Nogales port of entry.

It was the largest single seizure of the potent opioid in CBP history.

Juan Antonio Torres-Barraza, a 26-year-old Mexican truck driver, was caught Saturday with more than 650 pounds of methamphetamine and fentanyl worth $4.6 million, officials said Thursday during a news conference at the Mariposa Port of Entry. He is in federal custody facing two counts of possession with intent to distribute.

According to court documents, Torres-Barraza was driving a 1999 Volvo through the Mariposa Port of Entry when he was referred to a secondary inspection. During a scan, agents observed anomalies in the trailer’s floor, and a CBP canine team alerted officers to what turned out to be 416 packages, 94 of them with fentanyl and the rest with methamphetamine.

The fentanyl, worth about $3.5 million, was mainly in powder form, but there were also pills.

The meth seizure was the third-largest discovered at Arizona ports of entry and consisted of 322 packages weighing about 395 pounds and worth $1.18 million.

The strongest opioid available in medical treatment, pharmaceutical fentanyl is used to treat severe pain and is usually administered through a patch. The euphoria-inducing drug is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and up to 100 times more potent than morphine.

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Former Tucson monastery begins taking in asylum seekers dropped off by ICE

Lauren Asrael, left, a volunteer, helps to check in Norma Lopez and Yason Hernandez, 8, at the Benedictine Monastery after they were dropped off by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

Tucson’s iconic Benedictine Monastery opened its doors to Central American asylum seekers ahead of schedule due to larger numbers of families arriving at the border and being released by immigration officials.

Catholic Community Services, which is running the shelter inside the monastery, received the keys on Friday and weren’t planning to open for another two weeks to get the space ready, said Teresa Cavendish, director of operations. But on Saturday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement called them to ask how many people they could take.

“They had 130 who needed to be released,” said Cavendish. The Inn Project, run by the United Methodist Church, could take between 40 and 50, so she told the officials the Casa Alitas network of shelters could take the rest.

The Border Patrol has seen an increase in the number of large groups of 100 immigrants or more apprehended along the southern border in the El Paso, Rio Grande Valley, Tucson and Yuma sectors. During the last four months, the agency said smugglers and traffickers have delivered 53 large groups, totaling 8,797 adults and children.

Within six hours that day, Cavendish said they had the monastery ready and started to receive families vetted by ICE. And it hasn’t stopped.

The owner of the Benedictine Monastery offered to let asylum seekers and migrants stay at the facility while their final destinations are arranged. That’s usually places where they have a close friend or relative who can sponsor them while their immigration cases are processed.

Developer Ross Rulney plans to build apartments around the monastery at 800 N. Country Club Road and has a few more months of rezoning hearings before construction can begin. He offered its use for housing refugees through the end of May since it was empty. Catholic Community Services is the tenant and Rulney is not involved with the operations, nor is he charging rent or receiving any government reimbursement.

So far, Cavendish said, the response by volunteers, which includes medical staff, has been overwhelming. On Saturday afternoon, they quickly helped put together the rooms with cots and blankets, and sorted donated food and clothing in time to receive the first 57 families, mostly from Guatemala.

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Officials: Nogales, Sonora, not ready to house asylum seekers sent back by US

In this 2018 file photo, volunteers from Parroquia del Carmen, a Nogales, Sonora, parish, set up a table to serve breakfast to more than 50 migrants, seated at right, queued at the Mexican side of the DeConcini Port of Entry in Nogales. Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star

Nogales, Sonora, is not in a position to take in more Central American asylum seekers for extended periods as they wait for their U.S. immigration cases to go through the system, advocates and officials said.

Neither are other Mexican border communities, they said.

“I don’t think there’s any border city that right now has either sufficient resources or the preparation to house these people for an extended period of time,” said Jorge Jauregui, city manager of Nogales, Sonora.

The mayor’s directive is to assist those who are coming through or being deported through the city, he said.

“We have resources and plans to assist in times of an emergency, but we would have to reach out for help to our partners in the state and federal government,” he said.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced a new policy that would involve sending back to Mexico Central American asylum seekers while their immigration cases are pending. Under the Migrant Protection Protocols, unaccompanied minors and others deemed to belong to vulnerable groups, or who can show they face persecution or torture in Mexico, would be exempt.

Currently, many of the Central American families who arrive at a port of entry or who turn themselves in to Border Patrol agents are vetted and released with a notice to appear before an immigration official. That’s usually at a place where they have a friend or relative already in the country, but it may be years before they see a judge and their cases are resolved.

The government says many of these families are taking advantage of what it calls loopholes, laws that limit the time a child may be in detention to 20 days, and the lack of detention space for families.

Representatives from the Mexican government said during a news conference Friday that the U.S. would send back up to 20 people a day starting at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in California, with the idea that the policy would be gradually expanded to the rest of the border.

