On Jan. 13, agents with the Drug Enforcement Agency got a tip that a red Dodge Durango with a temporary Arizona license plate was going to cross through a local port of entry in the next day or two with a drug load hidden inside, court records show.
The next day, 50-year-old Patricia Deanne Lopez pulled up to the Mariposa Port of Entry in a vehicle registered in her name that matched the description. She and her vehicle were sent for a a secondary inspection, where officers found 16 packages in the engine that contained an estimated 40,000 small blue pills. The pills tested positive for fentanyl.
Following her arrest, Lopez reportedly waived her rights and told investigators that members of a drug-smuggling organization had given her the vehicle in December 2020 and told her to register it in her name. Then in January, they told her to drive to Phoenix to pick up $16,000 in U.S. currency.
Lopez said she was promised $1,200 to drive the cash to Nogales, Sonora.
The day of her arrest was the first of what was supposed to be three trips to pick up and deliver cash, which she suspected to be the proceeds from drug sales, according to her pre-sentence report.
Despite the fact that Lopez was busted by federal port officers as part of an investigation by the DEA, charges against Lopez were brought in the Santa Cruz County court system rather than at the federal level.
She ultimately pleaded guilty at Santa Cruz County Superior Court to illegally conducting an enterprise, a Class 3 felony. On June 21, Judge Thomas Fink sentenced her to 3.5 years in prison, with credit for 30 days served prior to sentencing.
Federal court records show that Lopez was arrested for similar activity a year before, but has so far escaped prosecution in that case.
According to a complaint sworn out at U.S. District Court in Tucson, she was arrested on Feb. 21, 2020 at the Border Patrol’s Interstate 19 checkpoint while driving a gold Acura that was registered in her name. She was sent for a secondary inspection, where agents found 43 packages hidden in the gas tank. The contents of the packages tested positive for methamphetamine and weighed approximately 51 pounds.
After waiving her right to remain silent, Lopez allegedly told investigators that she had knowingly used the Acura to transport drug loads several times within the previous year.
On this occasion, she reportedly said, she was supposed to drive the car to Phoenix, park it at a shopping mall with the keys inside, go into the mall and wait.
She said she believed that the plan would then go like this: someone was going to remove the drugs from the car and replace them with cash from drug sales. Then she would drive to her home in Nogales, Sonora and leave the car unlocked. Someone would go to the vehicle, retrieve the cash and leave a $2,000 payment for her.
However, a week after the complaint was filed, federal prosecutors asked a judge to dismiss the charges without prejudice, meaning that they could be brought again.
Driver of stolen car gets prison term
Juan Carlos Barragan told authorities that he was trying to take his pregnant girlfriend from Tucson to a drug rehabilitation clinic in Nogales, Sonora when he was arrested in early 2019 in Nogales.
The problem was, he drove her to Nogales in a stolen vehicle.
Barragan eventually pleaded guilty to one count of car theft, a Class 3 felony, and on June 21, Judge Thomas Fink of Santa Cruz County Superior Court sentenced the 50-year-old defendant to 3.5 years of prison, with credit for 489 days already served.
According to his pre-sentence report, police detectives spotted a stolen vehicle in Tucson on Feb. 6, 2019 and began surveillance. They saw someone drive it south on Interstate 19, where it was joined by another vehicle and the two began driving in tandem. A license plate check revealed that the second vehicle had also been stolen.
Both vehicles continued to the Walmart in Nogales. The passengers got out and began walking toward the store when they were arrested.
Barragan reportedly told investigators during a post-arrest interview that he had obtained the vehicle from someone he had gotten drugs from in the past, and the person told him to drive it to Nogales. Despite the fact that the ignition was damaged and that he used his own car key to start it, he claimed that he didn’t know or suspect that it had been stolen.
Then during a pre-sentence interview on June 3, 2021, he said he was taking his girlfriend to rehab in Mexico without her knowledge that that’s where they were going. He said he borrowed the vehicle from a friend, who told him to drop it off at Wamart. This time, he acknowledged that he suspected it was stolen.
He said his plan was to leave the vehicle at Walmart and take a taxi to the border.
A co-defendant, Keijuan Cooper, was sentenced in June 2019 to one year for a conviction for attempted car theft.
Barragan’s pre-sentence report says that he posted a $10,000 bond to get out of jail after his arrest in Nogales, but was soon arrested in Pima County while in possession of another stolen vehicle. He was also charged with car theft in another case filed in Santa Cruz County, but the charges were dropped as part of his plea agreement with the County Attorney’s Office.