Spilling Over?

As federal officials talk tough, local officers express concern about cartel violence

We have a mess on the Arizona-Mexico border, and the people of Arizona can't make an honest assessment of it without pondering the concept of spillover.

The word has become a mantra that appears in just about every pronouncement by the feds, and it gets repeated by a compliant mainstream media.

In a speech in January, Alan Bersin, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said he's thought a lot about why so many Americans think the border is out of control.

"The answer has to be," he said, "that the violence in northern Mexico is real and unprecedented. Because of that violence, the threat that it will spill over is there. While we haven't seen the spillover violence, the risk is clearly there."

Last week in El Paso, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano repeated the no-spillover canard. This came on the heels of the bizarre challenge she issued to the drug cartels in January, saying, "Don't even think about bringing your violence and tactics across this border. You will be met by an overwhelming response."

If by "violence and tactics," Napolitano means the shootouts and mass murders that have become commonplace in Mexico's drug war, fair enough; violence of that proportion has not spilled over here.

But otherwise, this mantra presents a misleading image—of a federal phalanx at the border capable of preventing anything bad from entering this country.

However, the whole reason the Arizona-Mexico border today is fraught with danger is because of spillover.

"I don't know how people are defining spillover, but it's here now and ongoing," says Nogales Police Chief Jeff Kirkham. "The fingers of the cartels reach all the way to the Tucson and the Phoenix metropolitan areas, and other states."

The conflict in Southern Arizona is a fight to control American land. We're experiencing constant incursions by armed cartel soldiers. In a Washington Post story last May, Robert Boatright, deputy chief of Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, said border agents here have "close to daily" encounters with armed smugglers.

These are hardened men—mostly "prior deports," as Border Patrol calls them—who know Arizona's borderlands as well as their own faces. They're motivated enough to use our remotest lands as contraband highways, and athletic enough to vanish into the canyons when agents give chase.

And if challenged on the hugely profitable routes they've fought and shed blood to "own" for their particular gang, they will shoot. This became clear with the murder of Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, part of an elite BORTAC team sent into the Peck Canyon Corridor outside of Nogales on Dec. 14.

"Certainly, most Americans don't know these incursions go on all the time, but they do," says Kirkham. "It's sad that conditions on our border have gotten to where we have to send in special interdiction teams. But these incursions are a significant threat that needs to be solved."

A dramatic example of spillover occurred in Tucson on Aug. 5, 2009, when 15-year-old Brenda Arenas was murdered in an attempted southside carjacking. In late January 2011, three Mexican nationals, admitted drug-smugglers suspected in the slaying, surrendered to American officials at Nogales.

Why? One of the men told a Tucson TV station that their cartel bosses told them they were bringing too much attention, and they had a choice: Turn yourselves in, or we'll kill you. They chose to roll the dice with American jurisprudence. They were dropped off at the border crossing and booked into the Santa Cruz County Jail.

"I've never heard of anything like that happening in my 43 years in law enforcement in Nogales," says Sheriff Tony Estrada.

The spillover is everywhere. In the past year in Pinal County, Sheriff Paul Babeu reports that violent crimes related to drug-smuggling include two-officer involved shootings, two cartel hits in Casa Grande, the killing of two illegals transporting drugs, and the shooting of a Phoenix kidnap victim unable to meet a ransom demand. In Maricopa County, authorities recently confirmed that a man found beheaded in a Chandler apartment in October had been murdered for stealing from a cartel.

In Cochise County, Sheriff Larry Dever counts the unsolved March 27, 2010, murder of rancher Rob Krentz as spillover, along with break-ins and home invasions along the Chiricahua Corridor above Douglas.

The toll from these crimes, he says, falls on more than the immediate victims and involves more than material possessions. They damage the sense of security and well-being of everyone in the area. And violent episodes in Mexico compound the impact, because so many Southern Arizonans have friends, acquaintances or family in Sonora.

"These events are changing lives forever, and I count that as spillover, too," says Dever.

The 262-mile-wide Tucson Sector is prime spillover country, especially on federal lands. Last November, the Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress, issued a report stating that Border Patrol agents had arrested 91,000 aliens on federal land in Arizona in fiscal 2009.

But entries outpaced arrests by three to one. The report stated that not only is illegal cross-border activity "a significant threat" to federal lands in Arizona, but it "may be increasing."

Another GAO document, released in mid-February, said Border Patrol had achieved "varying levels of operational control"—defined as a high likelihood of crossers being apprehended—over only 44 percent of the roughly 2,000-mile Southwest border.

The good news is that the border land under control increased by 126 miles per year from 2005 to 2010. About 68 percent of the Tucson Sector is under control—but that still leaves 32 percent, or about 86 miles, relatively open to illegal activity.

The drug cartels are exploiting the gaps, and they're a different beast from a few years ago, says Richard Valdemar, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's detective now living in Bullhead City. They've become more militarized, and include elements of former police and the Mexican army and marines.

"Having a military presence on the border loyal to the cartels is a whole different thing from a law-enforcement presence," says Valdemar, former supervisor of Los Angeles County's prison gang unit who now works training police on gang activities. "We're not talking about some guy with a Saturday-night special popping a few rounds off at Border Patrol."

On the weaponry, Kirkham agrees: "It's amazing how much firepower they have. We're talking AK-47s; we're talking MAC-10s, fully auto."

Valdemar says this militarization—and the apparent end to the taboo against killing American law enforcement—requires a strong response to stop incursions at our border. Instead, he says, we erect signs warning citizens about traveling on heavily trafficked federal lands, or we close lands to the public because of the danger.

At present, as GAO noted, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is 55 percent closed, and the chief ranger at the Sonoran Desert National Monument proposed closing that entire 480,000-acre preserve, on the Interstate 8 smuggling corridor. Border sheriffs call those lands "almost America."

"To the cartels, that's weakness," Valdemar says. "They already think we're decadent, soft and unmanly. Then to cede parts of our own country only encourages them to be more violent. They think we're fucking punks."

As for the future, Valdemar, Dever and Kirkham all say they expect more spillover violence.

"There are certainly going to be more incidents, because we now have interdiction efforts meeting it head-on," says Kirkham. "Whether it's human beings or drugs, they're becoming more desperate to get their product across, one way or another."

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