The spot where the Monument Fire started is well-known as a major smugglers’ entry point into the United States. Cochise County Sheriff’s Deputy Danny Romero, who has worked that area with the county’s narcotics and border-interdiction teams, says the biggest trail in the area runs up the ridge about 300 yards from the spot of the fire. It measures 2 feet wide in places and is nicknamed Joe’s Trail.
“It moves up past the parking lot at Montezuma Pass, and on the north side of the lot, it becomes the Crest Trail,” says Romero, a master deputy with the interdiction unit. “If you stay on it, it works up into Ash Canyon—basically where the fires were in the Huachucas—all the way down to Fort Huachuca (and) Parker Lake. All those trails are connected. You can see that by air.”
Romero also says there is a drug-scout’s perch on the Mexican side of the line, across from where the Monument Fire started. “We’ve gone up to where you can see their packs and their gear pretty well,” says Romero. “It’s not even 50 feet south of the line.
The issue of smugglers setting diversion fires—essentially drawing law enforcement’s attention to one area while pushing a load through another—is a controversial one. In a meeting at Border Patrol headquarters in Nogales on July 12, when the Weekly asked Border Patrol’s Randy Hill, patrol agent in charge in Tucson, whether smugglers use fire as a tactic, he said he’d never heard of that happening.
He said they do set distress fires, but called smuggler diversion fires counter-intuitive. “They don’t want to destroy the cover they need on whatever trail they’re using,” Hill said.
In the Weekly’s June 30 story on recent border fires, Ron Colburn, former national deputy chief of Border Patrol, said diversion fires are fairly common. On the matter of potentially destroying cover, Colburn said the smugglers “don’t think that far ahead.” Colburn’s career included a stint as agent in charge in Nogales.
Romero says Border Patrol agents have told him that fire is indeed a tactic of the smugglers, and he has seen it happen. He tells of an incident in late spring or early summer of 2006, between the Coronado National Memorial and the San Rafael Valley. The episode did not generate a police report, so Romero cannot give the exact date. The area is about 8 miles west of where the Monument Fire started.
Romero and three other officers, equipped with thermal scopes and thermal cameras, were watching a group of drug-smugglers staging on the south side of the border. “For some reason, they weren’t jumping,” says Romero. “They just laid up and hung out.”
The standoff dragged on for hours. Romero doesn’t think the smugglers saw the officers waiting on the American side, although they might’ve suspected something. “We’d taken a lot of loads out of there, so they were probably more cautious than normal,” says Romero. “Usually, they get to the fence, jump it and just keep moving.”
The pedestrian fence had not been built yet, and no Normandy vehicle barriers were in place, as they are now. The only barrier the smugglers faced was five strands of barbed wire.
About midnight, Romero says they saw two bodies emerge from a hiding place and jump the wire fence. The smugglers showed up on the thermal scopes as green patches called hotspots. They came north only about 25 or 30 yards.
“We thought maybe it was their scout group coming up to see if everything was clear,” says Romero. “Then we started seeing other hotspots close to where the first two were, and then we see the two guys go back over the fence and head south. All of a sudden, we start seeing hotspots next to where the two people were at.
“First, we thought they might be bodies. But we could see them starting to get bigger, and we were like, ‘Hey, that’s fire!’ So we blacked out (our lights) and drove down there. We have night-vision stuff for the truck, infrared lights, so they didn’t even know we were coming. We went to the same area they were at, and sure enough, they started fires in three or four different spots.
“We had to break out the fire extinguishers and stomp out flames. We were able to put it out because we got there fast. The wind wasn’t blowing, and the grass wasn’t really tall. There’s cattle out there, and they’d taken down some of the grass already. So we were lucky.”
Romero says he and another officer put out the fires themselves. The other members of the unit stayed behind to work the cameras “in case those guys jumped.”
No arrests were made. But Romero believes the smugglers set the fire as a diversion “to get us working on the fire, and then they just go a different route. I don’t know where they went from there, because once we put the fire out, we said, ‘Well, we’ll just kind of wait and see if they come across someplace else.’ And they never came back, at least not that night.”
The area where the Monument Fire started to the west, all the way across the San Rafael Valley, is a busy one for drug-smuggling and for fires, says Lee Eseman, who lived in the valley for eight years as manager of a planned San Rafael State Park.
“It was not walkers in that valley, not the poor,” she says. “It was all drug-runners.”
In the time she lived there, from 2000 to 2008, Eseman says there were “fires all the time” that she and her rangers believed were set by drug-smugglers. In addition to diversion fires, Eseman says they’d set fires in retaliation if one of their mules got caught, or if they lost a load.
“We had one fire down on the Santa Cruz River that was set, and it took 700 acres of riverfront,” says Eseman. “It started at 6:30 at night, and there were no thunderclouds or anything.” As they do along the San Pedro River to the east, smugglers frequently cross into the U.S. along riverbeds.
Eseman and her rangers dealt with a variety of issues caused by drug-smugglers. She lived in the San Rafael mansion, a mile and a half from the border, and kept a telescope in a kitchen alcove to monitor illegal cross-border activity.
“We were always watchful to the point that when I looked out the window, I couldn’t see the landscape anymore,” says Eseman, now a regional manager for state parks in Lake Havasu. “I was always looking for bodies moving, vehicles moving, vehicles and bodies where they shouldn’t be. I was always, always aware. I was never fearful, because I guess I’m just stupid.”
Laughing, Eseman continues, telling of the cartel scouts who’d sit on a hill just over the line on the American side: “They had Mexican drug lookouts on our property, and we’d go chase them away. Now, that was really stupid, but it made us mad, because they were on our property, and they were watching. They were watching us to see where we were and what we were doing. Because when they were going to send a load across, they wanted to know where everybody was, and if the Border Patrol was in the area.”