Napolitano Goes on Offense

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has gone on offense and it's not pretty. In a speech in El Paso last week, she blasted those who dare suggest the Obama Administration's efforts to stop illegal crossings at our southern border are anything but an unprecedented success.

She said the border isn't overrun with violence or out of control, and those who say it is are trying to "score political points." She delivered a bizarre warning to drug cartels: "Don't even think about bringing your violence and tactics across this border. You will be met by an overwhelming response."

For those in the Tucson Sector, the border's busiest for drug and illegal alien crossings, the bluster would be uproarious if the matter weren't so serious. Everybody in the smuggler-occupied lands of southern Arizona knows the cartels are already here and have been for a long time.

We have a big problem the country needs to understand, free of Napolitano's spin and political hackery. 

Her argument includes two key points -- the positive crime numbers coming from Southwest border towns and the plunging arrests of illegals. Both true. But let's complete the picture.

The border towns are safe because that's where the feds have poured in money and agents, and built better fencing. In places like Nogales, as elsewhere, that has pushed the traffic into the back-country. Out of sight, out of mind is part of the strategy, says Brandon Judd, president of the Tucson chapter of the National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union.

He says the feds are deliberately under-staffing remote areas, cutting arrests and allowing Napolitano to claim the border is more secure. This is a prelude to Obama's real goal of comprehensive immigration reform. As for the mountains and deserts, Judd says, "The border in those areas is as wide open as it has ever been."

The undeveloped area east of Nogales at Kino Springs is an example. Last June, Nogales police officers on horseback captured two drug loads there in a week, after which a Mexican gang threatened retaliation by sniper fire. Police Chief Jeff Kirkham responded with anti-sniper training for his officers and barring them from going to Kino Springs without bullet-proof vests.

The chief flatly contradicts Napolitano when he says, "Spillover from the Mexican drug war is here now," an opinion shared by Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever. He is calling for more military on the border immediately.

The territory west of Nogales -- the Peck Canyon Corridor -- is worse. On December 14, Brian Terry was murdered when his Border Patrol unit got into a firefight with a rip-crew, bandits who roam Arizona's borderlands targeting illegals and rival gang members.

The killing took place on David Lowell's Atascosa Ranch. It brings to six the number of shootings on the Atascosa between November 2009 and December 2010 -- including the December 2009 sniper wounding of another Border Patrol agent. The Peck Corridor is a beautiful place, part of the Coronado National Forest. But it has become a frontier in the drug war, beset by assaults, robberies, rapes and shootings.

The drop in arrests needs perspective, too. In 2009, Tucson sector agents arrested 242,000 people illegally entering the country. Last year, the number fell to 212,000, and the decline is greater in other areas of the Southwest.

What arrests don't tell -- and neither does Napolitano -- is how many got through. The same applies to boasts about drug seizures. In the Tucson sector, agents seized 1.2 million pounds of drugs in 2009, and 940,800 pounds through August 31 of 2010, according to the latest available Border Patrol figures.

But seizures can show whatever DHS wants. Here's the numbers hustle: Seizures are up, that's great news -- look at all the drugs we're catching. Seizures are down, that's great news -- look at all the drugs we're stopping from crossing in the first place.

When it comes to people, border watchers have long estimated that gotaways outnumber arrests by at least three to one, and the Government Accountability Office confirmed that in November. It reported 91,000 arrests of illegals on federal land in Arizona in 2009, with entries estimated at three times that -- roughly 270,000.

At Arizona's border, we have the 330,000-acre Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a treasure that Congress created for the American people. But 55 percent of Monument land is closed because the drug and people smugglers make it too risky to be out there.

And conditions at Organ Pipe have actually improved. A few years back, 95 percent of Monument land was closed. Is that what Napolitano means when she says the border is "as secure as it's ever been?" Did she mention that Mexican drug gangs use the parking lot of Organ Pipe's Kris Eggle Visitor Center as a staging area? Eggle, a law officer at the Monument, was murdered there by drug smugglers in 2002.

Did she mention that the chief ranger at the Sonoran Desert National Monument, 80 miles north of the border, proposed closing that 480,000-acre preserve because of the smuggler danger?

The GAO stated that not only is illegal cross-border activity "a significant threat" to federal lands in Arizona, but it "may be increasing." A separate GAO study, released in October, concluded: "The steady northward flow of illegal human and narcotics traffic across the nation's southwest border shows no sign of stopping."

Napolitano is correct that some improvements have taken place. I travel Arizona's borderlands regularly and many folks tell me they're seeing fewer workers, compared to the huge numbers of a few years ago. Better enforcement has played a role -- with agents where they've never been before -- as has the woeful economy.

