Losing the Drug War

Two newly retired experts on the border speak freely about the status of the Arizona/Mexico dividing line

Dan Wirth (left) and Keith Graves: "We have a porous border."

Dan Wirth and Keith Graves spent significant portions of their careers working on the Arizona-Mexico border. They know these troubled lands inside and out. Both have reputations as straight-shooters, and both retired last December.

Now able to speak freely, they agreed to talk to the Tucson Weekly with only one topic off-limits—the murder of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry in Peck Canyon on Dec. 14, 2010. At his retirement, Graves promised the Border Patrol he wouldn't discuss what he knows about the case.

Graves was the Nogales district ranger for the Coronado National Forest from 1998 to 2010. When he left that post, he was named a liaison between the Forest Service and the Secure Border Initiative, focusing on strategies for dealing with the dramatic impact that illegal crossings were having on the forest, from fires to trash to illegal trails.

Wirth was a senior special agent for the Department of Interior. He coordinated the department's law-enforcement activities across the Southwest, giving frequent briefings to the secretary of the interior, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Department of Defense, the White House Homeland Security Council and members of Congress.

We met at a quiet Mexican restaurant in Barrio Hollywood, on Tucson's westside. The discussion began with a dust-up last May, when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano appeared before the Senate Homeland Security Committee. Sen. John McCain asked her about cartel scouts, or spotters—armed men who sit on mountaintops in Arizona to guide loads around law enforcement.

The senator wanted to know how Napolitano could call the border secure when there are 100 to 200 cartel spotters working in our state. Napolitano disputed his assertion, saying she asked the Border Patrol, "Where are the spotters that I keep hearing about?" She said the agency told her there are a couple of hundred mountaintops from which a spotter could work, "But there are not, sitting there, 200 drug-spotters."

The truth is that McCain greatly understated the problem.

Prior to the hearing, Wirth and McCain flew over the Interstate 8 smuggling corridor. This route crosses the Tohono O'odham Nation; goes through the Sonoran Desert National Monument in the Vekol Valley, or crosses farther east through the Bureau of Land Management's Ironwood Forest National Monument; and jumps Interstate 8 into Phoenix—a trek of more than 150 miles, given that it cannot be traveled in anything close to a straight line.

Wirth told McCain there were 75 to 100 scouts working this smuggling corridor alone. Based on that, the senator calculated there are 100 to 200 scouts working along the entire Arizona border.

"But that's a gross underestimate," Wirth says. "There are many more than that."

And the secretary? "Napolitano doesn't want to admit it, but there are drug scouts all over the high ground," Wirth says.

Dan, estimate the number of scouts working in Arizona right now.

WIRTH: I can't, because they fluctuate. They move when a load moves. After the hearing, I called McCain's chief of staff and used the example of the Coronado National Memorial near Sierra Vista, which is very small. It has 3 1/2 miles of border with Mexico. ... There are 18 sites these scouts occupy when they move a load. We have them GPS'd. Extrapolate out across Arizona, and we're talking significantly more than 200.

GRAVES: There used to be three good drug corridors through the memorial. And there are at least six on the Coronado National Forest. In the Peloncillo Mountains on the Arizona-New Mexico line near Douglas, there have to be at least that many more. Each probably has 100 scouts to get a load up to Interstate 10. They need line-of-sight capability, because there is no good cell coverage out there.

WIRTH: They have campsites, stoves, night-vision gear.

GRAVES: If they're coming back carrying weapons and money, they have the same scouting capability. If you're bringing a load up, they might tell you to wait for a day after it's picked up, because someone is coming to give you money to return south.

WIRTH: The cartels have a logistics network running all through the state of Arizona. People buy supplies at Walmart and hike it in—food, batteries for radios, whatever they need.

GRAVES: They have better communications than Border Patrol.

WIRTH: They keep eyes on the load the whole time it moves. They hand it off from one scout to the next, communicating by radio, and they say when to stop, when to go, where law enforcement is. It's very strategic, very organized.

