The smuggling cartels have thousands of these lookouts stations across southern Arizona, manned by low-level employees or people who owe a debt to the cartel.
“They’re everywhere. On the smuggling corridors, most of the high points that give a good perspective of the smuggling routes or trails, there are lookouts in those areas,” said Patrick Brasington, the chief law enforcement officer for the Bureau of Land Management’s Phoenix office, which oversees the land near Milemarker 141.
That brazen approach extends to the fragile landscape as well. Mr. Brasington said smugglers have actually cut a miles-long, two-track road through wilderness on BLM land, moving rocks and flush-cutting to the ground trees, brush and cactus.
Mr. Brasington described one vehicle where smugglers had apparently tried but failed to change flat tires and instead left it propped up on boulders.
“They just devastated this area. It looked like a football field, where people had been playing there in the mud for months,” he said.
In Ironwood Forest National Monument, haulers used to collect 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of trash a year. But in the fiscal year that just ended that dropped to 30,000 pounds — parts of the monument are just too dangerous for contractors to pick up the trash.
The public lands agencies are well aware of that danger to their employees.
Mr. Hawkes said two state game wardens were shot at on his wildlife refuge last year, and law enforcement reports over the years detail other dangerous run-ins, including the death of Park Service Ranger Kris Eggle, gunned down on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in 2002 by a drug cartel hit man fleeing Mexico.
It has gotten so bad that agencies require employees here to take special training, and have issued special rules on how to operate. The U.S. Forest Service warns managers not to send employees out on nighttime assignments, while the Fish and Wildlife Service said a law enforcement escort is required for employees working at night.
Despite those rules, hunters, campers, hikers and tourists enjoying the public lands don’t see those same warnings. Instead, the most common alert they see is a road sign such as the one near Ironwood Forest National Monument that reads: “Travel caution: smuggling and illegal immigration may be encountered in this area.”
A 2002 report by a drug task force in Arizona described what civilians have faced on public lands: carjacking and robbery, having rocks thrown at them and having their homes along the border invaded by immigrants looking for food, money or anything else they can carry.
Except for the occasional sign or Web site notice, the Interior Department does not publicize how dangerous the borders can be.
But a department employee did collect partial data up until he retired in late 2008. According to his figures, more than 99 percent of all marijuana seized on or near department lands over the last three years was seized along the border. The borderlands also accounted for more than 90 percent of the cocaine and more than 90 percent of vehicles seized and stolen vehicles recovered on Interior Department lands.