BISBEE — Mark Dannels has been Cochise County Sheriff since 2012 and has a perspective that can only come with his 40 years of service in law enforcement.
He is a longtime member of the Fraternal Order of Police, appointed member of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council and current member of the National Sheriffs Association in which he serves as the Border Security Chairman. He also is a member of Southwest Border Sheriffs, Western Sheriffs Association, Arizona Sheriffs Association as the past-president, Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, Arizona Homeland Security-Regional Advisory Council, Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats and Border Security Advisory Council, High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area
Over the years, he has been recognized for his service and awarded the Medal of Valor, Western States Sheriff of the Year, Outstanding Business Person of the Year Marquis Who’s Who, Sheriff’s Medal, Deputy of the Year, Distinguished Service Award, Unit Citation Award, National Police Hall of Fame, Lifesaving Award and dozens of community-service awards from service groups and governmental organizations.
Dannels also served on the transition teams for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump prior to the 2016 election.
Herald/Review: It was common knowledge that President Joe Biden was going to stop construction of the wall along the border. Did any sheriff’s organizations or any law enforcement organization send any letters to the incoming administration voicing your concerns?
Dannels: You have political rhetoric — obviously, the Democrats did not want the border fence and the past president wanted it, so you go back and forth. You know something’s going to change, but to what degree you don’t know.
I was on the Biden transition team, selected by the National Sheriff’s Association. There were four of us. So, when Biden got elected last year, I met with his staff and discussed border issues. I actually talked about our success on the border based on collective and collaborative efforts from the County Attorney’s Office, based on relationships with the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection all the way back to the White House.
I talked about our virtual system, our 100 percent prosecution rate for all drug smugglers. That was a very productive meeting. I was asked how it went and I said it was great. It was a very positive meeting. I felt very optimistic. This is working. I told them I’m all about improving processes and programs as long as we keep it legal. What I mean by that is we don’t want to divert back to letting them come across and we award them legal entry. That’s hard for me based on my oath of office and with almost four decades of being a cop.
So, I really didn’t know this was coming. I really thought OK, put the politics aside, you’ve been elected, let’s work together and see how the readjustment goes. But within hours of President Biden’s oath of office, he signed 17 executive orders and one of them was to declare the Southwest border a non-emergency. That halted the construction, the resources and the technology. It’s not just the physical barrier that people focus on. We lost a sensor barrier all across the Southwest border and lighting instead of bringing that to reasonable conclusion.
You hope that if you put in the time and effort, they’re going to listen. I thought they were. Somewhere in there, politics started.
Personally, if this president doesn’t want to build one more inch of border fence, that’s his prerogative. But, you have to fix what’s been started. When President Trump first took office, and I gave a tour down on the border. Work on a remodel of the border was being done. And, they said President Trump is redoing the wall. And I said, no, that was under President Obama and it came into the Trump administration. I said, so if President Obama did it, it was right and if President Trump does it, it’s wrong?
People have to take the dang politics out of this. Whether you’re Democrat, Republican or Independent, I’ve never policed based on politics. I police on what I think is best and for the quality of life for the people in Cochise County. You do the best you can.
That takes everybody working together. I call it a multi-badge, one mission approach. In the absence of politics, it worked really well and I think that’s important to note. We all don’t agree on everything, but every decision made goes back to: is it a positive difference for Americans? That’s how I look at things whether it’s a DHS meeting or Arizona Sheriff’s meeting or a National Sheriff’s meeting or whatever meeting.
You’ve got the infrastructure in place. You’ve got roads and bridges where the concrete culverts are already placed, the wire to put bridges in place are there. There are open electrical pits. There are cables for the sensor system. They have until this week to come up with a solution, but there’s a penalty fee the government will have to pay for pulling out of the contract.
You have to figure out if this is the best way to conclude a project based on the taxpayers money? This isn’t a personal project, it’s a government project. We need to be wise as we do this.
H/R: Since talking with the Biden transition team have you made any attempts to talk with the new administration or the new DHS secretary?
MD: I’ve had indirect contact as the National Sheriff’s Association chairman in regards to the confirmation of Alejandro Mayorkas as secretary of DHS. Will my community oppose his confirmation? There were mixed emotions by sheriffs throughout the country and some wanted to oppose him. I went neutral on it as the chairman of the committee. I had high hopes that he would work directly with sheriffs. I was told he would meet with sheriffs, work with sheriffs. And, to this date, as an advisory committee member and a chairman for the NSA, that has not happened.
They rolled out this reversal of previous plans, Migration Protection Protocols, catch and release, which I call safety prevention measures on our Southwest border.
I’ve had three conference calls with DHS leadership. In the first two, they read a statement on the MPP program. They announced that on the following day they’re going to announce the MPP reversal. They’re going to allow 25,000 to cross the border. But they said you can’t ask any questions about it and said take care. We in the NSA said wait, we need to be in the dialogue. We’re past due on the questions and answers. We need to get to the table.
On another conference call about a week and a half later with DHS leadership, and we were told they had been working on this since before the election. I asked if you’ve been working on it that long why are you not working with local and state officials?
