U.S. citizen sentenced to decade in prison for attempting to smuggle 1.6M fentanyl pills through Nogales

A 40-year-old man was sentenced to 10 years in prison for attempting to smuggle around 110 pounds of fentanyl through the Mariposa border crossing in Nogales last December.

Gerardo Hernandez was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Jennifer Zipps during a hearing on Nov. 2. Following his prison sentence, Hernandez will face three years probation.

A U.S. citizen, Hernandez was in the passenger seat of 2003 Dodge Caravan when the driver crossed the U.S.-Mexico border at the Mariposa border crossing in west Nogales.

An officer with CBP asked Hernandez and an unidentified female driver, if they had anything in the vehicle, part of a “binding negative declaration.” The vehicle was driven to a Z-Portal scanner, which x-rayed the vehicle and found “anomalies consistent with drug packaging in the front and back seats,” according to a filed complaint.

CBP officers dug into the vehicle and found 43 packages containing 30 milligram tablets. One package was tested, and CBP officers found it contained fentanyl. All told, there were 1.6 million tablets of fentanyl, weighing around 110 pounds.

According to court records, Hernandez later told CBP officials he was recruited by an unnamed person on Facebook to “make some money in Mexico.” He said he arrived in Mexico with the driver, and later went to the grocery store in Nogales, Sonora while she was at her mother’s house. While at the store, Hernandez met a person who took the vehicle “for an unknown amount of time and then returned” to the store, wrote Jason Cary, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations — a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“Hernandez stated he wasn’t sure what they had put inside his vehicle, but he stated he knew whatever it was, it was illegal,” Cary wrote. Hernandez said he expected to make $5,000 for taking the vehicle north. He also told officials he believed there was contraband in the vehicle, but said “he figured it was ‘bud’ or ‘meth’ or maybe currency.”

“Hernandez stated this was his idea solely and that the driver had no idea he was using her vehicle to smuggle contraband,” CBP officials wrote. Officials later agreed the driver was “unaware that they were importing controlled substances.”

In an April plea agreement, Hernandez wrote that the vehicle contained 49.9
kilograms of fentanyl stashed in the front and rear seats, and that he
knew the vehicle contained a controlled substance.”

Last fiscal year — which ran from Oct. 2022 to Sept. 30, 2023 — CBP officials intercepted 27,000 pounds of fentanyl along the Southwestern border. Of that, the lion’s share was intercepted at the nation’s border crossings.

In Arizona, officials at the border crossings intercepted 12,000 pounds of fentanyl last year, while Border Patrol agents intercepted around 702 pounds, according to CBP statistics. 

While there has been increasing fury over fentanyl smuggling, data from last year shows fentanyl seizures fell far behind other drugs. Last year, CBP officials intercepted 150,000 pounds of marijuana, 140,000 pounds of methamphetamine, and nearly 82,000 pounds of cocaine. Even Khat smuggling — a flowering shrub chewed as a stimulant — outstripped fentanyl smuggling. CBP officials intercepted 70,000 pounds of Khat, but just 27,000 pounds of fentanyl.

Hernandez already had 11 prior felony convictions and six prior misdemeanor convictions since 2002, said Zach Stoebe, a Justice Department spokesman.

HSI and CBP officials conducted the investigation, while Assistant U.S. Attorney Kelly Cavanaugh handled the prosecution, Stoebe said.