Are these men dangerous?

GRAVES: Only if I walk up to one, reach for a weapon, and say, "Drop what you've got; I'm taking over." Yes, they would kill me.

WIRTH: They work for an international business. And they do what's good for business. They're under orders not to shoot at citizens or law-enforcement people who come up on them, because they can't afford it.

How do we explain the Rob Krentz murder?

WIRTH: That was an isolated incident, the exception. He ran into an hombre.

Do you suspect it was a scout? Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever says he has evidence it was a drug scout, and I believe Dever.

WIRTH: It's very probable.

Are these resupply people from Mexico or this country?

WIRTH: Both.

GRAVES: The last time I had intel from Homeland Security, they informed me that more people work for the cartels inside the United States than in Mexico.

When Napolitano acts surprised and says, "Gee, where are all these spotters I keep hearing about?" is that political, or does she really not know?

WIRTH: She has to know.

Why is it so difficult to run these scouts off and keep them off?

WIRTH: They have the high ground and see us coming. In the '90s, I used to go up and kick down those rock forts at the memorial all the time. But they'd build them right back up again. When we go up there to arrest them, they just run back down the hill into Mexico. And if we do catch them, it's very difficult to tie them to a load and get a prosecution. All we can do is deport them.

Are you saying law enforcement on the border is under surveillance?

WIRTH: Constantly, 24/7. As soon as we move into an area, that information is radioed to people or loads in the area. That's why getting to these sites covertly is difficult.

They sometimes use small loads as decoys for big loads. Correct?

WIRTH: Yes. They plan to lose a certain amount as a cost of doing business. Once you let Border Patrol take a load down, everybody in that area gets sucked in, so you can ship a more-valuable load through on the flanks. Or they send illegal aliens first, and everybody jumps them, and the dope comes later. They use the people as decoys. Say someone wants to move coke, a much-more-valuable commodity than marijuana. They'll spend a lot more money ensuring that load gets through. They'll creep through the terrain and stop if law enforcement gets close. Sometimes, they'll camouflage the truck. Then they'll proceed again and move very slowly. Sometimes it'll take over a week to get all the way to Phoenix.

Instead of walking all the way to Phoenix, why not just get picked up on Highway 86 near Three Points or out on the rez?

WIRTH: They want to get around the highway checkpoints. By walking straight up through the desert, you miss all of Border Patrol's checkpoints.

Are you saying the smugglers can get across whatever they want?

Yes. It's a porous border.

These mules walking across the Tohono O'odham Nation, through the Vekol Valley and into Phoenix: How many miles are we talking about?

WIRTH: It's 100 miles up to Interstate 8, then you have to go another 75 miles.

GRAVES: As the crow flies, but on foot, add at least a third more. They have to stay hidden so it isn't a straight line.

How can they go that far and not be seen?

WIRTH: Start hiking up through there, and you'll see. It's not that hard.

GRAVES: There are people along the way that let them lay up and rest. A lot of people enjoy aiding and abetting.

WIRTH: There are safe houses and layup sites, camping areas that are already supplied.

Border-crossing arrests in the Border Patrol's Tucson sector are way down. We had 616,000 arrests in 2000 and 129,000 in 2011. How has that been accomplished?

GRAVES: I'll tell you two things. In 2009, before SB 1070 passed, it was getting highlighted in the news, and that frightened them away. And the economy crashed. Nobody is hiring, and the greatest number of arrests is illegal workers.

But arrests have been going down just about every year since 2000.

GRAVES: In 2008, the Tucson sector had the highest activity in the nation. The Coronado National Forest had the highest in the nation. Not arrests, but activity. After the economy and SB 1070, the numbers dropped drastically.

What do you mean by "activity"?

GRAVES: Signs of people crossing. It might be tracks or sensor hits. Or Border Patrol sees them on cameras, but they disappear into the badlands and can't make the apprehension.

