Migrants who request asylum in the United States began being returned to Mexico through Nogales ports of entry to await future court hearings.
The move represented an expansion of the Migrant Protection Protocols, also referred to as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, a controversial program that sends asylum-seekers to Mexico while they wait – often for months – for their date at U.S. immigration court.
Francisco Lorenzo Beltran, 48, was found dead in his cell the morning after he was booked into the jail on an outstanding warrant for a child support violation.
An autopsy reportedly found the cause of death to be methamphetamine intoxication. However, according to a notice of claim sent to the county by the Beltran family’s lawyer, an expert hired by the family believed that he died from “severe, untreated opioid withdrawal.”
A few months later, in response to a growing number of people with drug addictions ending up at the jail, the county established a new program to provide methadone treatments for inmates with opioid addictions.
People returning to the United States through Nogales after spending the holidays with loved ones in Mexico endured wait times of eight hours or more at local ports of entry. One family told the NI that they were stuck in line for 14 hours before crossing the border.
Post-New Year traffic jams at the port were exacerbated this year by the government’s move to transfer some U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers out of Nogales to other Southwest ports of entry, and CBP’s decision around Thanksgiving weekend to close off select vehicle lanes at the DeConcini and Mariposa ports to prevent asylum-seekers from gaining unauthorized access to U.S. soil.
Edward “Eddie” Johnson, 56, of Goodyear, Ariz., started work as Nogales’ new city manager. “I’ve got a good feeling about him… I think he’s going to do well,” Mayor Arturo Garino said after he and the council approved a two-year contract for $140,000 a year with Johnson the week before.
However, Johnson’s relationship with elected officials at City Hall quickly soured, and the parties agreed to a separation agreement in May. By the end of the year, the city had still not been able to hire a permanent replacement for Johnson.
A five-month project to revamp the intersection of Pendleton and Rio Rico Drive with turning lanes and a traffic light got under way.
It was the second of three phases of fixes to the Pendleton/Rio Rico Drive area. The first phase included widening Pendleton Drive. The third phase, to begin in fiscal year 2022, is set to include a box culvert over Sonoita Creek.
Ramon Alberto “Beto” Fuentes, 52, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2014 and published the now-defunct Spanish-language newspaper El Heraldo, signed a plea agreement with federal prosecutors admitting that he tried to smuggle cocaine and heroin into the United States through Nogales in 2017.
Nearly a year later, Fuentes still hasn’t been sentenced. Meanwhile, a federal judge allowed him to travel freely back and forth to Mexico, where he has been working as an advisor to a Sonoran state legislative representative and boldly proclaiming that the charges against him were a misunderstanding.
For the second time in the past two years – and the 20th time in school history – the cheerleading team at Nogales High School was crowned the state champion.
The NHS squad finished first in the Large Coed Cheer division at the Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) State Spiritline Championships at Chase Field in Phoenix with a score of 255 out of a possible 300.
Feb. 5-11: Five killed in three crashes on I-19
In the span of less than a week, five people with connections to the local community were killed and another was injured in three crashes on Interstate 19:
• On Feb. 5, Alex A. Zuniga, 59, of Nogales, died after his car went off the roadway in Tubac and crashed into a tree. Zuniga was well known in the community as the former manager of Adair’s Carroon Mortuary in Nogales.
• On Feb. 7, Father Raul Valencia Garcia, the 60-year-old pastor of St. Monica Parish in Tucson, died in a crash in Sahuarita while on his way to Nogales to visit family. Valencia was a native of Nogales, Sonora who ran a dental practice in his hometown for more than a decade before entering the priesthood.
• On Feb. 11, three members of the same family died and another was hurt when the vehicle they were traveling in rear-ended another vehicle in Tumacacori. The driver, 18-year-old Nicole Diaz of Nogales, was killed, as was passenger Roxanna Diaz, 30, of Dayton, Ohio, and a 17-year-old female from Nogales. A fourth passenger was hospitalized.
Daniel Woodburn, a sixth-grade student at Coatimundi Middle School, pumped his fists after correctly spelling “unfurl” to clinch his second straight victory in the Santa Cruz County Spelling Bee. Elgin Middle School student Liam Morgan was second and Ayleen Arana, a Little Red Middle School student, finished in third place.
The annual contest, held at the County Complex in Nogales, challenged 22 local K-8 students to spell words such as “thimblerig,” “cogently,” “headdress” and “scumble.”
Hansel Aleman, 31, of Rio Rico, died after what police called a “physical altercation” at the Silver Clouds Smoke Shop at 411 N. Grand Ave.
A Nogales man was initially arrested on a charge of second-degree murder, but was later freed after a county prosecutor said there wasn’t enough evidence against him.
