The Pinal County Sheriff's Office said it recently busted a significant group of Mexican drug cartel members in the hills of a major smuggling corridor.
A sheriff's office spokesman said the suspects were working as scouts in the hilltops of the nearby corridor, informing cartel members who were trafficking drugs and humans of the locations of law enforcement officers and areas to avoid.
They communicated by cell phone and digitally encrypted radios, the spokesman said.
Sheriff Paul Babeu said a van stopped in remote Pinal County southwest of Picacho Peak on Feb. 20 started the investigation.
The driver, Ramon Garcia, 22 of Mexico, was on his cell phone after a PCSO deputy stopped him near Sunland Gin and West Pretzer roads, and later told the deputy he was talking with spotters in the area who warned him to run, Babeu said.
The deputy found nearly a dozen industrial-size trash bags filled with 600 pounds of produce, meats and other food. The 1999 E-2500 Chevrolet van also contained two spare tires and a dozen cans of gasoline.
He said he was a resupply agent who was paid $4,000 to pick up the van in Chandler and drive it to the Silverbell area to leave the supplies for drug cartel members, Babeu said.
U.S. Border Patrol agents arrested the first suspected scout in late February on a hilltop in Pinal County. Another sweep that included a Blackhawk helicopter on a hilltop referred to as Lookout Post by the spotters netted the arrests of three other suspected scouts: Jesus Nunez-Rios, 27, of Mexico, Jose Aispuro, 23, of Mexico, and Jose Gambino-Ruiz, 25, of Mexico, all of whom tried to run and hide in nearby caves and rock piles after they were spotted, Babeu said.
Evidence on the hilltop included nine cell phones, three cell chargers, car batteries, water jugs, tools, two solar panels, radio chargers, five radio batteries and binoculars, Babeu said.
Investigators also found panoramic photos of the area showing the vantage points from the caves.
All three were arrested and booked into the Pinal County Jail for conspiracy to smuggle marijuana and aiding in a criminal syndicate.
Members of the Pinal County Sheriff's SWAT and Anti-Smuggling Enforcement Unit along with U.S. Border Patrol conducted a third detail near Red Rock on March 10, arresting two of three scouts.
Sergio Ramirez-Ojeda, 32, of Mexico, and Francisco Noriega-Nunez, 30, of Mexico, were arrested and booked into the Pinal County Jail for conspiracy to smuggle marijuana and aiding in a criminal syndicate. An AR-15 was confiscated along with supplies similar to those found on the first hilltop, Babeu said.
A short time later, two more scouts were found in Standfield near Lookout Post. They were identified as Jesus DeLaRocha, 25 of Mexico, and Miguel Ochoa-St. Cairos, 30, of Mexico. They were also booked into the county jail on similar charges as the other suspects.
Some of the scouts said they were paid $100 for each group of traffickers that made it safely through the area, Babeu said.
All but Garcia were officially charged with one count of conspiracy to possess marijuana for sale (more than 4 pounds) and/or transport for sale, import into this state, sell, or transfer of marijuana (more than 2 pounds), a class 2 felony.
Francisco Noriega-Nunez faced an additional charge of misconduct involving weapons for allegedly possessing an AR15 during the commission of a felony offense, according to the Indictment filed against him.
Noriega-Nunez, Gambino Ruiz, and Aispuro each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to possession of marijuana for sale, a class 3 felony, and were sentenced to a sentence of 2.5 years in prison.
The remaining four defendants are scheduled to return to court for a change of plea or trial setting hearing before Judge Georgini.
De La Rocha and Ochoa-St. Cairos are scheduled to appear at 1:30 p.m. June 23, Nunez-Rios at 1:30 p.m. June 24, and Ramirez-Ojeda at 1:30 p.m. July 7.
The prosecution of the scouts will be the first ever in Pinal County, the spokesman said.
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