An Arizona sheriff whose county is at the end of a smuggling corridor between Tucson and Phoenix is calling for more federal help to battle the problem, but he made the call as he tried to persuade his own county to give him money to create an anti-smuggling unit of his own.
Smugglers are making the rugged mountains near some rural residents homes’ too dangerous, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said Wednesday, repeating his call for thousands of federal troops to battle the problem that he said is falling on deaf ears.
Residents of the rugged area south of Arizona City, about 60 miles south of Phoenix, told how they saw a spotter for smugglers living in a mountain cave overlooking their land in July. The sheriff’s office called the U.S. Border Patrol, who Babeu said found the man, determined he was an illegal immigrant and deported him. Babeu also highlighted a resident whose home was burglarized, presumably by smugglers or illegal immigrants, last week.
The problems aren’t new, and President Barack Obama announced in May that he was deploying 1,200 National Guard troops to four border states to help the Border Patrol. In Arizona, troops began deploying at the beginning of September and more than 500 are expected to be on duty by Oct. 1.
That’s not enough for Babeu, who criticized Obama while pointing to pictures of signs warning residents not to stray into the backcountry.
“Here’s the response when we ask for help from the federal government: ‘danger, warning, stay out’ to our own citizens,” Babeu said. “In response to our pleas for help and for armed soldiers they put up these signs, not written in Spanish, not facing south to the Mexican border, but facing north, in English, warning to our citizens, ‘travel not recommended.’
“This is unacceptable. These signs need to be taken down and we need to make a stand here in America.”
Kelly Ivahnenko, spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, said the federal government has poured “unprecedented resources” into the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector and continues to add to those numbers, along with help from other federal agencies and prosecutors.
That said, “The challenges remain,” Ivahnenko said. “The terrain is challenging and the geography is challenging and there is no single solution, which is why the Department of Homeland Security has made such a concerted effort to get additional resources to that area.”
The sheriff’s press conference came the same day that The Arizona Republic ran a story about his county’s Board of Supervisors balking at immediately funding seven extra deputy position to tackle smuggling issues.
Pinal County board chairman Pete Rios said Babeu made his request for $1.5 million over two years just weeks after the county’s fiscal year began.
“Now he’s basically saying that’s it’s very urgent and it’s an emergency,” Rios told The Associated Press. “Well, he just submitted his budget not too long ago, we just got into this fiscal year, and we kind of, especially me, said if it was such an urgent thing why didn’t you include it in your budget request?”
Babeu suggests the county take the money from its $29 million ‘rainy day’ fund, which helps the county keep its A-plus bond rating and plan for expected state funding shifts.
Rios called the press conference a distraction from trying to get funding for the sheriff’s unit. He called for the sheriff to meet face-to-face rather than communicate in the media.
“Clearly, my dear sheriff, as much as I like him, loves the publicity and I think that’s what we’re experiencing,” Rios said. “Anything that he can turn into a publicity event is clearly what he’s doing.”
Regardless of the politics, the local residents who spoke Wednesday wanted the public to know they were genuinely fearful of the smugglers who have become so prevalent in the area. In April, a Pinal County deputy was slightly wounded during a reported confrontation with smugglers in the corridor that runs through a southern Arizona Indian reservation and into Pinal County.
Pennee Murphree’s home is below the mountain cave where the suspected smuggling spotter was living for about a week before she and her neighbors finally called deputies for help. She said it was scary knowing he was up there watching their every move.
“We do want the public to know it’s close, and it’s real, and there’s a criminal element there,” Murphree said.