Aaron Manuel Estrada-Buelna, 29, died by suicide as he waited to face charges for the murder of 31-year-old Berenice Aguirre in Nogales on Dec. 9, 2019.
Estrada-Buelna had been transferred to the Cochise County Jail following his arrest in Nogales, which came after Estrada-Buelna killed Aguirre, then held their infant child hostage in a stand-off that ended when a SWAT team barged in to rescue the child and arrest the suspect.
Sheriff Antonio Estrada said the decision to move Estrada-Buelna to Cochise County had been to ensure the defendant’s safety.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Antonio Estrada announced that he will not seek an eighth term, citing a desire to spend more time with his family.
In announcing his decision, the seven-term Democrat, who turned 77 in July, cited some of the accomplishments during his nearly 30 years in office, including the construction of the new Sheriff’s Office headquarters that bears his name, the new detention facility, the establishment of the 911 Emergency Center, and the updating of equipment and vehicles.
Some businesses and schools closed for the day and, at others, only men showed up for work as women across Mexico stayed home to protest the rise of gender-based violence and murder.
“I want justice for all the women who are killed day after day by machista violence,” said one Nogales, Sonora woman who participated in the nationwide strike.
The World Health Organization declared a pandemic and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey issued a declaration of public health emergency in response to the spreading coronavirus that had infected approximately 128,000 people and killed more than 4,700 worldwide.
But as of Thursday, March 12, no infections had been detected in Santa Cruz County and no one in the county had even been tested for the virus, according to Jeff Terrell, the county’s health services director.
“As of right now, we’re still at zero,” Terrell said, adding: “Not to say that can’t change in like 20 minutes.”
March 15: Schools ordered closed
With spring vacation coming to an end, Gov. Doug Ducey and Arizona Schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman imposed a statewide closure of the state’s schools through March 27 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Nogales Unified School District had already announced the day before that it would keep its schools closed until at least March 30. The Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District, which had said it would remain closed through March 23, saw that timeline extended for at least another week.
Then, on March 30, state officials announced that Arizona’s schools would remain closed for the rest of the academic year and that “schools will offer students general education through alternative formats (i.e. distance learning) for the duration of the closure.”
Democratic voters in Santa Cruz County, like those in the rest of the state, expressed their preference for Joe Biden as their party’s 2020 presidential candidate in a primary election held amidst rapidly growing anxiety over the coronavirus pandemic.
Local Democrats gave the former vice-president just under 40 percent of their primary election votes, compared to 33.4 percent for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
The county government announced the case in a news release, saying only that the infected person had traveled to an area where community transmission was present, and that they were currently recovering at home. The person’s age and community of residence was not released.
That same day, Gov. Doug Ducey agreed to activate the National Guard to restock store shelves, halt all elective surgeries and close all bars, gyms and movie theaters in any Arizona county where there had been confirmed cases of COVID-19. Restaurants also had to switch to providing only dine-out options.
The Nogales and Santa Cruz County governments subsequently declared emergencies and enacted official measures to comply with the rules.
“I’ve gotten a lot of emails, I’ve gotten a lot of phone calls. ‘Why aren’t we closing restaurants? Why are people still hanging out in the bars?’” Mayor Arturo Garino said during a special meeting on March 21. “You know, one thing I didn’t want to do … is just jump the gun and do something like this. I needed to wait for the governor’s office.”
The U.S.-Mexico border closed to “non-essential travel” on March 21, after Trump administration officials announced the restrictions the day before at a news conference at the White House.
The announcement was met with concern and confusion in the Nogales area, due to the importance of cross-border travel to familial, cultural and economic ties, as well as the government’s initially vague definition of essential travel.
“It’s going to have a really big effect on our economy,“ said County Supervisor Manuel Ruiz, adding that the impacts would have a “ripple effect” throughout the community. “It’s going to affect families, it’s going to affect individuals.”
The restrictions, which are still in effect, ended up largely stopping Mexican citizens with U.S. tourist visas from crossing the border. Their absence would have serious repercussions for the community throughout the rest of the year.
Protesters in Mexico blocked the southbound vehicle lanes leading away from the Dennis DeConcini Port of Entry, demanding that their government take stronger measures at the border to protect the nation from the coronavirus.
“We need to protect our population because if the problem were to worsen in our country, Mexico doesn’t have the economic, infrastructural or medical capacity to confront the situation,” protest leader Jose Luis Hernandez told the NI.
Following the action, Sonoran health officials started taking the temperatures of people entering the country through the Nogales ports of entry. However, those revisions were sporadic and Mexico never implemented formal restrictions on people crossing its northern border, aside from a few days in July.