“The Mexican government does not agree with the unilateral measure implemented by the U.S. government,” said Roberto Velasco, spokesman for the Mexican Foreign Ministry. “Nonetheless, in line with our new migration policy, we reiterate our commitment to migrants and to human rights.”

Mexico will issue temporary humanitarian permits but will not accept unaccompanied minors or people who’ve been denied and are appealing their asylum claim or those with serious health problems, he said.

The real solution, he said, is to invest in the migrants’ countries of origin. “Migration should be a choice, not a necessity,” he added, echoing a message Mexico’s newly elected president, Andrés Manuel López Obrado, has reiterated, including at a rally in Nogales.

There’s not a lot of information about how the new plan, initially discussed in December, will be implemented. Neither Salvadoran nor Guatemalan consulate officials in Tucson had received any official notification from their governments about specific protocols, they said Friday.

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Border sheriffs say ‘the wall’ has become a lightning rod of division

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, a Democrat, says “it’s so ludicrous that everything is hinging on that magical wall.” Gregory Bull / The Associated Press

As the government shutdown nears its fifth week, border sheriffs are saying “the wall” has become a lightning rod of division and a sound bite that constrains talks on securing the border.

“The term ‘the wall’ gets in the way a lot. It has become this semantic game of what is a wall,” said Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier, a Republican.

“Let’s talk about border security, which part of it will be physical barriers, part of that will be technology and part of that will be human resources,” he said.

Those, along with better technology and staffing at ports of entry, are the main points of a new, three-page statement released by the Southwestern Border Sheriff’s Coalition. Napier said he authored it on behalf of 31 sheriffs in four southern border states.

Napier was among a group of law enforcement officials and others who spoke to President Trump during a conference call Wednesday. He’s also talked to lawmakers in Arizona and nationally about the issue, including “a few Democrats,” he said, “but not as many as I would like.”

In interviews this week, Arizona’s Republican border sheriffs wouldn’t clearly state whether they supported the president’s position to continue the shutdown until congressional Democrats agree to his request for $5.7 billion for 234 miles of new steel barriers.

“There’s enough blame to go around,” said Napier. “The Democrats desperately want to win, the president desperately wants to win. But who should win is not the Republicans or the Democrats, but the American people.”

Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot, also a Republican, said he gives kudos to Trump. “I would imagine the president is standing tall because he’s standing tall for the boots on the ground who are saying this is what we need to adequately do our job,” he said. “I know that law enforcement appreciate the fact he’s standing up and holding Congress accountable.”

But for Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, the lone Democrat among Arizona’s border sheriffs, “it’s so ludicrous that everything is hinging on that magical wall,” he said. “It’s completely absurd, reckless and of no common sense. There are places where it would be practical, an option, but will it be the solution? No.”

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Deaths of 2 children in immigration custody highlight language barriers along the border

A video from the Guatemalan Consulate gives instructions to migrants in Spanish, but many indigenous Guatemalans speak very limited Spanish, experts say. Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star

The recent deaths of two Guatemalan children in immigration custody highlight the potential communication breakdowns between border agents and indigenous-language speakers, but advocates say it is far from a new issue.

“It’s not the fault of any individual officer because the system is not in place,” said Blake Gentry, a Tucson researcher and advocate with broad experience working in Guatemala. He authored a 2015 report on the indigenous language issue in the U.S. immigration system.

Due to the lack of a comprehensive language assessment system, he said, “when someone comes into custody, if they are under physical duress you need to quickly get to the truth. If you have a parent who is embarrassed or feels stigma, doesn’t want to speak or thinks that if they speak the language it’s going to be worse for him, or doesn’t understand the things being told to him in Spanish,” the consequences can be dire.

Jakelin Caal Maquin, a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in Border Patrol custody on Dec. 8, and her father were detained in a group of more than 160 migrants who crossed the border into New Mexico two days prior. The Border Patrol said her father, Nery Gilberto Caal Cruz, claimed in an English-language form that his daughter was in good health.

But according to his lawyers, he doesn’t understand English. Various media outlets reported that his first language is Q’eqchi’, one of Guatemala’s nearly two dozen Mayan languages.

On Dec. 24, another Guatemalan child died. Agustín Gómez Pérez, 8, had been in Border Patrol custody in West Texas and New Mexico for nearly a week when he was taken to a hospital after an agent noticed he was coughing and had “glossy eyes.” A medical examiner said he tested positive for the flu.

Reporters have interviewed the boy’s mother, who speaks the Mayan language Chuj, using her stepdaughter as an interpreter. An investigation is ongoing in both cases.

Just within Guatemala, there are 22 different Mayan languages, not including dialects within some of those languages.

Since 2000, federal agencies have been required to assess and improve access to services for those with limited English proficiency. But the implementation of comprehensive language programs remains uneven, government officials, experts and advocates say.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.