WIRTH: When you quadruple Border Patrol, yeah, they're going to be more effective. The pedestrian fence is highly effective; cameras and technology towers are highly effective in areas where they can see people. Remember what was going on at the Buenos Aires wildlife refuge before the fence? There were 1,000 people a night going through there. We did an assessment and found 1,400 miles of illegal trails—just denuded, dirt trails, 300 acres where all vegetation was simply gone. We had five homicides on the refuge in 2005, two rapes, 39 armed robberies, 35 auto thefts, nine deaths from exposure and 60 emergency medical responses. It was unbelievable.

These were crossers murdering each other?

WIRTH: Yes. We had tremendous violence. It was really a very dangerous situation.

GRAVES: They were breaking into the refuge headquarters and into homes there. And they were stealing federal vehicles from there. Smuggler vehicles were abandoned in creeks, and when the monsoon came, they'd flood all that oil down the creeks. It was just a mess.

WIRTH: The environmental damage there and elsewhere on the border was massive. There's still a lot of environmental damage, but not as much as before the fencing and tower technology. When we put in the pedestrian fence at the refuge, the change was immediate and drastic. Environmentally, it is really good, because the vegetation is back now at Buenos Aires.

But the fence didn't stop the traffic. It moved it elsewhere.

GRAVES: Yes. That's the purpose of the fence. But it did stop illegal vehicle activity.

Why do environmentalists hate the fence?

GRAVES: They assume the fence will stop special wildlife, like jaguars.

WIRTH: The wildlife will go around the end of the fence just like people do.

Last summer's Monument Fire, on the border at the Coronado Memorial, burned 30,500 acres, destroyed 62 homes and forced the evacuation of one-third of the community around Sierra Vista. Dan, the memorial is Department of Interior land, and when we talked earlier, you said you were 90 percent certain it was a smuggler fire.

WIRTH: It's probably closer to 95 percent. Think of the alternatives: There were no visitors because the park was closed. No hunters, no recreationists. The only people who might be out there were park rangers, and I checked with them. They weren't there. Border Patrol was there, but not right there. Who's left? Only one other entity visits the area regularly, and that's the smugglers. And we know the fire was human-caused.

GRAVES: There are no hiking trails there, no infrastructure there for the public to use for a legitimate purpose.

WIRTH: The fire started in that area where, as I said, there are 18 scout sites in 3 1/2 miles. Now, can we say absolutely it was a smuggler? No, because we didn't see him. But common sense tells you who it is.

GRAVES: There were six smuggling trails that were very active through there before the fire. I used to do fire investigations. I was a Homeland Security-trained wild-land fire investigator.

Your percentage of probability the Monument Fire was a smuggler fire?

GRAVES: I put it at 95 percent, too.

What about the Horseshoe 2 Fire in the Chiricahuas? It burned 223,000 acres and cost about $50 million to fight.

GRAVES: I would definitely put Horseshoe 2 at 100 percent. There was no evidence of anyone camping in the area, no place where a person could've gone to get to a vehicle to leave. Let me retract that: I'll say 99 percent. Maybe there was someone out there who ended up dying, and nobody cared. There always could be something. Still, if it was a local person who just got stupid, he would've been found. Whoever did it knew how to get away and never be seen again.

Border Patrol was chasing illegals up that trail right before it started. And it was started at a drug-smuggler camp at Burro Springs.

GRAVES: And there's a scout site not too far above that. On the Murphy Fire over here near Nogales, they actually found the person who started it. He admitted starting it and was rescued. But when they turned him over to Border Patrol, someone, some place, told him: If you say you started it, you'll be held accountable. Border Patrol agents know that isn't true. If you're in distress, fire is a legal means of getting rescued. Between the time they rescued him and got him to the hospital, someone told him he'd be held accountable if he admitted it. He thought he'd have to pay for it, so all of a sudden, he reneged and said he didn't do it.

I wrote about this last September. He was an illegal from Toluca, Mexico, and I'm told they deported him pretty quickly after his release from the hospital. Can we expect more fires this season?

