By Terri Jo Neff |
The hot temperatures of June did not slow down the relentless flow of people hoping to enter the United States along the southwest border, according to data released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
While the majority of migrants crossing through Arizona are presenting themselves at CBP-operated ports of entry, there are still a number of people willing to pay big to be smuggled across remote areas along the border and then seek transportation to Tucson and Phoenix.
From Oct. 1, 2021 through June 30, 2022, U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) Yuma Sector reported more than 235,000 “encounters” – a nearly 300 percent explosion compared to the same eight months the prior fiscal year. The Tucson Sector reported more than 195,000 encounters so far this fiscal year, a 40 percent uptick.
Nationally, more than 1.6 million encounters were reported from October to June, compared to slightly more than 1 million the prior fiscal year. Those numbers only represent persons who turn themselves in to federal authorities or are intercepted by law enforcement.
However, the data does not represent the experiences faced by law enforcement officials, residents of border communities, and business owners. Which is why USBP Yuma Sector Chief Chris Clem and Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot are offering law enforcement agencies across the country a firsthand look of the southwest border.
Last week the lawmen hosted two sheriffs from South Dakota, one day after Clem took to Twitter to announce USBP’s capture of Eloy Tecuanhuehue Hueyopa, a convicted sex offender previously removed by U.S. immigration officials. Clem noted that during his agents’ contact with Hueyopa they learned he had an extraditable warrant from the State of Indiana in a child molestation case.
And the week before, USBP agents assigned to Yuma Sector’s Wellton Station worked with a Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue (BORSTAR) unit as well as agents with CBP’s Air and Marine Operations to locate an 11-year-old boy who had been left in the rugged desert by his smuggler.
Many of those bypassing formal immigration channels are doing so in Cochise County, often wearing camouflaged clothing. Agents with USBP’s Tucson Sector are working with local, county, and state law enforcement personnel to address a growing lawlessness in the region fueled by Arizonans -mostly from Maricopa County- who come to the area to engage in human smuggling.
Earlier this month 15-year-old Emiliano Villalobos of Phoenix was arraigned on felony charges including aggravated assault on a park ranger with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management stemming from a traffic stop just a few miles from the international border near Bisbee. A 9mm handgun and four undocumented non-U.S. citizens were found in the car Villalobos was driving.
Villalobos is being prosecuted as an adult on two aggravated assault counts and unlawful possession of a deadly weapon by a minor. He remains in the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office in lieu of a $50,000 secured appearance bond and is scheduled for an Aug. 19 pretrial conference in advance of a Dec. 5 speedy trial deadline.
Court records show Villalobos was driving a Honda Accord on June 24 when federal agents initiated a traffic stop after several people were seen getting into the vehicle shortly after 8 a.m. The Honda was traveling on a side road approaching State Route 92, a busy road which connects the Bisbee / Naco border area to Sierra Vista.
A BLM Park Ranger, identified only as T.B., maneuvered his marked government vehicle in order to block the Honda’s ability to reach SR92. As the Honda approached, the ranger exited his vehicle and drew his weapon in preparation of the traffic stop.
The Honda initially stopped but then without warning the driver accelerated, spinning the car’s tires for nearly 20 feet in the direction of the ranger, according to a statement of probable cause authored by CCSO Deputy Marcus Gerow in support of Villalobos’ arrest.
“Ranger (T.B.) began backing up in fear of being hit by the vehicle,” Gerow wrote. “Ranger (T.B.) was about to discharge his weapon when the vehicle came to a stop.”
A search of the Honda after Villalobos and his passengers were taken into custody revealed the driver was in possession of a concealed Springfield XD 933 handgun with a full magazine and one round chambered.
The prosecution of Villalobos is just one of nearly 200 cases related to human smuggling that have been initiated by Cochise County Attorney Brian McIntyre since last summer. Most of the charges involve low-level felonies, but two Maricopa County residents are awaiting trial on murder charges in unrelated human smuggling incidents.
In January 2021, William Maurice Brown of Mesa on probation out of Maricopa County for felony aggravated assault when he attempted to flee from USBP agents in southern Cochise County while transporting several undocumented border crossers.
Brown drove his pickup at highspeed through a roundabout when the vehicle flipped, leaving two migrants dead. He is charged with 15 felonies including first degree murder, endangerment, and unlawful flight.
Another defendant indicted on a murder charge is Felix Mendez, who was 16 when he drove from Maricopa County on Oct. 30, 2021 to engage in human smuggling.
Court records show Mendez failed to stop for a USBP vehicle , then drove at high speed through a redlight at an intersection with three Mexican nationals on board. A Benson woman who had the right of way was killed instantly when her vehicle was broadsided by Mendez’s car. She was heading to her birthday party, according to public records released by Homeland Security Investigations.