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Courier for drug smugglers sentenced to 4 years in prison

Woman picked up man carrying heroin, meth & cocaine after he slipped through desert on foot

A 48-year-old woman was sentenced to four years in prison after she pleaded guilty to conspiracy as part of an effort to smuggle cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine through the Arizona desert near Mt. Hopkins about 36 miles south of Tucson.

Selene Marie Camacho was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Rosemary Márquez on Thursday after she pleaded guilty in July 2021, telling the court she worked as a courier for a drug smuggling organization, retrieving drugs that were smuggled into the U.S. on foot.

On Sunday, June 28, 2020, Border Patrol agents spotted "suspected drug mules" moving through the area and found footprints and tire tracks in the dirt on Mt. Hopkins Road, which leads to the Smithsonian Institute Visitor Center, part of the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory on the peak. The road runs off the mountain and links to Interstate 19 near Amado, circumventing the Border Patrol's checkpoint a few miles south. Agents suspected a vehicle had been "recently loaded," according to court records.

Two days later, on June 30, Camacho drove her gold Mercedes S430 sedan on Mt. Hopkins Road and agents spotted her car. A Pima County Sheriff's Deputy pulled her over as part of a "task force," telling the court her vehicle registration was expired and her windows had "illegal tint."

In the passenger seat was Anastacio Alvarez-Leon, a Mexican citizen who had been deported from the U.S. through San Ysidro, California a year earlier, according to BP agents.

The deputy held Camacho and Alvarez-Leon, and officials had a drug dog sniff the car. The dog "alerted to an odor" according to court records, and deputies searched the vehicle, discovering three camouflage backpacks in the trunk. Inside the backpacks were packages of drugs, including nearly 3 pounds of cocaine, less than a half-pound of heroin, and nearly 42 pounds of methamphetamine.

Also in the car was a loaded pistol magazine, officials said.

According to court records, Alvarez told police he carried the drugs, and walked with nine other people through the desert until he was picked up by Camacho.

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As part of her plea agreement, Camacho told the court she had son, and had "cobbled together employment" by cleaning houses. "This work kept her barely solvent, but she was able to get by," wrote Camacho's attorney Guenevere Nelson-Melby. "But, when Covid hit, she lost half of her clientele and was unable to find more work."

Facing eviction, and a rising stack of bills—including a broken air-conditioning unit in her car—Camacho made some "terrible choices, including getting involved in illegal activities," Nelson-Melby wrote.

Camacho was part of a larger effort to smuggle drugs through the desert, and did a "series of jobs" for drug traffickers, including bringing food to people in the desert. Until that day she had avoided "being around drugs or guns," however, she decided to smuggle drugs after she was pressured to do so, and offered more money, her attorney wrote.

"Ms. Camacho was a useful tool for powerful men. Her role truly was minimal," wrote Nelson-Melby. "Instead, she was a driver," for Alvarez, who told agents that he was the "arete," or the person in charge of monitoring the shipment for the smuggling organization dubbed "Los Toys."

"There is no indication that she was a valued or trusted member of the organization," wrote Nelson-Melby. The amount of drugs found in this case was more an indication of her passenger’s position in the cartel than any trust she had in the organization."

Camacho's case is a rarity in drug smuggling cases.

Most of the drugs intercepted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection are picked up by officials at the nation's border crossings, according to consistent annual data. This includes seizures from passenger cars, large trucks, and also people who attempt to smuggle drugs into the U.S. by tapping packages to their bodies.

In some of the most recent seizures, on Monday, CBP officers found 184,000 fentanyl pills stashed inside custom-made tire rims at a border crossing, and last Thursday, Border Patrol agents found 1.3 pounds of fentanyl in the clothing of a passenger in a taxi cab at the Interstate 19 checkpoint.

In the fiscal year of 2020—when Camacho was arrested—CBP officials seized 1.1 million pounds of drugs. This included around 582,000 pounds of marijuana, 178,000 pounds of methamphetamine, and 5,800 pounds of heroin.

Of that haul, just 296,000 pounds were attributed to Border Patrol agents that year, which ran from October 1, 2019 to Sept. 30, 2020.

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Since then, drug interceptions are on pace to be lower in 2022 than they were in 2020, as marijuana seizures have effectively collapsed, and seizures for methamphetamine, cocaine and heroin are pacing lower than they did two years ago.

However, BP agents have intercepted 892 pounds of fentanyl over the last seven months of 2022, exceeding amounts seized in 2020. And, fentanyl seizures are on pace to surpass the 1,000 pounds seized by BP agents in 2021. 

Homeland Security Investigations conducted the investigation with help from Border Patrol, said Esther Winne, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. The United States Attorney’s Office, District of Arizona, Tucson, handled the prosecution, she said.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A Border Patrol agent on a hill in 2018