Local residents began in September to notice a growing bare patch on a mountainside in the wilderness west of Nogales. It turned out to be a staging area for crews to build a new stretch of President Trump’s border wall through the rugged canyonlands.
A government spokesperson said the work was part of the $1.28-billion “Tucson 10/28 project,” meant to build about 43 miles of new border wall – 27 miles of which were planned in Santa Cruz County. It was part of Trump’s larger promise to construct 450 miles of wall at the U.S.-Mexico border by the end of the year.
County officials complained that they hadn’t been notified about the work, and a spokesman for the Sierra Club said wildlife, including some endangered species, would be significantly impacted by the project as their habitat is destroyed by road-building and the border barrier blocks their migration.
The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors approved a long-in-the-works plan to house adolescents from Cochise County at the local juvenile detention center as part of a cost-saving measure for both counties.
The agreement – which is scheduled to run from Jan. 1, 2021 to June 30, 2023 – is expected to provide Santa Cruz County with some much-needed income from its under-occupied detention center, while giving Cochise the chance to repurpose its facility.
Updated statistics from the Arizona Department of Health Services cleared the way for theaters, fitness centers and bars with dine-in service to reopen under certain precautionary measures in Santa Cruz County.
“When we were waiting for the new numbers yesterday, I thought, ‘If we don’t meet the benchmarks, it’s going to mean that we’re closed for another two weeks,’” said Daniel Magaña of Crossfit Tutuli in Nogales. “So the truth is we’re very happy. This is very positive.”
Staff at Nogales’ only movie theater, Oasis Cinema, got a few days’ head start in their preparations for a Friday reopening after receiving a special permit from the state to resume operations regardless of county statistics.
“We’re very excited to open. We’ve been waiting a long time,” manager Tim Carter said.
Later in the year, as COVID-19 staged a resurgence, the state health director changed the benchmarks for businesses to the point that none would have to close, no matter how serious the infection rate gets.
George Washington Biggs, a Nogales native and three-war veteran who was part of the legendary all-Black Tuskegee Airmen, died in Tucson at the age of 95.
Biggs’ military heroics earned him and the other living Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal and a salute from President George Bush in 2007. He was also highly revered in his hometown, where he served as commander of the local VFW post and did his part to help others in the community.
“He was like our star on our tree,” said Jose “Joe” Diaz, current commander of VFW Post 2066 in Nogales.
Sept. 21: High school sports teams return to action
With local COVID-19 numbers improving, high school athletic competitions returned to Santa Cruz County for the first time since March.
During the week of Sept. 21, the golf teams at Nogales and Rio Rico high schools began match play, and the Patagonia Union High School soccer team took to the field, earning what their coach called a “signature win” over Benson at home on Sept. 23.
Cross-country and volleyball teams also got back into action and played full fall seasons.
But while the RRHS football team managed to play three games, the NHS squad never saw competitive action due to positive COVID-19 tests and related cancellations. And the PUHS soccer team had to shut its season down early for coronavirus-related reasons.
With early general election voting getting underway in Arizona, the County Recorder’s Office set up seven drop-off boxes across Santa Cruz County for early voters to cast their ballots.
“I thought this would be something new for our voters and I hope that we take advantage of using this ballot box,” Recorder Suzie Sainz told the County Board of Supervisors, explaining that the boxes had been acquired through a $123,900 grant from the AZVoteSafe program.
On Oct. 7, ballots began being sent to Arizonans on the Permanent Early Voting List (PEVL) and to those who requested a one-time early ballot for this election. The ballots could be returned through the mail, in person at the Recorder’s Office or at one of the drop-off boxes.
By Oct. 26, nearly 10,000 of the 29,937 county residents eligible to participate in the Nov. 3 general election had cast an early ballot, according to data provided by the Recorder’s Office.
A light stream of cars drove into the Rio Rico High School campus for the first time in months, some students steering their own vehicle into the parking lot while parents dropped off other students at the curbside.
As the students walked to the front gates, they were welcomed by staff members who checked their temperatures, ensured everyone wore a face mask and asked them about any coronavirus symptoms before allowing them further inside.
“It’s interesting to see how it goes,” said 17-year-old Marisol Camacho, a senior beginning the first round of in-person classes at RRHS since the COVID- 19 pandemic hit Santa Cruz County in March.
The hybrid program at the Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District consisted of kindergarten and first-grade students attending in-person classes four days a week. Students in grades 2-12 were divided into two groups to attend in-person classes two days per week on an alternating schedule. All SCVUSD students were to attend classes remotely on Wednesdays.
In August, the district was expecting 2,096 students to return to SCVUSD campuses when the option became available, with another 1,332 students expected to remain in the online-only learning model. As of Oct. 12, the first day on in-person instruction at SCVUSD schools, the total number of students enrolled in the hybrid model had increased to 2,232.
The Nogales City Council voted down upcoming holiday events, saying that they’d bring risky gatherings where COVID-19 could spread.