But she doesn't mention a third factor, the impact of the hyper-violent Mexican drug war, which has scared away a lot of migrants, and made American citizens wary for their lives. Residents report seeing more evidence of drug smuggling than ever before -- such as cartel scouts watching every move they and Border Patrol make, from hilltop perches in southern Arizona.

Ground agents on Jim Chilton's ranch outside Arivaca warned him not to talk on his cell while riding the range, lest one of these scouts see him. Fearing retaliation, he has ordered his cowboys not to report anything they see to Border Patrol.

In previously pristine areas, remote canyon walls are now painted with gang graffiti, and it's become common to find burlap -- drug smugglers use it to wrap loads -- blowing across the landscape. It's Arizona's new tumbleweed.

Remember the murder last March of rancher Rob Krentz, which Sheriff Dever said was likely committed by a drug scout who fled into Mexico? Surely, after the uproar, the feds have finally shuttered the notorious Chiricahua Corridor where Krentz lived?

His lifelong friend and neighbor Don Kimble, who lives 40 miles from the border, says drug smuggling might've dropped a little since March. But backpackers escorted by riflemen still control the mountains and hole up so close to his house he hears them talking.

Do you feel vulnerable? "Oh, yes," says Kimble. "We lock our doors and keep a weapon in each truck. But we're no match for a guy with a criminal record who has probably already killed people. We stay out of their way and hope they don't rob our house or steal our pickups or whatever."

American demand for drugs is, of course, the engine of this crisis, in tandem with Mexico's endemic corruption. Let the debate begin about legalization and other long-term solutions.

But right now, understand that what's happening in southern Arizona is a fight to control American land. We're experiencing constant, military-style incursions by armed cartel soldiers, often dressed in black and moving with a tactical precision that speaks to the seriousness of their purpose.

These are hardened, violent, athletic young men who know Arizona's borderlands as well as their own faces, and if challenged on the hugely profitable routes they've fought and shed blood to 'own,' they will shoot.

More violence is sadly inevitable. It's not a pretty situation. But neither are Napolitano's efforts to the sell country a political spin job that tells half the story. Old-time Arizonans have a term for that. They call it burro milk.

Leo W. Banks covers the border for the Tucson Weekly. Reach him at leowbanks@aol.com.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has gone on offense and it's not pretty. In a speech in El Paso last week, she blasted those who dare suggest the Obama Administration's efforts to stop illegal crossings at our southern border are anything but an unprecedented success.

She said the border isn't overrun with violence or out of control, and those who say it is are trying to "score political points." She delivered a bizarre warning to drug cartels: "Don't even think about bringing your violence and tactics across this border. You will be met by an overwhelming response."

For those in the Tucson Sector, the border's busiest for drug and illegal alien crossings, the bluster would be uproarious if the matter weren't so serious. Everybody in the smuggler-occupied lands of southern Arizona knows the cartels are already here and have been for a long time.

We have a big problem the country needs to understand, free of Napolitano's spin and political hackery. 

Her argument includes two key points -- the positive crime numbers coming from Southwest border towns and the plunging arrests of illegals. Both true. But let's complete the picture.

The border towns are safe because that's where the feds have poured in money and agents, and built better fencing. In places like Nogales, as elsewhere, that has pushed the traffic into the back-country. Out of sight, out of mind is part of the strategy, says Brandon Judd, president of the Tucson chapter of the National Border Patrol Council, the agents' union.

He says the feds are deliberately under-staffing remote areas, cutting arrests and allowing Napolitano to claim the border is more secure. This is a prelude to Obama's real goal of comprehensive immigration reform. As for the mountains and deserts, Judd says, "The border in those areas is as wide open as it has ever been."

The undeveloped area east of Nogales at Kino Springs is an example. Last June, Nogales police officers on horseback captured two drug loads there in a week, after which a Mexican gang threatened retaliation by sniper fire. Police Chief Jeff Kirkham responded with anti-sniper training for his officers and barring them from going to Kino Springs without bullet-proof vests.

The chief flatly contradicts Napolitano when he says, "Spillover from the Mexican drug war is here now," an opinion shared by Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever. He is calling for more military on the border immediately.

The territory west of Nogales -- the Peck Canyon Corridor -- is worse. On December 14, Brian Terry was murdered when his Border Patrol unit got into a firefight with a rip-crew, bandits who roam Arizona's borderlands targeting illegals and rival gang members.