March 30: Stay-at-home order issued
Gov. Ducey issued a stay-at-home order for the state starting the next day, saying that Arizonans must “limit their time” away from their homes or property except to participate in “essential activities.”
Once the rules took effect, local law enforcement agencies said, they were hoping that local residents would follow the new rules on their own.
A news release issued by the City of Nogales said NPD officers “will not cite residents just for being out of their homes or request justification of travel.”
At the Sheriff’s Office, Sgt. Santiago Gonzales said: “The number-one thing is obtaining voluntary compliance from the community.”
Holy Cross Hospital in Nogales was slated to receive a little more than $1 million in additional payments from the state Medicaid system as part of an allocation meant to help Arizona’s rural hospitals deal with the challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis.
The funds came with no strings attached. As for how they’d be used, the hospital’s corporate management said the funds would help “with operational expenses to maintain essential services in the community.”
The injection of public funds came after for-profit Tenet Healthcare Corporation, which owns the hospital, had slashed its operational costs in recent years under CEO Ronald Rittenmeyer, who, as a reward for his performance, received a $24.3 million pre-coronavirus pay package in 2019.
And despite its key role as the county’s only hospital, management at Holy Cross repeatedly declined to answer specific questions about its COVID-related preparedness and response, or to make hospital leaders available for an interview.
Already dealing with the disappointment of a stay-at-home Easter weekend, many Nogales residents saw their frustration compounded by days-long water outages, interruptions and pressure problems resulting from a pair of line breaks.
The two breaks reportedly involved water mains running eight to 10 feet underground. Making them even more difficult to fix, both breaks occurred beneath bodies of water: a retention pond near Mariposa Ranch Road and the Nogales Wash near Baffert Drive.
New statistics showed just how hard the pandemic and its associated shutdowns had hit American workers.
In Santa Cruz County, there were 697 new unemployment claims filed from the week ending March 21 through the week ending April 4, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data included in a report released by the Arizona Office of Economic Opportunity.
“When they told me that I was laid off, it was heartbreaking,” said Gaby Mendoza, a 32-year-old resident of Rio Rico and Tubac restaurant worker.
She added that what made it even more difficult was the pain that it caused her boss.
“When she laid me off, she had tears in her eyes. And she kept apologizing so many times,” Mendoza said.
April 16-17: Residents line up for produce giveaways
Hundreds of cars rolled through parking lots at Nogales and Rio Rico high schools, stopping to allow workers in masks and gloves to load their trunks and backseats with 10-pound cartons filled with tomatoes, bell peppers, zucchinis, watermelons and other food products – all for free.
It was part of an effort by a coalition of government, nonprofit and private sector partners that would continue throughout the remainder of the year.
The scale of the giveaways reflected a growing demand for food in the local area as the effects of an economic slowdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic began to hit local families. But the availability of so many supermarket-quality fruits and vegetables also pointed to a problem for local businesses: a supply chain snag caused by the crisis had left hundreds of thousands of pounds of surplus produce piling up in Nogales and Rio Rico in the preceding weeks.
April 17: Fuentes steps down as county assessor
Felipe Fuentes resigned after 22 years as the Santa Cruz County assessor, citing health concerns. He still had nearly nine months remaining in his current term, so the county supervisors appointed Deputy Assessor Pablo Ramos to complete Fuentes’ term.
Encouraged by his strong support among community members, students and staff, Patagonia schools officials hired Kenny Hayes as their next permanent superintendent.
Hayes had been a fixture in the community since he and his wife Journee joined the Patagonia Union High School faculty in 2013 to teach social studies and English, respectively. His three-year contract took effect July 1.
The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Santa Cruz County jumped from 18 on Sunday, April 19, to 30 by the afternoon of April 22.
“We’re thinking it may be a bump from the Easter weekend. People started showing symptoms and then they started getting tested in the last five days probably,” County Health Services Director Jeff Terrell said.
While the 12-case jump in three days would be dwarfed by increases to come, the mid-April example established a pattern that would be repeated throughout the pandemic: Spikes in COVID-19 cases that come on the heels of holidays.
Federal data showed that travel across the U.S.-Mexico border in Nogales declined sharply in March, the month in which concerns over the spread of the coronavirus began taking hold in the local area and federal restrictions went into effect prohibiting all but “essential” cross-border travel.
Data provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection showed that 187,404 pedestrians and 219,514 vehicles crossed the border in Nogales in March 2020.
That was down from the 249,157 pedestrians and 286,440 cars in February 2020 and also marks a drop from the 285,601 pedestrians and 280,762 vehicles that crossed in March 2019.