Several men who sheriff's authorities said were working as lookouts for a Mexican drug cartel in a known smuggling area have been arrested after a months-long investigation in Pinal County.
The men lived and worked on hilltops for several days and would alert guides who were smuggling drugs and illegal immigrants about the presence of law enforcement, Tim Gaffney, a Pinal County Sheriff's Office spokesman, said in a news release.
The men used cell phones and digitally encrypted radios to communicate with the guides, the release said.
The joint-investigation between the sheriff's office and U.S. Border Patrol, was launched on Feb. 20, when a deputy conducting a traffic stop in near Eloy arrested a man who said he was paid $4,000 to pick up a van in Chandler and drop off supplies to the spotters in the desert, the release said.
During the stop the driver, Ramon Garcia, 22, told the deputy the spotters were watching him and told him to run but he didn't, the release said. The deputy found 600 pounds of food, two spare tires, and a dozen gas cans in the van.
He pleaded guilty to one count of assisting a criminal syndicate and was sentenced to three years supervised probation, according to the Pinal County Attorney's Office.
Following the stop, the sheriff's office, Border Patrol and Pinal County Attorney's Office met to discuss an investigation of the scouts. The first man was arrested in a Pinal County hilltop late February by Border Patrol.
Jesus Nunez-Rios, 27, Jose Aispuro, 23, and Jose Gambino-Ruiz, 25, were arrested March 7.
Two other men, Sergio Ramirez-Ojeda, 32, and Francisco Noriega-Nunez, 30, were arrested March 10. Shortly after, Jesus DeLaRocha, 25, and Miguel Ochoa-St. Cairos, 30, were arrested.
The men were booked into the Pinal County jail on suspicion of conspiracy to smuggle marijuana and aiding in a criminal syndicate.
Aispuro, Gambino-Ruiz and Noriega-Nunez pleaded guilty to one count each of conspiracy to possess marijuana for sale, and were sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison, according to the Pinal County Attorney's Office.
Most of the men admitted to authorities they had been in the hilltops for several days and were being paid $100 for each group that passed safely through the area.
Authorities found a rifle, food and water, cell phones, binoculars and other supplies on the hilltops.
Copyright 2014 - The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson
McClatchy-Tribune News Service