March 30, 2009
By James Jay Carafano, Ph.D.
Responding to reports of a disturbance out by Silver Bell Mine
road, officers encountered a grisly scene. Two shot dead in a Dodge
pick-up, a woman in the front seat, a man sprawled in the back
seat. A while later they found a third body, shot in the head and
dragged into the desert.
No one knew who they were.
Investigators quickly learned the truck had been stolen in
Phoenix earlier that day. The victims had been smuggling about two
dozen "illegals" north at the time of the shootings. It made no
When officers tracked down two of the assailants at a campsite a
half-mile south of the shootings, the truth came out. It had been a
The shooters had been holed up in the desert for days, one of
them explained, sent there by a drug cartel to rip-off a shipment
from a rival gang. They had just hit the wrong truck.
The Silver Bell killings came in 2007. It was a wake-up call for
the Pima County Sheriff's office: Their turf was now the path of
least resistance for those trafficking in drugs and people.
Some years earlier, officials had beefed up enforcement along
the San Diego border sector. Smugglers changed routes, making Texas
their primary trade lane. Then a strong federal, state, and local
crackdown made the Houston corridor too hot.
The route shifted again. Today, according to George Heaney, a
bureau chief in the Pima County Sheriff's Office, the Tucson Border
Sector is the busiest super highway for moving drugs and people
north -- and money and guns south.
That new reality is reflected in Heaney's county jail. Three
hundred of its 2,000 inmates are in the U.S. illegally. They
haven't been picked up for immigration violations, though. They are
all charged with serious felony beefs.
Many are foot soldiers in the battle among drug cartels -- a war
that has spilled north of border. Most of the violence comes from
one group of "bandits" preying on another. They let their
competitors do the hard work of humping drugs across the border,
then try to rip-off one another's "stash." They favor automatic
weapons and high-powered rifles. "Fortunately," one deputy told me,
"We haven't seen hand grenades and some of the heavier stuff they
use south of the border." Yet.
Though it's mostly bandits shooting up bandits, the Pima County
Sheriff's office could not just idly watch a drug war rage. But
they didn't have to enter the fray alone, either. To combat the
border violence most effectively, the office forged a strong
partnership with federal and state authorities.
Heaney says the single most important development in that
partnership was beefing-up the Border Patrol in the Tucson
Sector -- made possible when President Bush and Congress doubled size
of the Border Patrol. But Heaney's department made an important
contribution, too. It created a border crime unit.
In part, the border crime unit has been effective because of
assistance from the Department of Homeland Security. Thanks to DHS,
the unit fields its own mini-air force: a helicopter and two small
fixed-wing craft that let the sheriff's take the high-ground to
hunt down smugglers. The Border Patrol has assigned two full-time
troopers to work with the county unit.
Pima County offers a valuable lesson in how to battle the
cartels. Since 9/11, Washington has poured billions into homeland
security grants, yet it's not at all clear that this spending spree
has done much to improve national preparedness or security.
The grants have become exactly what the 9/11 Commission warned
against: "pork-barrel" funding mechanisms. Taxpayers would get far
more bang for their Homeland Security bucks if more of the money
was channeled where it's really needed -- like cooperative law
enforcement initiatives to protect our communities along the
Carafano is a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation
and the author of GI Ingenuity: Improvisation, Technology and
Winning World War II.
First Appeared in The D.C. Examiner
He's the All-American general. Already a hero from one war, he has inherited another. It's a long war--fought in villages against an enemy that, when pressed, simply melts back across the border. And he will fail. In part, because his president is willing to fight a "half-measure" war--the kind of war that cannot be won.
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D.
Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, E. W. Richardson Fellow, and Director
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