New Arizona law makes it easier for law enforcement to go after human smugglers

The driver of a red Toyota Corolla with California license plates sped up to 100 miles per hour after spotting a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle along the westbound lanes of Interstate 10 approaching Benson.

Border Patrol, the Arizona Department of Public Safety and Cochise County Sheriff's deputies had been keeping an eye out for the red vehicle after it fled an immigration checkpoint north of Douglas the evening of Feb. 11.

By the time the driver, identified as 21-year-old Jairo Castro Guzman, reached mile post 312, a county deputy had joined the pursuit.

Castro Guzman increased his velocity to 113 miles per hour. He was headed toward tire deflation devices set up by DPS. When he neared slowing traffic, Castro Guzman swerved to the right to bypass other cars. He struck a tractor-trailer, rotated 180 degrees, and struck the trailer one more time before coming to a stop.

Castro Guzman mostly was unharmed, but authorities say he was transporting in the Corolla two men and two women who had entered the country illegally. Three of the migrants were partially ejected from the Corolla's trunk. Two were unconscious and the third was in pain, clutching his leg because of a possible fracture.

The three migrants partially ejected from the trunk were airlifted to a hospital in Tucson. One of them died days later. Sheriff's deputies took Castro Guzman into custody.

Those types of incidents are no longer uncommon in Cochise County.

A week before Castro Guzman crashed his vehicle near Benson, another driver on Feb. 5 led officers on a high-speed pursuit along Interstate 10 near Willcox. That driver was transporting 10 unauthorized migrants. Three Guatemalan migrants died at the scene when the driver lost control of the vehicle after DPS deployed tire deflation devices.

"That’s our new cultural norm,” said Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels, lamenting how often his deputies are involved in high-speed chases that can easily turn deadly.

“They’re deadly in that they’re just moments away from killing a citizen or the people involved,” he added.

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Dannels and his agency have been at the forefront of changes in smuggling patterns along the U.S.-Mexico border. The current pattern involves younger drivers recruited on social media and paid thousands of dollars to drive to the border to pick up unauthorized migrants and transport them to Phoenix or other larger cities.

Those smuggling attempts are risky, and they have become more dangerous as young, inexperienced drivers lead officers on high-speed chases that can result in severe injuries and even death.

Castro Guzman faces 16 charges in connection with the rollover crash that severely injured the three migrants, killing one. The charges include unlawful flight from law enforcement and a new state charge that allows local agencies in Cochise County to prosecute people for participation in human smuggling.

The new law went into effect in September. It modified Arizona Revised Statutes 13-2323 to make it easier to charge drivers with human smuggling if they attempt to conceal migrants from an officer. It also makes the smuggling attempt a class 2 felony and mandates prison time without the possibility of a suspension or reduction of the sentence term.

"It gives us a tool where we can actually do a stop, an interception of a vehicle prior to any flight event. Obviously, also, it's an advantage to attempt to deter people from using this activity," Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre said.

A number of factors have made Cochise County a focal point for the smuggling tactics and heightened the stakes, according to law enforcement experts.

The area is largely rural and sometimes remote; there are no large cities on either side of the Arizona-Mexico border. The county consists of rolling ranch lands interspersed with long mountain ranges creating wide valleys. Cutting through the valleys are networks of state highways that connect small communities along the border with Interstate 10.

This network makes it easier for smuggling groups to send drivers to pick up migrants smuggled across the border. When COVID-19 restrictions tightened controls at the U.S.-Mexico border, Cochise County began to see larger numbers of people attempting to cross illegally and evade detection by border officials.

For some time after the start of the pandemic, the Border Patrol's northbound checkpoints set up along the state highways remained closed.

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The checkpoints have since reopened, making it more challenging for these drivers to evade detection, according to Howard Bolick. He's the assistant special agent in charge in Douglas for U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, a subdivision of Immigration and Customs Enforcement tasked with investigating transnational crime.

