COCHISE COUNTY — A network of more than 700 low-cost cameras along the Cochise County border with Mexico is proving more effective at stopping drug trafficking than a multi-million-dollar system being used by the U.S. Border Patrol, state lawmakers learned Thursday.
Five legislators met with Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels and County Attorney Brian McIntyre as part of a two-day tour organized by the Arizona Regional Economic Development Foundation. State Sen. David Gowan (R-LD14), who invited legislators to participate, said the tour offered insights on tourism as well as border security.
“I wanted representatives from Maricopa County to come down and see what we’re doing here in Cochise County and what the state can do to support our efforts,” Gowan said. “They really learned a lot and overall it was a great tour and provided an opportunity to give these officials the information they need to make good decisions.”
Sheriff Dannels pointed to the success of border enforcement strategy and a presentation by Chief Deputy Thad Smith confirmed the effectiveness of the agency’s efforts. Smith said the Sheriff’s Department is now working closely with Border Patrol agents to apprehend smugglers and illegal immigrants entering Cochise County.
“We forced the federal government to start enforcing the law because we have been able to provide proof of what’s happening,” Smith said.
Hidden cameras that transmit more than 3,000 images a day are capturing video of smugglers making their way into the county, Smith said. During the first 10 months that the network of cameras was in place, 37 people were apprehended, many of them eventually sentenced to prison.
“We want the smugglers to know that if they attempt to travel though Cochise County, they’re going to get caught and go to prison,” Smith said.
Mobile camera towers set up by the U.S. Border Patrol along the county’s 83-mile border with Mexico are not as effective as the network utilized by the Sheriff’s department, Smith said. Each of the camera towers costs about $3.2 million and smugglers have found an effective way to defeat that tracking system.
“They work with scouts on radios and walk directly toward the tower,” Smith said. “The cameras sweep from side to side, but they can’t point directly down, so the smugglers know when they need to get down and lay still to avoid detection.”
Beginning three years ago, the Sheriff’s department set up a network of remote cameras that are activated by motion and are proving much more effective at apprehending smugglers, Smith said. He said the entire network has cost roughly $500,000 to span the entire border, with much of that cost paid by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and not by Cochise County taxpayers.
In August, Smith said, the cameras captured 281 images of undocumented immigrants, of which 92 were apprehended either by the Sheriff’s department or the Border Patrol. The system also grabbed pictures of 37 “drug mules,” Smith said, of which 16 were arrested.
The group of lawmakers began their tour on Wednesday with a picnic at Kartchner Caverns, a state park that Sen. Gowan credited for its value as a tourist attraction. The tour then traveled to Tombstone and to continue discussions on the state’s role in local tourism.
Susan Wallace, president of the Tombstone Chamber of Commerce, organized tours of a local mine, the former courthouse and a visit to the OK Corral.
Thursday began with the meeting at the Sheriff’s Department in Bisbee, then traveled to the Ladd Family Ranch where legislators met with rancher John Ladd and discussed border enforcement efforts. The Ladd family property in Palominas spans a significant portion of the Cochise County border with Mexico.
Mignonne Hollis, Executive Director of the Arizona Regional Economic Development Foundation, said the AREDF welcomed the opportunity to provide state lawmakers a “hands-on” experience with local tourism and border enforcement efforts.
“AREDF was honored to have hosted the delegation from our state Capitol,” Hollis said. “We were pleased to show them how many economic development opportunities our county has to offer.”