GRAVES: Yes. The fuel load is very high. All we can tell the public is: We have the skills to help you protect your home by proper management of vegetation around it. Your rural fire department can protect your house. But we can help you protect the environment around it.

After last summer's fires, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that of 77 fires in Southern Arizona, 30 were suspected of being started by illegal crossers. That's 39 percent. How about stopping the illegals and smugglers at the border and eliminating that 39 percent?

WIRTH: Well, yes. But, again, we have a porous border, and you can have fences and vehicle barriers, but that doesn't mean you can stop everybody coming across. On the Monument Fire, the guys who started it most likely ran back into Mexico.

One of the theories of the Monument Fire is the smugglers wanted to burn out the two EITs—National Guard entry identification teams—that were on memorial land.

WIRTH: It's one theory of many. But the fire backfired on them, burning way too much.

GRAVES: A lot of times, people start a fire to get material through an area quickly, because it impacts the ability of Border Patrol to get there, shuts down flights because you put up flight restrictions, and completely destroys sensors in the area. The sensors can't pick anything up, and they come right through the hot smoke at night.

Fire is a tactic?

GRAVES: Yes, sometimes. In 2007, I remember fighting the San Antonio Fire right on the border at Lochiel, east of Nogales. Our scout plane was flying back for refueling at Fort Huachuca when the pilot saw drug-backpackers starting fires on a trail as they went north, to keep Border Patrol from catching them. I was the fire investigator on the San Antonio, and I was talking on the radio to base camp, and base camp was talking to the scout pilot.

I said, "Do you see the people starting the fire?" Yes. I said, "Is the scout plane leading a tanker?" Yes. I said, "Use the tanker to put the fire out." They said, "But the torch is in a person's hand." I said, "Put the fire out!" Permission denied. It's against policy to drop retardant on a human being. Put the cotton-picking fire out! They wouldn't do it. Yet the two Border Patrol agents chasing him were put in serious harm's way.

What happens if you drop retardant on him? He gets wet?

WIRTH: It would kill him. It's a tremendous amount of weight.

GRAVES: You're talking about dropping retardant on a person that can weigh 9 pounds per gallon, and that can seriously hurt.

We risked the lives of two agents for this shmuck?

GRAVES: I call it asymmetrical ethics. The smugglers will do anything to get drugs into the United States, to the people who want them. But we have an ethic that says, "We'll do this, but we cannot do that." We'll only go so far. The agents finally had to back off because of the fire. I got into trouble on that one.


GRAVES: Because I said to do something against policy. My response was: We have two agents who might get trapped by this fire. Sorry, policy. I joked that at least this guy would be painted when we found him, so we'd know who did it. And they didn't like that, either.

Were you told not to talk publicly about the fires last summer?

GRAVES: There were a couple of people down here going berserk because we were saying the fires were started by people coming across. We got direction from the Washington office telling us: Do not comment on how many fires you think are caused by illegal immigration. Human-caused, yes. Illegal immigrants and drug-smugglers, no.

Why not?

GRAVES: Too political. In some regions, Hispanics are considered the most-important voting block now.

WIRTH: Completely political. It happens with different subjects all the time. Plus, you have the State Department wanting to maintain good relations with Mexico.

Even though we have a pretty good idea who started these three huge fires last summer in Southern Arizona, they'll remain human-caused, under investigation, forever?

GRAVES: Forever.

Republicans in the Arizona Senate have given preliminary approval to SB 1083 to set up a special-missions unit of 300 volunteers to patrol the border. Your reaction?

WIRTH: It's political to get votes from people who aren't educated about the border.

GRAVES: Stupid. That's like trying to take care of the border, and the border is an 8-foot rattlesnake, and the way you take care of it is giving it mouth-to-mouth.

WIRTH: We're at record levels of law enforcement on the border now. I'm all for citizens being able to carry guns for self-defense, but having people out patrolling would be very dangerous.