“Safety has to be our number one priority,” Councilman Jose “Joe” Diaz said during a meeting at which the council opted to keep Día de los Muertos altars, the Christmas Light Parade and the Karam Park Christmas casitas off city property this year.
Earlier in the year, the council called off the city’s annual Independence Day celebration, citing health concerns, and the Veterans Day parade was cancelled as well.
“This is not an easy year for us,” Mayor Arturo Garino said during the Oct. 21 meeting.
The Nogales Unified School District abruptly cancelled in-person instruction after only one week of hybrid learning.
“In an abundance of caution and in consultation with our advisory medical experts, NUSD will be returning to the Online Model starting Monday,” NUSD Superintendent Fernando Parra wrote in an email on Thursday, Oct. 22. The district had begun the on-site component of its hybrid learning program on Monday, Oct. 19.
“This decision and recommendation are in the best interest and safety of our NUSD community,” he added.
The superintendent cited a number of factors for the decision and said that there had been “an increase in the number of exposures and reported cases from individual teachers, staff, families and students.” In a separate email to parents, Parra also noted that positive cases had increased for the first two weeks of October in Santa Cruz County.
Parra wrote that about 45 percent of students district-wide had been attending in-person classes through the district’s hybrid learning model.
Meanwhile, the neighboring Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District continued to offer on-campus instruction as part of its hybrid learning model – at least for the time being.
In what may have been the most unusual drug-smuggling attempt this year in the local area, the U.S. Border Patrol said its agents caught smugglers in the act of using a remote-controlled toy car to pull packages of meth through the border fence in Nogales.
The bust began when agents spotted a rope extending through the border fence a few hundred feet from the Morley Avenue pedestrian port of entry. As an agent approached, a silver SUV sped off, leaving the rope behind.
The agent examined the rope and discovered that 52 small packages had been attached to it, the Border Patrol said.
Shortly thereafter, a second agent located the abandoned SUV in a nearby parking lot, its engine still running. Inside the vehicle, agents reportedly found more rope and a remote-controlled toy car they suspected was used to guide the rope and drugs through the gaps in the fence.
Nov. 3: County voters elect new sheriff, judge
In one of the most closely watched local races of the 2020 general election, David Hathaway cruised to a victory over Jose “Joe” Agosttini and Andrew Ibarra for the job that would soon be vacated by retiring seven-term Sheriff Antonio Estrada.
Hathaway, who lost a bid to unseat Estrada four years earlier, spent more than $70,000 on his 2020 campaign, which also included winning a four-person Democratic primary.
Meanwhile, in a race between former colleagues at the Santa Cruz County Attorney’s Office, Liliana Ortega was the clear winner over Joe Rueda in the contest for judge in Division 2 of Santa Cruz County Superior Court. That seat came open when incumbent Judge Anna Montoya opted to retire after 20 years in office.
In other contested county elections, voters gave Recorder Suzie Sainz a seventh term in office and incumbent Supervisors Manuel Ruiz and Bruce Bracker were re-elected to four-year terms, though Bracker won with slightly less than half the votes cast in a three-candidate race.
In the City of Nogales, the voters gave newcomer Saulo Bonilla the nod over incumbent Nubar Hanessian in the race for the final open seat on the city council.
Democratic candidate Joe Biden won 67.1 percent of the presidential election votes cast in Santa Cruz County, the largest share of votes the former vice president won in any Arizona county on his way to narrowly flipping a state Donald Trump won in 2016.
“I feel that we need more unity right now,” said 48-year-old Miguel Angel Rangel, who cast his ballot on Election Day at Challenger Elementary School in Nogales. “I think that we’ve been very divided, and I don’t think President Trump did a good job with the coronavirus.”
Despite the blowout local loss, Trump’s 31.6-percent share in Santa Cruz County was up from the less than 24 percent he received here in 2016, when Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton collected votes on 71 percent of local ballots.
The contentious presidential race drove strong voter turnout in the county, with 66 percent of 29,951 eligible voters casting ballots in the election – the highest turnout in recent memory. And in a sign of changing voter preferences, especially during a pandemic, 78 percent of the total ballots cast were early ballots.
Nov. 4 and 10: Two found dead at Nogales home; suspect in custody in Mexico
The Nogales Police Department said 21-year-old Emily Daniela Casarez was found dead at the Anza Drive home she shared with 38-year-old Abelardo Aguilar, Jr. Her death was classified as a homicide.
The same evening that Casarez’s death was reported, Aguilar was arrested after allegedly threatening Mexican border authorities near the Mariposa Port of Entry, then crashing the van he was driving. He was reportedly found with a handgun and methamphetamine.
Then on Nov. 10, the body of Abelardo Aguilar, Sr., 66, of Nogales, was discovered in a shallow grave adjacent to the Anza Drive home.
Nogales police identified Aguilar, Jr. as their prime suspect in both homicides, though it was unclear when he might be extradited to the United States to face charges.
Two Santa Cruz County school districts decided to put the brakes on in-person instruction after new benchmark data from the state showed an uptick in COVID-19 cases among county residents.
