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BANKS: Border security from ground level

Napolitano needs to answer for dangerous drug gateways

- - Friday, April 19, 2013

Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano needs to explain how she's going to remove the drug scouts from Arizona's mountaintops. It's a serious question for those of us who live in Arizona. Our senators can ask her on Friday when she appears before the Senate Judiciary Committee to talk about the immigration reform proposal.

I have a number of other questions, but let's start with the scouts.

Their job is to guide drugs around law enforcement. A load bound for Phoenix, 150 miles north of the line, might require 100 scouts to guarantee safe arrival. When it passes out of sight for the first scout, the next one radios ahead and so forth, keeping law enforcement under surveillance the entire way. These men often carry rifles and live in rock forts for weeks at a stretch.

With regularity, smugglers mule loads across our state, trekking those 150 miles to the Phoenix Valley undetected. These cartel scouts are one reason why America's streets are flooded with drugs. It seems like an issue to address.

Actually, Sen. John McCain tried at a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing in May 2011. He asked the secretary how she can call the border secure with 100 to 200 scouts working in Arizona. Ms. Napolitano became Claude Rains in "Casablanca" shocked! She said there might be that many mountaintops from which they could operate, but there aren't 200 sitting scouts.

In fact, 200 is a "gross underestimate," says Dan Wirth, who retired last year as the Department of the Interior's senior law enforcement officer in the Southwest. "Napolitano doesn't want to admit it, but there are drug scouts all over the high ground," he says.

Mr. Wirth adds that savvy smugglers can enter the United States carrying whatever they like. "If a load is valuable enough, they can get it through," he says. "It's a porous border."

Although drug seizures are way up, we barely make a dent in the amount getting through. We know that because the street price of methamphetamine, heroin and marijuana is as low as ever. How do the smugglers do it? They control land in northern Mexico and access routes across portions of our southern border, "the primary gateway for moving the bulk of illicit drugs into the U.S.," according to the Department of Justice's 2011 Drug Market Analysis.

The report is a disturbing refutation of Ms. Napolitano's claim of security. So we have the Department of Homeland Security telling us one thing and Justice another, raising the question: Which agency is telling the truth?

The senators could also ask the secretary what she plans to do at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument southwest of Tucson.

With the fog of the border war, perhaps the American people aren't aware that 69 percent of its 330,000 acres are closed because smugglers make it unsafe to be out there. Tourists hoping to visit certain areas of the monument must be accompanied by armed guards. When do we get that beautiful land back?

John Ladd has a question, too. At his ranch near Naco, Ariz., drug smugglers have been cutting the border fence along his land and driving into the country, sometimes in broad daylight. From February 2012 to January 2013, he has had 14 drive-throughs involving 29 trucks loaded with drugs.

His ranch has every security doodad possible cameras, sensors and a drone overhead. It isn't working. The Ladds would like to leave for a week's vacation without having someone staying behind to guard the house. Does the secretary have any new ideas for the Ladds?

Ms. Napolitano likes to cite statistics to make her case arrests down to 40-year lows, more Border Patrol agents than ever, low crime rates in border towns. I don't dispute any of that. In some parts of the Arizona border, life has improved markedly.

Elsewhere, though, it's as bad as ever. Increased enforcement hasn't stopped illicit traffic, only moved it into the backcountry. Arrests matter far less than the number getting through, which is probably why in 2011, the Department of Homeland Security ditched operational control as a measure of border security. You can't sell amnesty when you have operational control of only 45 percent of the Southwest border, as the Government Accountability Office found.

David Beckham understands this. Last year, he packed his family and abandoned his ranch in Arivaca, southwest of Tucson. With illegals banging on doors at night, peering in windows and sleeping in their motor home, they no longer felt safe.

"My wife was scared being home alone during the day," says Mr. Beckham. "We have guns, but it's a helluva thing to ask your wife to defend herself while you're gone."

The senators should call Mr. Beckham. They should also call his neighbor, Jim Chilton, who sleeps with a rifle beside his bed and won't talk on his cellphone when out riding for fear the scouts think he's dropping a dime.

Tell us, Madam Secretary, would you be fine with those conditions in your neighborhood? The new proposal gives your department six months to produce a plan for capturing 90 percent of illegal crossers. Why didn't you produce this plan a year ago?

Wouldn't it make sense to reverse the order do security improvements first, and in six months, if they work, talk legalization? David Beckham shouldn't have to wait one extra day before he can go home again.

Leo W. Banks is a writer in Tucson, Ariz.