by Curt Prendergast Arizona Daily Star
The last two years saw a rash of criminal charges against border aid workers in Southern Arizona, raising questions about the future of humanitarian aid in a deadly border-crossing area.
map to that future may be found by looking back on how the U.S.
Attorney’s Office went after cartel scouts and then expanded their
pursuit to the variety of roles needed to support the scouts, according
to an analysis of cases and trends in U.S. District Court in Tucson by
the Arizona Daily Star.
U.S. Attorney’s Office pursued charges against nine volunteers with
Tucson-based humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, prosecutors in
Tucson also expanded the scope of cases involving cartel scouts.
scouts spend weeks on mountains west of Tucson and act as “air traffic
controllers,” as one Border Patrol agent put it, for marijuana
backpackers in the valleys below.
broke new legal ground in 2015 when a judge ruled a man working as a
scout on a mountaintop near Ajo could be charged with conspiring to
smuggle marijuana, despite not having any marijuana when he was
Since then, scout
cases have grown to include scout “helpers” who cook and fetch supplies
for scouts, drivers who drop off supplies, homeowners who store
supplies, people buying groceries or wiring money to pay for supplies,
and other roles.
If a jury were
to convict Scott Warren, a volunteer with No More Deaths, at a retrial
in November, he would be the first border aid worker convicted of felony
human-smuggling charges in Tucson’s federal court in more than a
Judging by what the
U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona has done when breaking new legal
ground with scout cases, any future trials of border aid workers
potentially could see nurses, doctors, volunteers, or even donors to No
More Deaths sitting at the defense table instead of in the courtroom
In the gallery
Warren’s trial in June, Susannah Brown bowed her head and pinched the
bridge of her nose as she sat in the gallery of a federal courtroom in
A federal prosecutor
was telling jurors that Brown, a 67-year-old nurse who works with
humanitarian aid groups in Southern Arizona, conspired with Warren and
others to smuggle two Central American men across the U.S.-Mexico border
in January 2018 and help them get to Phoenix.
regularly treats migrants for a number of ailments and injuries at a
shelter in Sonoyta, the Mexican border town south of Ajo. She and her
fellow volunteers also bring a truck with a big tank of water to the
shelter, which has an unreliable hookup to the municipal water system.
January 2018, Brown attended to the two Central American men at an aid
station in Ajo, known as The Barn, and Dr. Norma Price gave a medical
consultation by phone.
at Warren’s trial also said Irineo Mujica, the operator of the migrant
shelter in Sonoyta, arranged to help the two Central Americans get to
Brown, Price and Mujica
were not charged with any offenses, but they remained in the crosshairs
of the U.S. Attorney’s Office as Warren’s trial ended.
what the evidence shows in this case is that the defendant, Irineo
Mujica, and Susannah Brown and the others conspired to further Kristian
and Jose’s illegal journey into the United States,” federal prosecutor
Anna Wright told the jurors in her closing arguments, according to a
referred to two No More Deaths volunteers when she told jurors that in
the days after the arrest, “at least two people intentionally went to
The Barn and took things out, and they took those things out to help the
defendant, and they handed those things over to the defendant.”
than make money, Warren “gets to further the goals of the organization
that he is a high-ranking leader in, and one of those goals, although
never stated outright, is to thwart Border Patrol at every possible
turn, to further the entry of illegal aliens,” Wright told jurors.
Border Patrol also viewed No More Deaths as a smuggling organization,
according to Agent John Marquez’s report detailing Warren’s arrest.
More Deaths “was long suspected of illegally harboring and aiding
illegal aliens and a search warrant for their illicit activities was
recently executed at their humanitarian station near Arivaca, Arizona,”
He was referring
to the raid of a No More Deaths camp near Arivaca in June 2017. Agents
had followed the footprints of four people suspected of crossing the
were arrested, but they later said the raid and the surveillance that
preceded it signaled a heightened level of tension between No More
Deaths and the Border Patrol.
Warren’s trial ended with a mistrial after the jury split 8-4, favoring acquittal.
more than a year of arguing that Warren was part of a conspiracy,
prosecutors dropped the conspiracy charge when they announced in July
their plan to retry Warren on harboring charges.
backpackers have trekked through the desert west of Tucson for many
years, often led by scouts using binoculars and encrypted radios to keep
the backpacking groups spread apart, as well as to let the groups know
if Border Patrol agents were approaching.
