“When you’re talking about border issues, you’re typically talking about drug trafficking and human trafficking,” [Gov. Doug Ducey] said, after a morning spent meeting with ranchers, authorities and educators. “It’s the cartels and the traffickers that we want to focus on, and that’s what a strike force is going to aim at.”
By Yvonne Wingett Sanchez
November 12, 2015
Five cartel lookouts huddled beneath thick desert brush one night last month. Suddenly, they realized they’d been spotted.
The scouts, who are paid to study the movements of authorities and guide drug traffickers through the Arizona desert, dropped their heavy backpacks and bolted across rocky terrain near the quiet neighborhoods and golf courses south of Casa Grande.
Using covert tactics, a border-crimes team stationed at a makeshift headquarters watched as the lookouts made their getaway.
“They have night-vision capabilities and they’re lightning fast,” said Department of Public Safety Capt. Dave Nilson, who fielded constant radio traffic as he led the operation targeting traffickers in Vekol Valley.
“On any given day, we get 911 reports of people stopping, seeing people loading bundles and bundles of large amounts of narcotics, and illegal aliens – right on the side of the highway, and getting into cars and leaving. It literally is the wild West.”
Last month’s operation was the first by a new border-crimes bureau that Gov. Doug Ducey quietly created in September and hopes to expand into the Arizona Department of Public Safety’s third-largest bureau with the goal of removing Arizona from the list of prime trafficking routes into the world’s largest drug market.
The scouts were on the outskirts of metro Phoenix, but authorities from the Arizona Border Strike Force Bureau seized their dusty bags. Packed with solar panels, toilet paper, hot sauce, salt and ramen noodles, they had supplies to hide in the desert for a week.
The Arizona Border Strike Force Bureau of the Department of Public Safety is seeking to partner with local and federal agencies to disrupt the criminal organizations that smuggle drugs and people into the U.S. Their prime target is the Sinaloa Cartel, the source of a vast majority of marijuana, methamphetamine and heroin that flow into the state for sale or distribution to other states.
Ducey, who on the campaign trail promised to close the “wide-open and unprotected border,” said the bureau seeks to make it too risky and too expensive for the criminal organizations to operate here. That would required a sustained effort by the department, Ducey’s administration said, rather than its current sporadic operations.
Ducey is calling for an infusion of tens of millions of dollars in state money and federal grants and equipment to permanently fund the fight against border-related criminal activity. The plan would boost intelligence gathering, and add planes, helicopters, radios and other resources to the department’s arsenal.
Under Ducey’s plan, which would require new funding from the state Legislature, the Department of Public Safety’s bureau would eventually grow to about 180 troopers, analysts, pilots and county personnel, who would mostly operate in southern and central Arizona. A small number of National Guard troops would be used to initially bolster the numbers.
State troopers and canine units would conduct more-frequent patrols of highways, and authorities would target drug scouts, traffickers and distributors in key trafficking corridors. Border counties would receive state funds to hire more prosecutors and reimburse the costs of jailing traffickers.
Focusing on cartels and traffickers
Ducey is just beginning to brief state Republican leaders, who have generally supported border enforcement but have been reluctant to spend significant money on new projects since the recession.
The plan could face opposition from some county sheriffs. Some have said DPS should focus on patrolling the highways and running its crime lab.
It’s an issue of protecting Arizonans, Ducey told The Arizona Republic while flying back from Sierra Vista on Nov. 6, where he had presented $1 million of his office’s funds to Cochise County to help finish a regional communications center.
“When you’re talking about border issues, you’re typically talking about drug trafficking and human trafficking,” he said, after a morning spent meeting with ranchers, authorities and educators. “It’s the cartels and the traffickers that we want to focus on, and that’s what a strike force is going to aim at.”
A recent Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Threat Assessment report found the state “continues to be a major smuggling corridor and distribution hub” for the cartels. Mexican organizations use commercial shuttle vans to transport drugs from the border to stash houses in Phoenix and Tucson, and “backpacker groups continue to be the predominant method of transporting marijuana” into the state.
In fiscal 2014, drug seizures on state highways accounted for about 5 percent of marijuana seized in the state, 26 percent of cocaine, 26 percent of methamphetamine and 13 percent of heroin, the report found.
DPS Director Frank Milstead said the new bureau’s success would be measured by arrests and drug seizures. “The cartels that are making the drugs in these super labs south of the border, they’re rolling around in $100 bills and they’re celebrating the addictions they can have in America, because it funds” them, he said.
But there’s a limit to what Arizona can do to stem the flow of drugs, experts said, given the United States’ insatiable demand for drugs and the cartels’ determination to continue profiting from the trade.
“You’ve got suppliers and you’ve got demand,” said Michael Lytle, a border expert at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. “Maybe they put a small dent in it. There’s no way they’re going to stop it.
“Any determined cartel guy can find a work-around. They’re like ants: If you put something down in front of a trail of ants, they’ll move someplace else.”
