Double Negatives

Despite a costly fire and gunfights, the government continues to downplay dangers in the Peck Canyon Corridor

The man suspected of setting a distress fire that blew out of control and became the Murphy Complex Fire was an illegal alien from Toluca, Mexico, and the federal government doesn't think you have a right to know his name.

The fire began on May 30 and continued through mid-June, burning 68,000 acres, most in the Coronado National Forest north and west of Nogales. At one point, the Murphy Fire, which merged with the Pajarita Fire on June 5, threatened Rio Rico, as well as homes in Aliso Springs west of Interstate 19 near Tubac.

The Tucson Weekly reported on the fire on June 30 ("Arizona Burning"), quoting incident commander Mark South, a well-known wildlands firefighter. The paper sought additional information through a Freedom of Information Act request, and much of the information we received tracks with what we already reported.

But the documents obtained from U.S. Customs and Border Protection did add a few details. They state that at 2:30 p.m. on May 30, the pilot of a Forest Service helicopter responding to a fire southeast of Bear Grass, west of Arivaca, "observed a subject waving in an attempt to get the pilot's attention."

South previously told the Weekly that the man admitted setting the fire, and that Border Patrol agents on the scene believed that he'd been traveling with a group of 10 or 12. South added that agents pulled out several others who needed medical attention.

Border Patrol arrived and "determined the subject to be an illegal alien and suffering the effects of dehydration." The man said he'd been without water for two days.

The Border Patrol memos make no mention of a confession by the man who flagged down the chopper. But they state that given his proximity to the fire, "the subject will be held pending a possible interview by Forest Service law enforcement officers."

The interview took place at University Physicians Hospital (Kino) the following day, after which Forest Service officers opted not to pursue charges. On June 2, the man was "declared fit for travel incarceration, released from Kino Hospital and transported to the Tucson Coordination Center for processing."

From there, he was likely given a bus ride to Nogales and voluntarily returned to Mexico.

The public will learn more about the Murphy Fire, as well as the Monument Fire near Sierra Vista, when the Forest Service releases its investigative reports.

"We plan to do that shortly," says Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch. "With a lot of public and congressional interest, I wanted to get those completed and released as soon as possible."

In the CBP memos, the name of the distressed man is blacked out; the agency says that only with the illegal alien's permission can information about him be released. Dorothy Pullo, director of the Office of International Trade with CBP's FOIA Division, wrote that "the privacy interests of the individuals in the records you have requested outweigh any minimal public interest in the disclosure of the information."

The episode ended essentially without consequence for this fellow, without so much as his name being made public. If the feds are running a revolving door at the border, and this fellow was part of it, the public needs to know.

The Murphy Fire was initially two fires that merged—one near Murphy Peak, and the other at Lobo Tank. They began along one of the most dangerous drug- and human-smuggling routes on the border, the Peck Canyon Corridor. The ignition point on the Lobo blaze was about three miles from where BORTAC agent Brian Terry was murdered by bandits in December 2010.

Two AK-47s were found at the scene where Terry lost his life. They were purchased in Phoenix as part of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives' Operation Fast and Furious, under which the agency allowed guns to "walk" into Mexico and into the hands of drug cartels. The scandal has resulted in the reassignment of ATFE acting director Ken Melson, and the resignation of the U.S. attorney for Arizona, Dennis Burke, who oversaw the operation.

Recent news reports quote from an internal email between Burke and Assistant U.S. Attorney Emory Hurley, saying, "... this way we do not divulge our current case (Fast and Furious) or the Border Patrol shooting case."

"Minimal public interest" in what's going on in the Peck area? Really?

It appears that remote region is still a bandit haven, almost a year after Terry's murder. One recent episode occurred on Aug. 19, when five men with assault rifles intercepted eight mules carrying marijuana bundles near Peck Canyon, says Lt. Raoul Rodriguez, head of criminal investigations for the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office.

The drug smugglers fled, hearing two gunshots as they ran, according to the CBP's arrest blotter. The smugglers later encountered Border Patrol agents and ran again. The agents arrested 43-year-old Alberto Rivera.

Border Patrol won't comment on what they did with Rivera. But his name doesn't appear in the federal-court database, meaning no charges have been filed against him. Former U.S. Attorney Bates Butler, now a Tucson defense lawyer, doubts the U.S. Attorney's Office would have a winnable drug case against him anyway. "His admission that he was hauling bundles isn't enough without the marijuana," says Butler.

Let's review: A drug-smuggler gets jumped by bandits and complains to law enforcement about bad guys trying to steal his weed—and apparently, the only penalty he suffers is being sent back to Mexico?

How can law enforcement clean up the Peck Corridor if those who commit crimes suffer no consequences? Is the corridor safe for citizens? The Weekly asked that question a month before Brian Terry's murder, and we asked it again, this time of Coronado Forest Supervisor Upchurch. He responded with a clarity-challenged double negative: "We're not advising people not to go there."

His argument, essentially, is that even though the corridor is unsafe for Border Patrol agents and for the illegals who are assaulted and shot at, it's still OK for citizens.

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