GRAVES: That's why we got really upset with (Maricopa County) Sheriff (Joe) Arpaio, who wanted to bring down a bunch of civilians with weapons to do what Border Patrol couldn't. ... I said: If you're a deer hunter, and all you want to do is hunt deer in a canyon at night, these guys won't be able to tell the difference between you and a possible rip-off team.

Take the Peck Canyon Corridor, in the Atascosa and Tumacacori mountains north and west of Nogales. Bandits are assaulting, robbing and raping crossers in there regularly. We had three execution-style murders there in November. Is that public land safe for us to use?

GRAVES: In all my years on the border, the only time I was threatened was by two U.S. citizens who didn't want me to drive down a road. (Another) incident was when I was walking down a trail in a Forest Service uniform and ran into a guy who opened his jacket to show me a Mac-10 under his arm. He tapped his hand on it. I waved at him and showed him I didn't have a gun, and he waved back. And I went my way, and he went his.

What do you suppose he was doing?

GRAVES: Probably leading people. This was eight years ago down near Arivaca, in California Gulch. Last year, I was doing training for the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) on border security, and I said, "How many of you will get into camp, open your sleeping bag, go hiking for the day, come back, and get into your sleeping bag without checking it first?" That would be stupid. Going down to the border is the same thing: You need situational awareness. Don't challenge people you have no legal right or capability to challenge. If you're going camping and see a Border Patrol agent, ask how things are out there today. Sometimes they'll say, "Ah, not so good."

So it's like going to Las Vegas and rolling the dice?

GRAVES: No. Go back and look at records, and find a citizen who has been assaulted.

WIRTH: Oh, we have them.

GRAVES: Well, not many.

WIRTH: But it happens. Not a great deal, but the fact that it's occurring is troubling. That's why most of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is closed to the public. It's not safe for people to be wandering around the desert by themselves.

GRAVES: It happens because people get into a drug-smuggler's face.

WIRTH: There are carjackings because they want vehicles.

GRAVES: It's more dangerous for you to be driving down I-19 from Tucson into the Peck Canyon area than it is to hike there. In my years here, only once to my knowledge was someone recreating on the Coronado National Forest assaulted by individuals hijacking a car.

WIRTH: I'm aware of two carjackings of park visitors: one at the Coronado Memorial, and one at Organ Pipe. There were many vehicles stolen from the San Bernardino and Buenos Aires refuges. And there were several attempted carjackings at Organ Pipe that weren't successful.

Keith, I talk all the time to the folks living out in the mountains west of Nogales, and I can tell you they're worried.

GRAVES: They live out there, so people passing through can always impact them. Everybody living out in the country has concerns about property damage and being broken into. And those are legitimate concerns. But when you park your car and put up your tent, you're pretty much left alone. They don't care about you.

WIRTH: It's a wrong-place, wrong-time thing. If you know the place is wrong, the more time you spend in the wrong place, the higher the probability of having a wrong time.

Dan, would you go hiking in the Peck Canyon area?

WIRTH: No. I'd go somewhere else. Why tempt fate?

What is the risk to law enforcement on the border?

GRAVES: Very high. I'd say the only place more dangerous would be a city like Los Angeles. Because if you run into someone on the border, it's your job in law enforcement to confront them and find out why they're there.

WIRTH: That's the difference between us and civilians. Our job is to go out and find them and stop them.

Has this huge federal footprint on the border impacted drug flows at all?

WIRTH: Not really. Even though seizures are increasing, the price of drugs hasn't gone up. And that's the economic factor you look for: When the price goes up, that shows your enforcement is doing a better job, and you're impacting the cartels' profit margin. But we're not.

Napolitano tells us the border is as safe as it's ever been. Is that true?

WIRTH: It's probably true. You could argue that. But there's been a major change on the border because of the number of agents, the technology, the cameras and sensors.

But we just established the cartels can get in whatever they want.

WIRTH: They always could.

We just established the amount of drugs coming across hasn't dropped. We just established that the potential for violence against law enforcement is huge.

