BISBEE — Cochise County is home to 80 miles of Mexican/United States border. While border security and immigration are key topics for the White House, those who live on the border experience it at a different level; they live with its impacts every day.
On Tuesday, the sheriff’s department brought together law enforcement partners on the federal, local and state levels for a round table discussion of challenges facing border sheriffs, ranchers, the education system and various agencies.
Along with the local representatives were men and women from Washington D.C. looking to bring back discussion points and see first-hand what border security looks like in rural Arizona.
Sheriff Mark Dannels said the intent of the discussion was to share some of the things the county has done successfully when it comes to border security and keep a crucial, open dialogue going with federal government representatives.
“We got diverse groups talking to these folks who are very influential with Congress, that’s what it’s all about,” he said. “(I hope that) they take what they learn here, their experiences and education, and take it back to Congress, their organizations, and help spread that message and make positive change; that’s what we are looking for.”
Dannels is an appointed member of the Homeland Security Advisory Council in Washington D.C., which he said helped to facilitate this discussion and bring attendees from D.H.S.
“We have to collectively work together — federal, state, local — that’s worked very well and it’s been a recipe for success,” Dannels said. “It’s nice to have these folks come down here because we are not talking about what’s not working, we are talking about what is working and they help us continue to make that work, sustain it.”
On the frontline
Dannels said Cochise County has been a frontline for drugs and smuggling for many years, but that the Southeastern Arizona Border Regional Enforcement task force (SABRE), a large camera surveillance system, and other local efforts have almost halted drug smuggling in the county since 2015.
“We have a 100 percent conviction rate thanks to our county attorney,” he said. “The realty is this, we’ve made a difference. Cartels don’t want to come through because the risk is too high. We catch them and Brian (McIntyre, county attorney) puts them in prison.”
Sgt. Tim Williams leads the task force and gave a presentation on the 400 motion-activated cameras in the county and beyond.
He said the project began in a small area along some of the San Pedro’s deep canyons and neighboring ranches.
The cameras quickly picked up clear images of those crossing, some in plain daylight, like a 17-year-old smuggler carrying 80 pounds of marijuana on his back.
In just the first months of this pilot with about 50 cameras, they had a lot of success and the cameras provide hard evidence in court, contributing to the county’s high conviction rate, Williams added.
Often times, smugglers are juveniles and the county now has a policy which prosecutes minors arrested for drug smuggling as adults. It has played into efforts and successes in reducing the flow of illegal drugs into the country.
The surrounding counties do not prosecute juveniles the same way.
The task force has found that many of the smugglers are avoiding going through Cochise County and instead cartels send juvenile smugglers to surrounding counties where they know they can avoid harsher prosecution.
SABRE’s focus is not on the ports of entry, they are focused on those using trails in rural areas or ranch lands.
The ranchers in the room have all worked closely with the Sheriff’s department and SABRE in securing their properties. Several spoke about drug and human smuggling, cartel fights, damage or theft and personal encounters with people who have illegally crossed from Mexico onto their land.
Rancher and veterinarian Gary Thrasher talked about the need to involve those who live on the border in the decision-making process. He gave an example of concertina wire being installed recently.
“They put five strands of concertina wire for five miles and it is a horrible-looking thing,” he said. “For one thing as a veterinarian I can just imagine what it’s going to be like when I start taking horses and calves and deer and everything else out of that concertina wire and nobody had any idea it was going in there.”
He also said that where fence is installed, it takes people away from international boundaries, where he believes there should be a focus on preventative security.
Rancher John Ladd echoed the opinion that Border Patrol should be focused on the ports and the actual border. He also aired concerns with the engineers designing the wall.
“They have flood gates and the water flows north here and then it flows east and west and sometimes south, and they have no clue,” he said. “That sounds bad to say, but they don’t.”
“There’s an escape route in every place they have built a wall.”
Members of the roundtable also brought up the cost associated with prosecuting illegal smugglers from outside the border. Williams said the majority of those who cross over in their range are from Mexico and that the county does not often see the large numbers of asylum seekers who have entered other parts of the state and country.
John Hill, assistant secretary for the D.H.S. Office of Partnership and Engagement, said this was not his first trip to Arizona or Cochise County. His main takeaway from the roundtable he will bring back to D.C. was the chance to hear real voices impacted by the border.
“It’s very important that people from Washington understand whats going on on the border and hearing it from the people who experience it everyday of their life,” he said. “That’s the thing that struck me, being able to hear firsthand the experiences from people and the challenges, the stress that it puts on local government with costs that are not always computed in D.C. but they are real to the people who live here.”
He said they recently brought several senior officials from Congress to the border and they noticed something.
“One observation they made was that the country to the south is a failed nation state,” he said. “When you have cartels running the border on the other side, you can’t deal with a government like that on the same level you’d normally expect and a lot of the issues and solutions we’ve discussed today presume we have laws being administered over there.”
As far as the county is concerned, Dannels said he will continue to develop partnerships and stay engaged with Congress.
“We are going to continue doing this, we’ll never give up the fight,” he said. “Our needs are different then a lot of other border communities, and we put so much effort forward, from education to prevention to enforcement.”
“I’m proud of what we’ve done here in Cochise County but we have a lot of work to do.”
The Washington delegation stopped in Yuma on Monday and will continue on to several other border communities before returning to the capital to report their findings.