We’re in a global health pandemic. Where’s your health department officials, where’s you law enforcement, where’s the border governors? And a person said to me, “Well, sheriff, aren’t you a visionary leader?” I said, “Excuse me?” He said, “We all think toward the future.” And I replied, “Wow! That’s the answer?” And then they said they were not going to take questions from sheriffs at that meeting either.
The last conference I had with DHS senior leadership was March 5. And I’ll be honest with you — they even talked about crisis numbers, how resources are stressed, border breaches. They were concerned. They were stressed out. They agreed to work with sheriffs. I made the comment, “We need to stand united behind our local badges, state badges and continue to remember our oaths and protect our communities.” They agreed to that. They said they would get back to us and we have not heard one thing.
A sheriff has three objectives on the border — public safety, national security and humanitarian. Now, we’re also addressing the global pandemic. Those are things we think we need to continue.
Looking at numbers from 2019, which was also a crisis, 141 countries breached our Southwest border. Now, we’re right there again. We had 61 fraud families. Three-thousand, five-hundred kids being recycled. Eight-hundred twenty-two agents assaulted. Two-hundred eighty-one deaths across the Southwest left by the human drug smugglers in the desert and mountains. Sixteen-thousand violent criminals, 1,100 documented gang members over the last nine months in 2019.
We don’t need to go in history. It’s insane to go back to that. To go back there because of a political ideology is just insane to me. It’s frustrating. I get passionate making sure we have the resources. Of the 31 border counties, I think we have come the furthest when it comes to collaboration. I don’t want to go backward.
When the ranchers tell you, this is the best it’s been in 30 years before, and now we’re having discussions on why they’re seeing an increase.
H/R: Speaking of ranchers, have they been reporting any undocumented immigrant drug smugglers crossing their land?
MD: Yes. In fact, I’ve already had a meeting with all the ranchers from the county and they’re very concerned about seeing an uptick.
And, we’re seeing an uptick on our cameras. We went from 300 to 400 undocumented immigrants a month a year ago to 1,200 last August, almost 2,500 in December and have seized almost 500 pounds of illicit drugs. We went for 20 months without any illicit drugs in our county because we had eyes on the cameras and we caught them. Now, we’re at 2019 numbers again.
H/R: How did the remote camera system come about?
MD: I’ve watched the ebb and flow on this border. We’ve had the perception of being an unsafe county and a county political figure asked me what I was going to do about it. The border is controlled by the federal government. The county doesn’t have the resources or authority to deal with the border.
In 2015, my son, with the Sierra Vista Police Department, was involved in a shooting and the drug cartels called me from Mexico and threatened to kill me. They also called the SVPD and said they were going to kill my son. Twenty-four hours later they were in my back yard.
It was obvious at that point, I could either sit back and duck down or I need to get up and do something. When we run from the cartels, we’re in trouble. With all that going on, and things were pretty bad in the county with drug trafficking.
So, later that year, state legislator Gail Griffin called me and said she had private donations to build the border fence. They raised between $250,000 to $300,000 to go toward the Southwest border. Sheriffs can’t build a fence, so I asked if we could do a virtual fence.
All four sheriffs along the border agreed we’d kick that off in Cochise County in 2017 and from then on we incorporated a virtual system with 1,000 cameras in stock. We deploy 600 to 700 at any given time. And, due to the popularity with Arizona ranchers, it has spread to the California state line and into New Mexico. It’s all housed right here. It’s part of Gov. Doug Ducey’s support through manpower to do that.
Right now in Cochise County, thanks to our partnership with County Attorney Brian MacIntyre, we have a 100 percent conviction rate on drug smugglers.
I’m so proud of what we’ve done, so proud of the men and women to make this happen. We’ve become a pilot program for border security in this county.
But, now the Aerostat, which belongs to DHS, is down and I’ve been told it’s been dismantled, there’s no funding for it and it won’t be going back up.
I was told if my deputies stop a car with illegals in it, that Border Patrol will not respond.
H/R: What are you supposed to do with them?
MD: Catch and release. You look at all these mechanisms being shut down, it’s hard to swallow for me. Is this an orchestrated plan? And in a pandemic. Fauci was on the news saying wear a mask, social distance, get the vaccine, but nobody is addressing the Southwest border. They are not testing for the virus. That’s a huge challenge in protecting our communities. We just went through a long, tough year. And now we’re just supposed to release them into our community.
Two weeks ago, I was told 13,000 immigrants were released into communities in the U.S., which came out in the meeting in Willcox with the Border Patrol.
H/R: Have any Democrats come down to tour the border in Cochise County?
MD: No. But, I’ll give a tour to anyone who wants to come and see it. The Democratic leadership needs to come and see our situation. Why is not every Congressional person coming to Texas and Arizona? Why aren’t they coming to see what’s going on?
The Rio Grande region has seen the largest influx right now. Tucson sector, which includes Cochise County, is No. 2. That was given to me on our last conference call.
We had a calm, manageable border here six months ago and look where we are at today. That’s frustrating to me. We don’t want the perception that turns people away. This is a great place to live. We don’t want to scare them off. But, we have to have a secure border at our back door.