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DPS official to border panel: Elite unit curbing smuggling, other crime

An elite team of Arizona Department of Public Safety officers made over 100 arrests last year of those smuggling drugs, people and currency or committing other major crimes, an official said Wednesday to a legislative panel on border issues.

“We don’t advertise that program a lot for various reasons,” Lt. Col. Jack Hegarty told the Joint Border Security Advisory Committee. “But those couple dozen officers have an incredible impact on major crime in southern Arizona.”

Hegarty, who heads the agency’s Highway Patrol Division, said the Highway Interdiction Program focuses on Interstate 10 and Interstate 8, using highly trained agents and dogs.

“Those officers do nothing but look for significant and major crimes on state highways every day,” Hegarty said.

Hegarty said about one in five of the unit’s arrests leads to another arrest connected with that case.

Early this year, an officer working for the Highway Interdiction Program seized 4,535 pounds of marijuana after stopping a truck on I-10 east of Tucson – a DPS record for a traffic stop, according to a news release.

Another program called Operation Safe Passage, enforced during holidays to prevent accidents, also has curbed drug and human smuggling, Hegarty told the committee.

DPS agents are stationed every 10 miles on I-10 and I-8 from California to New Mexico during those operations. The next is scheduled to begin Friday.

“The major crimes syndicates that work in that area know that we are doing that,” Hegarty said. “So it basically takes them out of the loop, if you will, for that time period in that section.”

The committee, which includes lawmakers, sheriffs and state officials, was created last year to analyze immigration and crime trends and make recommendations on border safety.

In another presentation to the committee, Civil Air Patrol Arizona Wing Commander Col. John Eggen touted his aircraft and pilots to county sheriffs who need help locating illegal immigrants in remote areas.

Eggen said he was willing to provide the services of his air crews for $165 an hour. They would be able to provide aerial pictures, he said, but can’t legally take part in law enforcement operations.

“We want the pilot only to fly,” Eggen said.

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said later in an interview that such a collaboration would enable sheriffs to save money and gather valuable information.

“I am aware of their value and what they can add to our operations,” Babeu said. “They can’t actually go out there and arrest people, but their eyes and the surveillance in terms of information that they can provide is not only unique, it’s cost-effective.”

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