In another change of tactics precipitated by the new Nogales border fence, smugglers appear to be making narcotics hand-offs from Mexico to the U.S. through the bars of the barrier, authorities say.
Lt. Gerry Castillo of the Santa Cruz County Metro Task Force said his office is looking into a case that began in July when investigators discovered a number of oddly shaped bundles of marijuana during a seizure at an undisclosed location.
He said the investigators at first thought the 48 pounds of marijuana that had been wrapped in thin tubular packages might be "tunnel bundles." However, upon closer examination, they discovered that the bundles were not dirty.
That's when investigators decided that the packages had likely been passed through the fence, which features interconnected, concrete-filled steel tubes with an approximately 4-inch open space between them.
"Boom-boom," is how Castillo described the suspected hand-offs, in which someone on the Mexico side quickly hands a bundle to a person on the U.S. side before taking off.
"We block them for awhile and they come up with another plan," Castillo said of the cat-and-mouse game between drug smugglers and law enforcement.
Castillo said no arrests have been made in the ongoing investigation, but authorities have identified three people of interest.
The new $11.6-million, 2.8-mile border fence was completed this past summer following a groundbreaking in March. At the time of construction, Border Patrol officials said the taller, stronger, more secure barrier would allow it to station fewer agents at the fence and deploy more of them to outlying trouble spots.
However, Agent Eric Cantu, spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, said there has been no change of staffing at the fence area. He added that passing contraband through the fence is nothing new and smugglers use "any method they can conceive of."
Cantu said blocking the space between the bars with material like steel mesh would be unproductive because smugglers would just cut through it.
"We have to be aware of all techniques currently used and try to mitigate through the increase of infrastructure, manpower, and technology and also through our cooperation with other law-enforcement partners," Cantu said.