That doesn’t mean Arizona shouldn’t try, said James Carafano, a foreign policy and national security expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation. A state can’t secure the border, he said, but it can make it “somebody else’s problem” by disrupting popular smuggling corridors and pushing activity to other states.
“We’ve been spending more money on border security since the 1980s and actually the illegal activity’s gone up,” Carafano said. “Looking at how much money you’re spending is not necessarily the right metric. The simple question is: Does your community feel safe? And if your answer is no, then I think it’s a problem worth dealing with.”
So does Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has made border security a priority in his new administration.
Abbott and state leaders are embarking on an $800 million effort that speeds up the hiring of state police who patrol the border, along with increases in technology and intelligence operations. The plan has been criticized for its hefty price tag, s past lack of accountability for previous spending, and questions over how effective additional spending will be.
Finding federal and local support
In Arizona, Ducey and his top aides began drafting their border-security plan in the earliest days of the administration, said J.P. Twist, a senior adviser to the governor who is spearheading the initiative.
After working with U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials during the Super Bowl last January, Ducey initiated conversations with Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and authorities from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and others, to see how Arizona could partner to combat border crime.
Federal officials were guarded at first, Twist said, fresh off a contentious relationship with former Gov. Jan Brewer, who railed against federal officials during her tenure over illegal immigration and border security.
Ducey said he began conversations with, “New administration, new governor, fresh start.”
Federal officials began to listen.
Past governors ordered National Guard troops to the border, wrote letters to federal officials seeking reimbursement and, in Brewer’s case, tried to publicly shame them into doing more.
Twist said the new approach is to instead take stock of how they can leverage state, local and federal resources.
Milstead and Twist began meeting with county sheriffs, mayors, leaders of the Tohono O’odham Nation, and federal officials from ICE and Border Patrol.
“We are fostering these relationships — that’s a critical part of making sure a plan like this works,” said Twist.
Paul Beeson, commander for the Joint Task Force West, Arizona, confirmed the Ducey administration’s characterization of the meetings. He said the proposal dovetails with a CBP effort to “disrupt, degrade and dismantle” transnational criminal organizations operating in Arizona and beyond.
Beeson said CBP has talked frequently with DPS about the proposal. “What I have seen is a sincere effort on the part of the state to work with federal officials and address these issues that are of concern to all of us,” Beeson said.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada said he didn’t have enough details about Ducey’s proposal to say whether he supports it, but said he’d like to see more state troopers patrolling highways.
“This is a major corridor … you’ve got drugs, stolen vehicles, you’ve got money,” Estrada said. “You’ve got so many things happening on the highway and there’s nobody here after 2 o’clock (in the morning).”
Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos questioned DPS’ ability to take on more responsibility and said it should focus on patrolling highways and running the state crime lab.
He also said Ducey’s administration has done a poor job communicating their plans. “Don’t dictate what help you want to provide without knowing that your help isn’t much help,” Nanos said.
Twist said Nanos has not been open to learning about the proposal.
Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels told Ducey he needed money for a radio system. Communication is challenging in the area, with poor reception and dead zones. That prompted Ducey to help fund completion of the communications center, which was years in the making.
To Dannels and other county officials and ranchers, the money signaled that Ducey took their needs seriously.
Dannels told The Republic he would support Ducey’s plan if it complements county law-enforcement operations. “Big government” won’t resolve border-crime issues but “true partnerships” could, he said.
Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot did not return calls to discuss Ducey’s plan.
The Ducey administration’s conversations with Tohono O’odham Nation leaders, whose land is a prime trafficking corridor, have stalled.
Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Edward Manuel said in a statement: “We have engaged with the Governor and his staff on this important issue, and have long worked closely with the U.S. Border Patrol. However, just like other border communities, the Tohono O’odham Nation needs to better understand the potential impacts of the Governor’s plan.”
Activity along the border
Ducey’s proposal comes as apprehensions of illegal immigrants have generally declined between fiscal 2005 and 2014, and as Border Patrol staffing has risen.
At the same time, marijuana seizures by the Border Patrol in Arizona have just about doubled to more than 1 million pounds in fiscal year 2014.
Not reflected in the reports are the tons of drugs that make it past authorities, points out Maj. Jack Johnson, who heads the DPS bureau.
“It’s pretty crazy to think drug traffickers just walking through, coming on up through communities, it’s pretty unbelievable,” said Johnson, as he sped past the lit-up football field at a Casa Grande school on the night of the October operation.
The strike force in September and October snared 3,260 pounds of marijuana, 73 pounds of meth, nearly 2 pounds of cocaine, 19 pounds of heroin and five firearms, according to DPS records. It made 180 arrests, including 14 documented gang members and 65 illegal immigrants who were turned over to Border Patrol.
Johnson contends the bureau could prevent drug-related deaths, addictions, home invasions and other crimes that can be traced to contraband smuggled through the border.
“If the border strike force saves a life, that’s huge,” he said. “That matters.”