“We knew that (the benchmark measures) were going to increase, we just didn’t know that it was going to increase as much as it did. And then there’s an anticipation that it will increase again next week,” said Superintendent David Verdugo of the Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District, which decided to halt its hybrid learning program beginning Nov. 16.
Kathy Romero, superintendent of the Santa Cruz Elementary District, which operates the Little Red K-8 school, said her students would also return to remote-only learning starting on Nov. 16.
The county’s largest school district, Nogales Unified, had already ended its hybrid learning program after only one week in October.
Roshan Tinoco-Miranda of Rio Rico High School took home his second-consecutive Division III boys cross country championship, winning the race by a 15-second margin with a time of 15:32.4.
As a senior who qualified for the race as an individual rather than part of a team, Tinoco-Miranda said: “I definitely wanted to represent what would be Rio Rico and the cross country program.”
The RRHS girls team also participated in the state championships in Gilbert, securing a sixth-place finish in a field of 13 teams.
Crews were beginning to install a border wall in the wilderness west of Nogales after spending several months improving access roads, shearing off a mountainside to create a staging area, and cutting a path for the barrier through the rugged terrain.
Working day and night, and even on Thanksgiving Day, the wall-builders appeared motivated to complete as much of one of President Donald Trump’s pet projects as they could before President-elect Joe Biden takes over on Jan. 20.
There had been 3,970 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among local residents as of Nov. 30, which marked a one-week increase of 346 cases, according to data from the County Health Services Department. It was the fifth-consecutive week that the number of new local infections had grown.
With the number of infections growing rapidly throughout the state, hospitals filled up and the state’s ICU bed occupancy surpassed 90 percent.
In a sign of the problem, an ambulance crew from the Rio Rico Fire District picked up a confirmed COVID-19 patient on Nov. 28 at Holy Cross Hospital for transport to a hospital offering higher-level care. But instead of bringing the person by ambulance to a facility in Pima or even Maricopa county, the crew took the person to a medical transport plane at the Nogales International Airport.
“The flight was going to Flagstaff, and supposedly it was for bed availability,” RRFD Deputy Chief Richard Johnson said.
Weeks after voters in Arizona and Santa Cruz County approved a ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana, the Nogales City Council passed an ordinance that blocks a weed dispensary from setting up shop in the city, and prohibits any use or possession of pot on municipal property.
“I don’t want to have that in the community and I don’t think that the people that I represent want to have it,” said Councilman Marcelino Varona, Jr.
Voters in all 24 precincts in Santa Cruz County voted in favor of Proposition 207, the ballot measure that legalized recreational marijuana use and sale.
Rudy Ray Rojo, 31, was sentenced to 12 years in prison and Thomas Alegria, 42, got seven years for their roles in a May 2018 kidnapping case in Rio Rico that included an extensive physical assault, the burning of a car and ransom for their 23-year-old victim’s release.
Co-defendant Aaron Daniel Kane, 33, was sentenced to 15 years in prison in October. The purported ringleader of the crime, 38-year-old Guadalupe Pillado, was killed in Mexico in 2018, not long after the kidnapping.
Nogales Police Department officers discovered 2,237 pounds of methamphetamine when they searched a trailer that had been reported stolen a few days earlier.
The seizure dwarfed an 800-pound bust made by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at the Mariposa Port of Entry in October, which CBP had said was the biggest meth seizure ever at an Arizona port of entry.
A recent surge in infections brought Santa Cruz County’s total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases to more than 4,600. Compared to the county’s U.S. Census-estimated population of 46,498, that figure suggested that roughly one in every 10 county residents had tested positive for the disease since the start of the pandemic.
Santa Cruz County’s 10-percent per-capita confirmed case rate was the highest among Arizona’s 15 counties, along with Yuma, which was at virtually the same level.
The county’s per-capita rate of 0.17 COVID-19 deaths per 100 residents was fifth-highest in the state as of Dec. 10. Its rate of 0.69 hospitalizations per 100 residents was third-highest.
The first batch of COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Santa Cruz County on Monday morning, Dec. 21, in the form of 100 doses from the pharmaceutical company Moderna.
“I immediately got chills once I saw the vials in there,” said Angelica Moreno, one of the onlookers who saw the shipment being opened at Mariposa Community Health Center in Nogales.
The doses were administered to local health professionals during the next three days.
The following Monday, Dec. 28, another 500 doses arrived at the health center, though 900 that were supposed to have been part of the previous week’s allotment were still in limbo.
Sheriff Antonio Estrada said one of his deputies shot and killed a suspect on Christmas Day in Rio Rico after the man rammed the deputy’s patrol car with a semi truck, and the deputy believed he was preparing to ram him again.
The deputy had been responding to a 911 call that the suspect was trying to break into a home, and was ramming cars in a carport with the semi.
The Pima County Sheriff’s Department took over the lead role in investigating the shooting.
Dec. 31: COVID-19’s grim year-end toll
From the time the first local COVID-19 case was confirmed on March 19 to the last day of the year, data from the County Health Services Department showed that 5,976 community members tested positive for the disease, 98 had died and 399 required hospitalization.