During the week of April 19th-22nd, I had the opportunity to visit Pinal County, Arizona to see what is happening at the Arizona border in regards to human trafficking and drug smuggling. Prior to this trip I had reached out to Chief Matt Thomas with the Pinal County Sheriff's Office and asked if it would be possible to get a tour of the Arizona border and the smuggling routes in their county as it is estimated that half of the illegal drugs that are smuggled through Arizona come through Pinal County. Chief Thomas arranged for me to fly the Arizona border with their aviation unit so I could see the crisis at the border for myself. I had no idea what to expect but the two days I spent down there changed my perspective on the border in a way that I could not have anticipated unless I saw it with my own eyes.
On the first day of my tour, I was flying in Pinal County's Huey Helicopter with a Border Patrol Agent and 2 Deputies from the Pinal County Sheriff's Office (to include the pilot) for an Operation Stone Garden mission. Stone Garden is a Federally-funded program that assists local law enforcement with overtime funds, reimbursement for aviation fuel, parts, maintenance, manpower, etc. to assist with border security with the US Border Patrol. Pinal County geographically is not on the Mexican border. Pinal County borders an Indian Reservation that borders the Mexican border but because the Indian Reservation is a sovereign nation there is really no border wall in that section of Arizona. (More on that in a bit)
We flew south through the county and eventually ended up over the Indian Reservation in tribal air space. There are 2 major Mountain ranges that run north and south in this area leading up to Pinal County so it's a natural funnel for drug smugglers and human traffickers to bring their victims and their drugs into Arizona. I began talking to the pilot and the Border Patrol Agent and I quickly began to realize that it's a daily battle between the Sinaloa Cartel and Law Enforcement. The Sinaloa Cartel runs all aspects of the border. They have scouts that live on the mountain tops that coordinate when the smuggling routes are clear with the Coyotes (human smugglers) and drug smugglers. They know the Border Patrol's schedules, the vehicles they use and have their own communication network to share this information. The Border Patrol Agent and everyone on board said the difference in border crossing since January has been nothing like they have seen in more than a decade.
We conducted 2 missions with Border Patrol on the way south to the Mexican Border. We located a group of 4 subjects from the air and coordinated with ground units to locate the subjects hiding under trees and shrubs in the middle of the desert. I noticed all the subjects had camo clothing on as well as carpet slippers. When I inquired about this with the border patrol agent he told me that the cartel outfits you with this gear when you pay them for passage. In my own mind, my assumption was that people were coming across the border on their own but I was quickly educated that no one crosses the border without paying the cartels for passage. It was estimated that the Sinaloa Cartel made over 14 million dollars in February from just human trafficking. It is also estimated that over 170,000 people are coming across the southern border every month. The kits they are given by the cartels are specifically designed to help conceal them from being seen or tracked by border patrol.
The 2nd Mission involved two juveniles that had either gotten separated from the rest of the group or left behind. They were able to call 911 and had started a signal fire. They were in more mountainous terrain. They had taken off their camo when we arrived and wanted help. We landed the helo so the border patrol agent could get out and put out the fire before it got out of control and then was able to hand off the two juveniles to border patrol agents on the ground. It turned out that the two juveniles were from Guatemala and were 15 and 16 years old.
After we had picked up the Border Patrol agent I asked him what would happen to those kids under the new Presidential Border Policies. The agent just shook his head and said he didn't want to know and that he purposely doesn't ask since he is focused on apprehension and does that job to the best of his ability. He told me that if he focused on what was happening after that it would affect his outlook too much and he would be frustrated and discouraged. He went on to say that he has caught people entering the US illegally from China, the Middle East to include Syria, Canada, and a host of Latin American countries. The border patrol agent also told me it is common for the cartels to give those they are smuggling personal amounts of methamphetamine or a mixture of cocaine and amphetamine to keep their energy levels up and keep them moving. Some of these groups are walking more than 60 miles before they are picked up by vehicles in Arizona. The cartels are essentially getting new customers from those they are smuggling into the US.
We eventually made it to the Arizona Mexico border directly South of Pinal County and the Indian Reservation and I was able to see the border wall there was literally a metal guard rail that a child could step over. We also saw some of the staging areas the cartel will put those being trafficked right before they hop the guard rail and start their trek into the United States. Later after flying along the border we were called in to assist border patrol units on the ground with capturing 12 illegal immigrants. We located the group hiding and then when the ground units got close they tried to run away from them and hide again. It was obvious how crucial the helicopter was in being able to direct the ground units into the location where each person was hiding. The takedown and capturing I saw was impressive knowing that their backup outside the 3 border patrol units and we were literally an hour away. I was humbled to see the hard work those border patrol units are doing each and every day to help keep our country safe.
In all, we located and helped capture 17 individuals. We flew east towards Nogales, AZ and saw the new border wall and where the construction had stopped. Everyone onboard the helicopter had stories about how the new wall was working and making a difference on drugs coming in on foot and especially with the human trafficking issue before the new polices that started in January of 2021 took effect. All in all, it was an eye-opening experience and I will be forever grateful for Pinal County Sheriff's Office giving us an all-access pass to what they have to deal with each day.
The following day I was able to get a tour of the drug smuggling routes over 60 miles north of the border with Sheriff Mark Lamb and Chief Thomas. The video was filmed near one of the drug smuggling routes with Chief Matt Thomas. Chief Thomas has been battling the cartels his whole career while serving on their SWAT team, Pinal County Sheriff's Office drug task force and then supervising both those units before becoming Chief. Chief Thomas is a wealth of knowledge when it comes to the Sinaloa Cartels tactics in drug smuggling and human trafficking.
My biggest takeaway is that the Cartels are always adapting and coming up with new ways of smuggling drugs and making money. Fentanyl Pill seizures with Pinal County have already doubled since 2020 and those deadly pills (disguised as prescription pills) coming across there will eventually be in our communities. We need to take action and demand our state and federal legislators come up with stiffer penalties and we do whatever we can to educate those that will listen on what lax drug laws will do to our state and our nation. I am fearful for our youth and my children and their future. We must act. We can no longer stay silent on the topic of drugs in our communities and what their impact has on our society.