The killing took place on David Lowell's Atascosa Ranch. It brings to six the number of shootings on the Atascosa between November 2009 and December 2010 -- including the December 2009 sniper wounding of another Border Patrol agent. The Peck Corridor is a beautiful place, part of the Coronado National Forest. But it has become a frontier in the drug war, beset by assaults, robberies, rapes and shootings.

The drop in arrests needs perspective, too. In 2009, Tucson sector agents arrested 242,000 people illegally entering the country. Last year, the number fell to 212,000, and the decline is greater in other areas of the Southwest.

What arrests don't tell -- and neither does Napolitano -- is how many got through. The same applies to boasts about drug seizures. In the Tucson sector, agents seized 1.2 million pounds of drugs in 2009, and 940,800 pounds through August 31 of 2010, according to the latest available Border Patrol figures.

But seizures can show whatever DHS wants. Here's the numbers hustle: Seizures are up, that's great news -- look at all the drugs we're catching. Seizures are down, that's great news -- look at all the drugs we're stopping from crossing in the first place.

When it comes to people, border watchers have long estimated that gotaways outnumber arrests by at least three to one, and the Government Accountability Office confirmed that in November. It reported 91,000 arrests of illegals on federal land in Arizona in 2009, with entries estimated at three times that -- roughly 270,000.

At Arizona's border, we have the 330,000-acre Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a treasure that Congress created for the American people. But 55 percent of Monument land is closed because the drug and people smugglers make it too risky to be out there.

And conditions at Organ Pipe have actually improved. A few years back, 95 percent of Monument land was closed. Is that what Napolitano means when she says the border is "as secure as it's ever been?" Did she mention that Mexican drug gangs use the parking lot of Organ Pipe's Kris Eggle Visitor Center as a staging area? Eggle, a law officer at the Monument, was murdered there by drug smugglers in 2002.

Did she mention that the chief ranger at the Sonoran Desert National Monument, 80 miles north of the border, proposed closing that 480,000-acre preserve because of the smuggler danger?

The GAO stated that not only is illegal cross-border activity "a significant threat" to federal lands in Arizona, but it "may be increasing." A separate GAO study, released in October, concluded: "The steady northward flow of illegal human and narcotics traffic across the nation's southwest border shows no sign of stopping."

Napolitano is correct that some improvements have taken place. I travel Arizona's borderlands regularly and many folks tell me they're seeing fewer workers, compared to the huge numbers of a few years ago. Better enforcement has played a role -- with agents where they've never been before -- as has the woeful economy.

But she doesn't mention a third factor, the impact of the hyper-violent Mexican drug war, which has scared away a lot of migrants, and made American citizens wary for their lives. Residents report seeing more evidence of drug smuggling than ever before -- such as cartel scouts watching every move they and Border Patrol make, from hilltop perches in southern Arizona.

Ground agents on Jim Chilton's ranch outside Arivaca warned him not to talk on his cell while riding the range, lest one of these scouts see him. Fearing retaliation, he has ordered his cowboys not to report anything they see to Border Patrol.

In previously pristine areas, remote canyon walls are now painted with gang graffiti, and it's become common to find burlap -- drug smugglers use it to wrap loads -- blowing across the landscape. It's Arizona's new tumbleweed.

Remember the murder last March of rancher Rob Krentz, which Sheriff Dever said was likely committed by a drug scout who fled into Mexico? Surely, after the uproar, the feds have finally shuttered the notorious Chiricahua Corridor where Krentz lived?

His lifelong friend and neighbor Don Kimble, who lives 40 miles from the border, says drug smuggling might've dropped a little since March. But backpackers escorted by riflemen still control the mountains and hole up so close to his house he hears them talking.

Do you feel vulnerable? "Oh, yes," says Kimble. "We lock our doors and keep a weapon in each truck. But we're no match for a guy with a criminal record who has probably already killed people. We stay out of their way and hope they don't rob our house or steal our pickups or whatever."

American demand for drugs is, of course, the engine of this crisis, in tandem with Mexico's endemic corruption. Let the debate begin about legalization and other long-term solutions.

But right now, understand that what's happening in southern Arizona is a fight to control American land. We're experiencing constant, military-style incursions by armed cartel soldiers, often dressed in black and moving with a tactical precision that speaks to the seriousness of their purpose.

These are hardened, violent, athletic young men who know Arizona's borderlands as well as their own faces, and if challenged on the hugely profitable routes they've fought and shed blood to 'own,' they will shoot.

More violence is sadly inevitable. It's not a pretty situation. But neither are Napolitano's efforts to the sell country a political spin job that tells half the story. Old-time Arizonans have a term for that. They call it burro milk.

Leo W. Banks covers the border for the Tucson Weekly. Reach him at leowbanks@aol.com.