ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In early December 2015, a Border Patrol agent looking for signs of illegal border crossings spotted a truck driving north with its lights off, heading toward Animas on N.M. 338 at 3 a.m.
The agent tried to follow the truck but lost it when it went off-road. Other agents came to his aid and picked up the truck’s trail.
The truck was found abandoned south of Animas, about 30 miles south of Lordsburg.
Under a camouflage tarp, agents found 1,258 kilos of marijuana.
The agents then tracked the footprints of the driver and his passenger, who had escaped into the night.
They eventually found Jose Luis Castillo-Marchado, 31, and Luis Lopez-Felix, 33, both Mexican nationals illegally in the United States. Both were arrested, charged and convicted. After serving their terms in prison, they will be deported.
According to court records, Castillo-Marchado and Lopez-Felix expected to split $10,000 from the Juárez Cartel to deliver the marijuana to a location near Animas, where someone else would pick it up.
That episode could be easily dismissed as just another load of Mexican weed down on the border.
But the after-expense profit would have been in excess of $600,000 if the marijuana had been delivered to Phoenix or Albuquerque, and it would have been more than $2 million in New York.
Do the math
Here is a financial sketch on a load like the one Castillo-Marchado and Lopez-Felix were smuggling into the United States, according to federal prosecutors and narcotics agents.
A pound of marijuana in Juárez or Nogales costs less than $100. Based on wiretap information, the price of marijuana in Phoenix is $360 a pound when it is delivered in bulk. That’s a profit of $260 a pound.
The price if the pot is delivered to New York is around $800 a pound.
And those are the prices for what is considered “low-grade” or “commercial-grade” Mexican marijuana.
Despite an increase in the number of states that allow medical marijuana use and recreational use, it is still against federal law and many state laws.
Marijuana is also the most abused illegal drug in the country. Far more people use marijuana than all other illegal drugs combined.
So there is a large market willing to put up with low-grade Mexican marijuana.
And it isn’t a high priority for local law enforcement agencies dealing with heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl and cocaine.
The Animas Valley bust was unusual because that amount of marijuana was large for an overland smuggling operation.
The investment in that load alone was in excess of $250,000.
The two more common smuggling methods in New Mexico are groups of backpackers carrying 30- to 50-pound loads across the border to an agreed-on “drop” – a location where the marijuana will be picked up and then moved to a distribution hub.
Or marijuana in 100- to 200-pound loads is hidden in secret compartments of tractor-trailer rigs driven through a border crossing.
The tunnels that Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera made famous were in Southern California and Arizona. There’s been one tunnel found in the El Paso/New Mexico region in the past 20 years.
Sometimes traffickers get creative and try to catapult marijuana bundles over the border fence, but they aren’t common or very successful.
Mexican drug traffickers also have used marijuana to scout markets before setting up shop to sell heroin, methamphetamine or cocaine.
A drug trafficking group that has ties to a cartel, similar to an independent contractor, will arrive in a city like Columbus, Ohio, and sell some marijuana while investigating whether there is a dominant criminal organization involved in drug trafficking in the area.
If they find an entrenched drug organization, they will sell them drugs wholesale. If there is a vacuum, they will set up shop for themselves and become retail distributors for the cartel’s products.
This was the way the Juárez and Sinaloa cartels hopscotched through the American South, Midwest and East Coast securing wholesale and retail locations.
The Mexican cartels have also been found trying to grow marijuana in U.S. national forests in California and Colorado.