Ariz. Sheriff Babeu and His (Not Federal) Immigration Task Force

By Janice Kephart on March 17, 2011

Somewhere in the early hours of 2011, when hospitable temperatures conducive to drug and alien smuggling in Arizona had my hidden camera friends calling me and updating me on curious illegal activity going on in the desert, the mayors of three Arizona border towns – one on the western end of the state's border with Mexico, one in the middle, one in the east – decided that they were tired of their county to the north complaining about surging violence attributed to drug and alien smuggling. On February 9, 2011, the mayors of San Luis, Nogales, and Douglas sent a joint public letter to Sheriff Paul Babeu of Pinal County. They complained about his campaign to report on the growing burden on Pinal County from illegal entry and ensuing violence that is not stopped at the border.

The mayors asked him to stop "cultivating a culture of fear in our state and to start being accurate about border security." The letter accused Sheriff Babeu of misstating facts that "hurt tourism and build fear." What is particularly strange about this letter is how much praise is given to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) for exactly the types of things DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano has congratulated herself for numerous times, such as more Border Patrol agents and successful technology, neither of which are her doing or her legacy. The letter also boasts that "the priority of the Department of Homeland Security has been to continuously build substantive partnerships with our communities which are palpable."

Why would a letter from Arizona mayors to an Arizona sheriff reference the DHS and be repeating administration sound bites verbatim? Why pick a fight with another municipality publicly? Wouldn't it be in the best interest of the state to present to the rest of the country a common platform that is united against the illegal alien crime affecting the whole state? Could it be that these towns rely on serious federal funding from the Department of Homeland Security and DHS decided to remind the mayors of that and use them to go after Sheriff Babeu, whom DHS Secretary Napolitano has a personal distaste for? Yes, I am speculating, but this initial letter simply does not make much sense, really.

Pinal County does not receive federal border security funding; only the counties on the border receive support. Yet Pinal County is a major transit point for cartel and smuggling activities that successfully make it across the border. Once significantly north of the border and in Pinal County, the smugglers are desperate to get their loads to their next destination without detection as fast as possible – whether those loads are drugs or people. The effort to get those loads to that point has cost time, money, and possibly lives, and that means the cartels and smugglers will easily resort to high speeds, unsafe driving, and use of weapons to assure their success. This puts Pinal County in harm's way, because Pinal County sits right at the intersection of the two major east-west and north-south Arizona highway systems that are closest to the border. Located north of Nogales, from 70 to 100 north of the U.S. border, Pinal County covers 5,374 square miles. Its central point is the city of Casa Grande on I-10. I-8 runs east-west through the county, now known as a major drug corridor and highlighted in "Hidden Cameras on the Arizona Border 3".

Sheriff Babeu responded to the mayors three days later with a statistics-heavy letter showing facts and figures pertaining to his public statements about the surge of illegal, immigrant-based violence in his county. For example, he noted that pounds of marijuana seized in Pinal County had increased from 28,093 in 2007 to 44,819 to 2010; pursuits increased from 142 in 2007 to more than double, at 340, in 2010; and calls to the Border Patrol had nearly doubled as well, from 188 to 370. According to Babeu, "just this week, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security confirmed that Pinal County has a minimum of 75-100 mountains/high terrain features that are occupied by 'Scouts, or lookouts' for the Mexican Drug Cartels."

Interestingly, according to Babeu, while the Department of Homeland Security touts lower apprehension numbers (thus apparently meaning there is less illegal immigration), Babeu provided a different scenario that makes more sense: in 2010, the Border Patrol in Arizona apprehended 241,000 illegals, but an additional 400,000 got away. Considering that a recent Freedom of Information Act request revealed data that showed that three of four illegals still successfully breach our border, Sheriff Babeu's "one in three" number may even be conservative.

However, there's a catch to the political mudslinging between the mayors and the sheriff: the mayors may well have been too late in their complaints. In late 2010, prior to the mayors' public reprimand of the sheriff, Babeu had already sat down with the key members of the Arizona state legislature. He briefed them on the escalating violence, safety, and cost of his fight against the drug cartels across his county. Babeu asked for $5 million to fund a specialized task force aimed at illegal immigration-based drug cartel activity, the first of its kind in the country, and in a county that does not receive federal funding for such activities.

Asserting that the current level of federal law enforcement support to counter narcotics trafficking remains minuscule, Babeu may be about to realize success with Arizona politicians. On March 9, the Arizona House passed an emergency bill to fund Babeu's task force, alongside a sling shot at the federal government: "HB 2718 allocates $5 million for Sheriff Babeu and his deputies to purchase equipment and supplies to provide border security in the absence of federal security and protection." The Communications Director for the conservative Speaker of the House, Daniel Scarpinato, told me he expects that the Arizona Senate will pick up the measure in the next couple of weeks. Should the bill pass (I'm told it should), it will go into effect even before Gov. Jan Brewer signs it as an emergency measure.

One wonders how the mayors of San Luis, Nogales and Douglas will react to Sheriff Babeu's work if it is both sanctioned and funded by the Arizona legislature. Perhaps we should be concerned more, however, over how the drug cartels will react to an Arizona police force targeting their guns and drugs directly with better operational intelligence and equipment. Sheriff Babeu seems to be taking on the cartels and coyotes, some of his own state's politicians, and the federal government in an unprecedented manner. Political aspirations or not, his fight is not one chosen by anyone to date and that makes Babeu, and his task force, something to watch.