GRAVES: But we've taken away the massive risks to the urban areas of Nogales and Douglas, places like that. It has been dumped off into the backcountry, so we're still getting the environmental damage, but we aren't having the public threat we used to have.

Now we have backcountry folks with shotguns by their doors to guard against home invasions. Dever says the Cochise County backcountry has never been more dangerous.

GRAVES: But everyone out in those areas knows you don't go out and confront the scouts and smugglers and tell them to get off your land.

People minding their business get their homes broken into by mules. Rob Krentz was checking waters on his own land, and he knew the rules you're talking about.

GRAVES: Like Dan says, that was probably wrong place, wrong time.

So is the border secure or not?

WIRTH: Look, what do you mean by secure? Is our border like Israel's? We don't have that kind of society. We don't have a wall built around our country. Even if we did, they'd still get through. You can't make it secure because of the geography of the border.

Keith, is the border secure?

GRAVES: No, it's not secure. I've told Border Patrol, and they don't disagree: If you know the border, you can bring across anyone you want to and not get caught. If you're not worried about time or ethics, and you'll do whatever it takes, you'll make it.

WIRTH: The big impact now is on the (Tohono O'odham) Nation. In the '90s, the Coronado was much more prominent. After we had infrastructure and fencing put in on the Coronado, it shifted over to Organ Pipe. There's a tremendous amount of drugs moving through there. They use the Ajo Mountains between the T.O. Nation and Organ Pipe. They go back and forth over that ridgetop. But the smugglers have really infiltrated the T.O. Nation. They only have vehicle barriers out there, not pedestrian fences, by their own choice, and they don't have the technology that exists on both sides of them. That leaves them open as a funnel to move drugs straight up to Phoenix.

In 2009, O'odham Chairman Ned Norris testified that 30 percent of the drug prosecutions out there are of tribal members.

GRAVES: With so many people living in the middle of nowhere, when they get pressure from smugglers, all they can do is say OK. I've been told cartel people go up to people on the reservation and say, "We know where your kid gets the school bus in the morning. Can you help us out?"

Is the drug war a failure?

GRAVES: It has benefits, because there are people now who won't risk getting caught up in it. People who have backed off and said, "I used to do this, but I won't anymore."

WIRTH: It's a tremendous waste of the country's resources. We've spent billions fighting that stuff and haven't made a dent. And the violence escalates. This is unusual for somebody in law enforcement to say, but we're never going to win the drug war. We need other approaches.

What other approaches?

WIRTH: Legalization is one. The biggest problem is the violence associated with the marijuana trade—tremendous violence on both sides of the border. It's ruining Mexico, utterly destroying the culture and the country. Something has to change. The worst component is the cartels make billions, and their primary tool is violence. You need to take that out of the equation.

What's the answer?

WIRTH: Diminish demand by education and treatment. Will we ever be able to diminish it altogether? Never. Humans have always wanted alcohol and drugs.

Keith, is the drug war a failure?

GRAVES: Yes, because of our appetite for drugs. They'll always find a way around us.

WIRTH: Are our social values more important than the safety of our citizens and having a stable government to our south? That's something that needs to be more seriously and openly discussed, instead of immediately saying that our social values say we're against drugs, so we're going to fight it. Nixon began the war on drugs, and nothing has changed with our country's consumption. Where there is a demand, there will always be a supply.

Note: In the original version of this story, a photo of vehicle tracks in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge was mistakenly credited to Banks due to a production department error. The caption accompanying it should have said that although drug smugglers cause vehicle erosion in the Cabeza, the majority is caused by Border Patrol, according to a Cabeza Prieta report.

Additionally, due to an error by the writer, the caption for a photo of drug-smugglers said it was taken by a hidden camera in the San Bernardino Wildlife Refuge near Douglas. Actually, the picture was taken by an employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about 4 1/2 miles north of the border, and 8 miles from the refuge. The smugglers had been apprehended and were being led away.

We apologize for the mistakes.

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