"As long as you didn't get seen on the pickup and you drove halfway intelligent, it's a good chance you were going to get away," Bolick said. "Now you've got a checkpoint. Pretty much all roads out of our area at the border level are guarded by checkpoints. So that becomes an issue and that's obvious a bit more difficult."

The more difficult it has become, the deadlier. The number of migrant deaths in Cochise County has spiked since 2020, according to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, which tracks deaths in Cochise as well. More of them are happening during high-speed chases ending in car crashes. There have been four migrants deaths in the past month alone.

"They didn't sign up to be exposed to what these organizations are exposing them to," Bolick said. "Nobody says, 'I'm gonna jump the border and, however I get to that road, I'm going to climb in the trunk of a car, and I'll go 110 miles an hour and hopefully not be killed by accident or get abandoned at the back of a U-Haul, or harmed in a stash house up in Phenix.'"

In 2022, the Cochise County Sheriff's Office launched its Safe Streets Taskforce to tackle the issue, especially the safety impacts on county residents. Cmdr. Robert Watkins, who oversees the taskforce, said the office averages about two to 10 pursuits each day.

Before the changes to state law on human smuggling took effect in September, deputies had no ability to stop drivers who had picked up migrants unless they sped off and led them on a chase. That's because immigration enforcement falls exclusively under the responsibility of the federal government.

During last year's legislative session, state Rep. Leo Biasiucci, R-Lake Havasu City, introduced House Bill 2696. The bill, which then-Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signed into law, modified state statutes to stiffen penalties against human smuggling. More importantly, it added language that made it easier to link drivers to the smuggling attempts, instead of the smuggling networks. It also made concealing migrants from an officer a state crime.

"If you conceal someone in the trunk, right? That is a violation of that statute," Watkins said. "That's a class 2 felony. So now, because of that law, we can now start dipping our toes into the larger criminal network."

Deputies and other local law enforcement have also been coordinating with Homeland Security Investigations in Douglas. HSI agents are cross-deputized to enforce the new state law. While most of their investigations are referred to federal prosecutors, they work with the Cochise County attorney as well, at times tracking drivers in Phoenix and transporting them back so they can face charges under the new state law.

In the first four months since the changes took effect, Cochise County Sheriff's Office deputies arrested and charged 139 people under the modified statute. That number is likely much higher now, but the office lost access to the Arizona National Guard soldier who was helping them track that data. They are hoping to fill that position and learn more about the scope of that program, Watkins said.

McIntyre, the county attorney, said he has prosecuted the majority of the smuggling cases referred to him. It takes about 60 days on average for him to convict someone under the new state charge, but only if there are not additional circumstances such as a crash, deaths or injuries. He added the new state law, plus the crackdown by law enforcement, is already having an impact.

"We've seen direct evidence that the price per person has gone up that coordinators are having to pay," he said. "So that's a sign that it's already taking effect, right? That risk versus reward is changing."

When the Safe Streets Task Force began, Watkins said, smuggling coordinators advertised paying drivers about $1,000 per migrant to get them to Phoenix. Now, that price has gone up to $3,000 per person because it is more challenging and risky. The hope is that the new law, plus added enforcement, will discourage drivers from putting themselves and others in danger.

Law enforcement in Cochise County has been working with the Mexican Consulate in Douglas to spread the message south of the border about the risks and dangers involved. Consul Ricardo Pineda said they have permanent campaigns, especially in Agua Prieta, the city across the border from Douglas, to warn migrants.

"Don't get caught up by human smugglers," Pineda said. "They are soulless; they don't have respect for life or for the safety of people. And that impacts our community greatly."

The consulate deals with the tragic consequences of smuggling attempts gone wrong. Pineda said his office is coordinating the repatriation of the remains of the 43-year-old man who died from the injuries he sustained in the Feb. 11 crash east of Benson.

Have any news tips or story ideas about immigration in the Southwest? Reach the reporter at, or follow him on Twitter at @RafaelCarranza.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona law makes it easier to charge human smugglers