In one case, U.S. port officers found more than 15 pounds of methamphetamine strapped to the undercarriage of a car belonging to a 95-year-old man crossing the border from Mexico for dialysis treatment. They also found a GPS tracking device on his vehicle.
In another, a Mexican resident told U.S. law enforcement that he believed someone had tampered with his Nissan Murano the night before he was to go to work in Nogales, Ariz. Agents had witnessed suspects install a GPS device on the Murano a month earlier while it was parked in the United States, and it turned out that in this instance, smugglers had stashed nearly 13 pounds of meth in the car’s spare tire.
And in yet another related incident, a schoolteacher who had crossed the border from Mexico earlier in the day reported that someone had stolen the spare tire from under her vehicle while she was at work. Agents investigated and found a GPS device attached to the car. The missing tire had presumably been used to smuggle drugs.
Federal authorities say all of the incidents were the work of a criminal gang operating in the Ambos Nogales area that identified frequent border-crossers and hid hard drugs and GPS devices on their vehicles without their knowledge while they were in Mexico. Members of the so-called Flores-Enriquez Drug Trafficking Organization then followed the unsuspecting “blind mules” into the United States and off-loaded the drugs after the victim had parked and left their vehicle. The GPS devices were used to track the loads and guard against loss in transit.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lizano called the organization’s tactics “egregious.”
“Whether in Mexico or the United States, ordinary people have a right to be free from any fear that they will be unwittingly swept up into narcotics trafficking,” he wrote in a pre-sentencing memorandum in which he argued for “severe punishment” for those involved.
At least six people were indicted for their roles in the smuggling operation and so far, four have been convicted and sentenced, including the alleged mastermind, 33-year-old Marco Antonio “Pumba” Flores-Enriquez, who was sentenced Monday at U.S. District Court in Tucson to 10 years in federal prison. He had previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine and heroin.
Prior to Feb. 5, 2018, Flores-Enriquez resided in a home in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Nogales, Sonora that served as “ground zero” for the scheme, according to the prosecution.
During their investigation, federal agents identified nine GPS tracking devices used by the gang to further the smuggling conspiracy, and the service provider turned over tracking data for eight of them. All eight showed that they had been at or near Flores-Enriquez’s home, Lizano wrote in his pre-sentence memo.
Then on Feb. 5, 2018, Flores-Enriquez relocated to the United States by illegally crossing the border through the Morley Avenue pedestrian gate. According to court documents, he walked through the outbound gate at the port while hiding behind a cardboard box. Video surveillance from the port later showed him and two other conspirators executing what Lizano called a “brazen, cross-border alien smuggling.”
On Feb. 26, 2018, Flores-Enriquez was arrested on an immigration charge and, while still in custody, was indicted for the drug-smuggling scheme.
The prosecutor said phone evidence gathered after Flores-Enriquez’s arrest, as well as recorded phone calls he made while in custody, showed him to be the “leader of this narcotics transportation cell” who played a “pivotal role” in carrying out the blind-mule smuggling scheme.
Flores-Enriquez’s wife Eva Verenize Martinez-Figueroa and her brother Angel Martin Martinez-Figueroa also played “critical roles” in the scheme, Lizano wrote in a memo.
Eva Martinez maintained the GPS tracking devices, which included communicating with the service provider on numerous occasions, and she allowed other co-conspirators, including her brother, to follow unwitting couriers in a Nissan Sentra and Chevrolet Traverse that were registered in her name.
She also maintained a home on Anza Drive in Nogales that agents believe was used to store narcotics, delivered a heroin load to a co-conspirator, participated in a “methamphetamine distribution event” and helped her husband sneak into the United States through the Morley Gate, Lizano wrote.
For his part, Angel Martinez followed victims into the United States to off-load the drugs stashed on their vehicles, the prosecution said. On July 25, 2017, he also delivered a GMC Sierra loaded with methamphetamine to a parking lot in Nogales. Agents later connected the Sierra to Flores-Enriquez via fingerprint evidence, and to Eva Martinez and another relative through border-crossing records.
During Monday’s sentencing hearing in Tucson, U.S. Judge Raner Collins sentenced Eva Martinez to a prison term of 100 months (eight years and four months) and Angel Martinez to 105 months (eight years and nine months). Both had pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute methamphetamine and heroin.
Linked to devices
Evidence showed that another co-defendant, Fernando Ramirez-Espinoza, maintained accounts for three tracking devices that law enforcement recovered from unwitting couriers, Lizano wrote in a memo.
In one instance, U.S. agents seized a GPS device in Ramirez’s name, as well as a load of heroin and methamphetamine, from the undercarriage of a victim’s car on July 22, 2017. On the next business day, Ramirez called the provider to report the device as lost, and to request a free replacement.
Less than a month later, the replacement device and a load of meth were found planted on the car driven by the 95-year-old dialysis patient. The man and his elderly sister were detained at the port as a result, but were not charged, according to Ramirez’s pre-sentence report.
In the case of the teacher who reported in September 2017 that someone had stolen the spare tire from her car while she was at work, agents discovered a GPS device registered to Ramirez hidden underneath the vehicle. Border-crossing records showed that Ramirez, along with other co-conspirators, had trailed the teacher into the United States on that day, and that they had also followed her vehicle several times during the summer of 2017 as well.
Ramirez is also suspected of participating in Flores-Enriquez’s illegal crossing into the United States in February 2018.
He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute heroin and methamphetamine in February 2019, and is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 13. The government is asking the judge to give him a prison term of 105 months (eight years and nine months).
“When a store clerk goes to his car in the morning on his way to work, he should not have to worry that drug dealers loaded it with methamphetamine in the night,” Lizano wrote in Ramirez’s pre-sentence memo.
In June, a fifth co-defendant, Estheban Rodriguez, was sentenced to 90 months (seven years, six months) in prison after he pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine.
According to the prosecution’s pre-sentence memo, Rodriguez first came to law enforcement’s attention in connection with the Flores-Enriquez criminal organization on Feb. 12, 2018.
On that date, he reportedly drove to a car wash parking lot in Nogales, took a spare tire filled with nearly 13 pounds of methamphetamine from a co-conspirator, loaded the tire into his Dodge Caravan and left the scene.
When Nogales Police Department officers tried to stop him, Rodriguez fled at a high rate of speed through the city before officers finally caught him as he tried to climb the border fence into Mexico. According to the pre-sentence memo, Rodriguez made “menacing statements and gestures” to the apprehending NPD officer, whom he recognized and called by his first name. “The officer continues to maintain that he perceived the defendant’s behavior as an attempt to intimidate him,” the memo says.
The tire Rodriguez collected at the car wash had come from the aforementioned Nissan Murano belonging to the resident of Mexico who told U.S. authorities that someone had tampered with his vehicle. Agents told the man to drive to work in Nogales, Ariz. as planned, and then watched as a Flores-Enriquez co-conspirator opened the Murano, took out the spare tire and brought it to Rodriguez at the car wash.
The tracking device that agents had seen suspects planting on the Murano a month earlier was no longer there at the the time of the drug seizure and has not been recovered, court documents show.
Charges against a sixth alleged co-conspirator in the case, a 20-year-old male who was accused after the fact of being involved in the Feb. 12, 2018 drug seizure, were dismissed last year.
The accused man, who maintained that he was a victim of mistaken identity, produced a video purportedly showing him to be at work at a Nogales produce warehouse at the time of the alleged offense. The indictment against him was dismissed without prejudice, meaning the charges could be brought again.