Until 2015, prosecutors would charge scouts only with crossing the border illegally.
a judge’s ruling in Tucson’s federal court in 2015, followed by two 9th
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decisions in 2017, opened the door for
scouts to face conspiracy charges.
In the years that followed,
prosecutors have charged at least 100 scouts with conspiring to smuggle
marijuana, court records show.
As time went on, agents and prosecutors started targeting not only scouts, but the network of people who supported the scouts.
one ongoing case, Border Patrol agents arrested Jose Angel Felix
Ramirez, the suspected head scout for a drug-trafficking organization,
in late 2017, and more than a dozen people accused of conspiring to
smuggle loads of marijuana through the mountainous areas of the Tohono
In that case,
agents arrested scouts and backpackers; helpers who picked up groceries,
batteries and other supplies at the base of mountains; drivers who
brought supplies to the mountains; a man who let the scouts use his
house in a nearby village to store supplies; a woman in Phoenix who
bought supplies; and a woman who loaned her car to supply drivers and
paid people to buy supplies, according to plea agreements.
prosecutors expanded the roles that could be included in the
conspiracies, they also expanded how much marijuana a scout could be
held responsible for conspiring to smuggle.
scouts were accused of conspiring to smuggle the equivalent of one
backpack of marijuana. As time went on, prosecutors started accusing
scouts of conspiring to smuggle all the marijuana backpacks that were
caught in the scouts’ “view sheds,” or line of sight, while the scouts
were on the mountain.
In the Felix case, members of the conspiracy were connected to about 4,300 pounds of marijuana, prosecutors said.
Under the prosecution’s theory of Warren’s case, he acted as part of a criminal conspiracy.
That theory is in many ways analogous to theories put forth by prosecutors in scout cases.
that prosecutorial line of thinking, if an aid volunteer cooked for a
migrant who came into an aid station from the desert, how different
would that be from helpers cooking for scouts on a mountaintop?
a volunteer drove jugs of water, beans, socks, or gear to an aid
station in Ajo or Arivaca, how different would that be from a person
driving bags of food, batteries and gear to the base of a mountain where
a scout worked?
If a Tucson
resident donated money to No More Deaths to buy water and aid for
migrants, how different would that be from people in Phoenix buying
supplies for scouts?
volunteer said they had worked at an aid station for a week, could they
be charged with aiding the illegal border crossings of however many
migrants were caught in that area in the previous week?
U.S. Attorney Michael Bailey, who took the position in May, declined to be interviewed but issued a statement to the Star.
who want only to give water to the thirsty should be commended,” Bailey
said. “On the other hand, when one’s true goal is to assist an illegal
immigrant in getting in without getting caught, such conduct is subject
Nine No More
Deaths volunteers, including Warren, were charged with misdemeanors
related to leaving water and food on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife
Refuge in 2017. The charges included driving on unauthorized roads and
abandoning property on the refuge.
“bottom line” is that prosecutors could not convince a jury that Warren
was guilty of any charges, said Paige Corich-Kleim, a No More Deaths
try to cast a wide net, but they’d essentially be arguing that keeping
people from dying is ‘furthering illegal presence,’ and I doubt any jury
would agree with that,’ Corich-Kleim said.
workers, Border Patrol agents, hunters and others in Southern Arizona
have recovered nearly 3,000 sets of human remains believed to belong to
migrants since 2001.
Silverman, a law professor at the University of Arizona and a member of
the No More Deaths legal team, said the difference between the scout
cases and Warren’s case is that Warren was not involved in illegal
“As they say, humanitarian aid is never a crime,” Silverman wrote in response to an inquiry from the Star.
charging Scott and trying him for serious offenses — even though
ultimately he should be found not guilty — has a chilling effect on
people considering doing humanitarian work along the border,” Silverman
“But it will not stop
such work,” he wrote. “Helping others in need has been part of our
culture and the threat of criminal charges will not stop good folks from
trying to save lives in our desert regions.”
Silverman said he would expect a “large public backlash” if prosecutors start charging all people who do humanitarian work.
have seen it in the Warren case and it would even be greater if the
government starts to go after, for example, health professionals,
shelter operators and others helping people in the deadly deserts along
the border,” Silverman said.
A status conference in Warren’s case is scheduled for Monday, Aug. 5. His retrial is scheduled to start Nov. 12.