An Arizona sheriff has issued a dire warning to anyone planning to enjoy the outdoors near the US-Mexico border over Memorial Day weekend: Watch out for "Mexican drug assassins."
Sheriff Paul Babeu of Pinal County, Arizona has recommended that hikers and campers using back roads and trails be extra cautious and even consider arming themselves to defend against so-called "rip crews" — opportunist gangs that rob drug smugglers — as well as "sicarios," hitmen allegedly sent by Mexican cartels to exact revenge on said gangs.
"We are taking this threat seriously," Babeu said in a statement. "I'm telling our citizens that want to enjoy the outdoors to travel armed and not let these drug cartels think they have any control over American soil."
While drug-related violence isn't uncommon along the southwest border, there are several reasons to be skeptical of Babeu's warning. For one, Pinal County, which includes suburbs near the city of Tucson, does not border Mexico. Babeu is also the only Arizona sheriff raising the alarm. Chris Nanos, the sheriff of neighboring Pima County, which includes 126 miles of Mexican border, the longest stretch of any county in the US, said he hasn't seen anything to indicate this weekend will be more dangerous than usual.
"I don't really have much to make of [Babeu's warning] because I don't know what intel he's gathered or where his intelligence is coming from," Nanos said, noting that sheriff's offices generally share info about threats to public safety. "So I would question that without actually seeing the intel he's given or who it is that gave it to him.
"I support Paul's efforts, as I do all the sheriffs' efforts," Nanos added. "But as far as any intelligence that says today is a higher alert than yesterday, I don't have that."
To justify the warning, Babeu cited three separate incidents that have occurred since March in Pinal County, but he offered few details when pressed for specifics by VICE News.
Babeu's statement said that "Border Patrol agents were shot at by drug smugglers last month on the Tohono O'odham Reservation south of Pinal County," but it's unclear whether the shooting involved rip crews or sicarios. He also said that on April 7, five suspected smugglers exchanged gunfire with Border Patrol agents near Cowlic on the Tohono O'odham reservation, but no one was injured. Later in April, in the same area, a Border Patrol agent fired two shots — missing both times — at an 18-year old Honduran man who threw rocks while attempting to avoid being arrested. The teen and another suspect were caught with several bundles of marijuana.
On April 14, police in Casa Grande, a city located about halfway between Phoenix and Tucson, detained a man who had been shot in the leg and stabbed in the desert. Police suspect he may have been part of a rip crew. Babeu's report mentioned other police debriefings where drug smugglers described shootouts in the desert, but there were no details about where and when these incident occurred, and whether anyone was actually injured.
When questioned about the source of his information, Babeu's office sent an email response that hinted about receiving intelligence from US Customs and Border Protection, which works with the sheriff's anti-smuggling unit.
To offer proof about past intelligence he has received about threats along the border, Babeu forwarded a June 2010 email from the Department of Homeland Security that cited "a proven credible confidential source" as saying that a Mexican cartel was planning to send a group of 15 "very well equipped and armed sicarios" across the border into Arizona's Vekol Valley to "take out" bandits in the area. Later that year, Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed by a member of a rip crew.
'We're not dodging bullets here. It's a safe border community.'
Spokespersons for the Border Patrol's Tucson sector and US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) both declined to comment on Babeu's warning. Brandon Judd, the president of the National Border Patrol Council, a labor union that represents Border Patrol agents, said in a Facebook post that he appreciated Babeu's "courage to bring to light something that's been taking place for years," but did not mention anything to indicate there is a rise in border violence.
Earlier this week at a press conference, Babeu was asked if the alert has anything to do with his bid for a seat in Arizona's 1st Congressional District. The primary for the race is in August, and Babeau, a Republican has vowed to push for a federal crackdown on illegal immigration if he is elected.
"This has everything to do with that as well," the sheriff said. "It's not something new that I'm just talking about now, I've been talking about this for eight years. This is vitally important to not just to our county, to the state of Arizona, to the country, that we absolutely have to safeguard our families. The law should be enforced and it's obscene to me that we have cartel members that literally think that they own the place."
VICE News spoke to three of the four sheriffs whose counties actually border Mexico. They each said that smuggling is a problem in the area, but they also suggested that Babeu's warning may have wildly overstated the threat to the public.
"We're not dodging bullets here," said Sheriff Tony Estrada of Santa Cruz County. "It's a safe border community. It is a border, obviously, there's people and drugs that are coming through, that's a well-known fact, but that's not causing any of the fallout that you would expect."
Nanos, the Pima County sheriff, said criminal activity has actually dropped along his stretch of the border in recent months.
"I don't know what Paul is seeing, but I'll tell you this: here in Pima County, things are down," Nanos said. "Border Patrol would tell you that as well. Our apprehensions, our detentions, our referrals to Border Patrol — they're definitely down. It's a decrease."
Sheriff Leon Wilmot of Yuma County said that from 2005 to 2006, his county was the worst in the nation for illegal border crossings and drug trafficking. He said his deputies encountered rip crews on a regular basis, but now things have quieted down immensely, a trend he credited increased border security.
"The infrastructure, the sensors, the fencing, the camera systems, everything else, it's kind of curbed a lot of the stuff," Wilmot said.
On his website, Babeu claims that "Pinal County is the number one pass through county in all of America for drug and human smuggling." He is a vocal opponent of illegal immigration and the Obama administration, and has gone so far as to declare the president responsible for crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. His staunchly conservative views were made even more controversial in 2012 when he threatened his Mexican ex-lover with deportation if he ever revealed that Babeu is gay. Babeu admitted to the affair, but denied making threats. He was later cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the state attorney general's office.
As a result of the scandal, Babeu stepped down as co-chair of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in Arizona and bowed out of the congressional race that year. Instead, he ran for sheriff again and won reelection, retaining the office he has held since 2008.
Earlier this year, Babeu came under investigation by FBI's Phoenix Division for his office's use of seized criminal money, with the feds reportedly examining whether he used the funds for campaign purposes.
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