The Drug Cartels Keep Arizona's Border Wide Open

Our illegal immigration problem is over.  President Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano have delivered on their promises.  The border is finally secure.

This narrative, building steam nationally, pays no mind to the elephant no one is talking about, and it's one huge elephant.

I'll get to that in a moment.

First, the news on border crossings is good, judging by apprehensions in the busy Tucson Sector.  In 2011, Border Patrol agents here arrested 123,000 people entering the country illegally.  As recently as the middle of the last decade, the number pushed close to half a million.

Our economic mess is the biggest reason for the decline.  Most people come to work, and jobs have been tough to find.  Enforcement at the border in the form of fencing, more agents, and camera towers -- most initiated under Bush -- has played a role, too.

But Obama and Napolitano don't want to talk about the third reason.  The drug cartels have taken control of portions of northern Sonora to use as staging ground to move their product into Arizona.  These gangsters are some of the worst people on earth.

If you're from Chiapas, in southern Mexico, thinking about coming to Chicago to wash dishes with your cousin, are you going to risk running the gauntlet of violent men who control the ground you're crossing?  Or just stay home?  After all, Mexico's economy has grown substantially the past two years, easily outstripping ours.

That gets me to the elephant -- drug-smuggling.

I recently sat down with Dan Wirth, who, until his retirement in December, was the Department of the Interior's senior law enforcement officer in the Southwest.  He delivered the depressing news that in spite of the massive federal buildup here, drug-smugglers can cross our border carrying whatever they want, pretty much whenever they want.

"If a load is valuable enough, they can get it through," says Wirth.  "It's a porous border."

But aren't illegal aliens and drug-smugglers separate problems?  Not anymore.  The cartels have taken over the people-smuggling racket.  Every part of Arizona's border is "owned" by a different smuggling organization, most under the umbrella of Chapo Guzmán's Sinaloa Cartel.

The dishwasher from Chiapas can't cross unless he deals with the gang that controls that land.  Pay $3,000 and they'll guide you over the mountains.  Don't have the cash?  They hand you bundles of marijuana or heroin and say, "Now you work for us.  Let's walk."

How do the smugglers know where to go?  Wirth says cartel scouts keep law enforcement under surveillance around the clock.  They occupy mountaintops all over Arizona's borderlands, and all the way up to Phoenix, 150 miles north.

Hundreds of scouts work at a given time.  They keep eyes on the shipment over every inch of its movement.  When one scout loses sight of the load, he radios ahead to the next to pick it up.  Getting a single shipment of heroin to Phoenix on the Interstate-8 Smuggling Corridor might require 75 to 100 scouts -- that's one load on one corridor on a border filled with corridors.

The scouts sometimes live on these mountaintops for weeks at a time.  They build rock forts equipped with sleeping bags, food, stoves, night vision gear, and satellite radios, and they have an extensive resupply network running all through the state of Arizona.

Out of food?  Batteries?  The scout radios to a confederate -- as likely an American citizen as a Mexican national -- who trots off to Walmart on a shopping trip.

This is Napolitano's big spin.  Last May, at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing, Sen. John McCain, who'd recently flown the Arizona border with Wirth, confronted the secretary, asking how she can call the border secure when there are 100-200 scouts working in his state.

Napolitano acted unaware of the problem, saying there might be that many mountaintops from which a scout could operate, but there aren't 200 sitting scouts.

In fact, says Wirth, the 200 figure grossly understates the problem.  "Napolitano doesn't want to admit it, but there are drug scouts all over the high ground," he says.

Imagine living on a ranch in southern Arizona, knowing an armed cartel soldier is watching every move you make.  Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever says he suspects that one of these scouts killed rancher Rob Krentz in March of 2010.

"It's a real scandal that these people can operate so easily on our soil," says Jim Chilton, a friend of Krentz's, who owns a 50,000-acre ranch outside Arivaca, 65 miles southwest of Tucson.  He's had two break-ins by mules returning south after dropping loads, and he keeps an automatic rifle by his front door to guard against home invasion, with another by his bedside.  He has stopped carrying a cell phone while riding the range, fearing retaliation by a scout who thinks he's calling law enforcement.

Along with other borderland residents I talk to on a regular basis, Chilton acknowledges seeing fewer workers, but he wonders: are they not coming, or not getting caught, thanks to scouts successfully guiding them through Border Patrol's widening net? 

Border pros know to be cautious of arrest numbers.  They say nothing about how many get through, usually estimated at three times higher than arrests.  Let's say, with all the extra agents, that the number now is only two times higher.  That means the good news of 123,000 arrests becomes 246,000 got-aways.

Is that a secure border?  Is it secure when mules on the I-8 Corridor can walk 150 miles to Phoenix undetected?  You read that correctly -- and actually, it's probably a third more than that when you factor in the zigzagging needed to stay hidden.

Is Arizona's border secure when most of the 330,000-acre Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is closed because drug-smugglers feeding America's ravenous demand make it unsafe for visitors?

By the way, most of the heroin entering the U.S. from Mexico now comes through Arizona, according to the National Drug Intelligence Center's Drug Market Analysis for 2011.  This eye-opening report notes that not only does the Sinaloa Cartel control smuggling routes in northern Mexico and southern Arizona, but we can expect increased violence against law enforcement as officers challenge these gangs.

The Drug Intelligence Center is an arm of the Department of Justice.  So we have the Napolitano's DHS giving us the impression that all's well on the border, while another federal agency paints a very different picture.

You'd think they'd get their stories straight.

Leo W. Banks is a writer in Tucson.  Reach him at

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