- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 1, 2013

Crossing a bombing range doesn’t seem to make sense at any time — but in the Southwest, the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range has become a key route for drugs and illegal immigrants looking to avoid detection as they make the trek into the U.S.

That’s just one of the federal lands along the southwestern border that have proved to be the soft underbelly of border security, where the desire to protect the national boundary competes with other priorities such as environmental conservation.

Drug and alien-smuggling gangs make use of the confusion, and with federal lands accounting for most of the 370-mile Arizona-Mexico border, there is plenty of territory to exploit, including Indian reservations, monuments overseen by the National Park Service, and desolate desert lands managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service or the Bureau of Land Management.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Immigration Reform

Among those, though, the Goldwater range stands out.

The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps use the 2.7 million-acre range for tactical fighter training.

But as long as smugglers can avoid the bombing runs, the open territory, which is closed to Customs and Border Protection air patrols and restricted in ground traffic, is attractive.

“Conventional wisdom would suggest that only a fool would attempt to cross the Goldwater Range using any mode of transportation, particularly when military aircraft conducting live ordnance exercises,” said one area resident who asked not to be identified for fear of jeopardizing his personal security. “The fact is, you can set your watch by the schedule of training flights.”

Like other federal lands in southern Arizona, the smuggling gangs have established lookout posts on mountaintops in the region to advise their bosses when aircraft enter the range and when they depart. There are no training flights on weekends, meaning the range is entirely open from about 10 p.m. Friday until 8 a.m. Monday.

The area is used so commonly by drug gangs that it is known in the region as the “Goldwater East Tactical Range Smuggling Corridor.”

The Border Patrol’s limited access to patrol the southwestern border by other agencies has been of concern to many former immigration officers and to some members of Congress, who continue to debate immigration reform.

The National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers, along with more than 50 lawmakers, have argued that border security has taken a back seat to the environmental concerns of the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

“Their focus is environmental protection, not national security, and they apply their rules to other government agencies regardless of impact on other missions,” Zack Taylor, chairman of the former Border Patrol officers association, said in a statement. “While on paper, the Border Patrol has access to the lands managed by these other agencies, in actual practice their rules denied free access on an as-needed basis.”

The association has been concerned not only that access is being impeded to vehicles patrolling the border, but also that the rules generally bar infrastructure such as cameras, sensors, radio towers and landing strips and pads for aircraft in areas distant from the border.

In an April 2011 report, the Government Accountability Office concluded that the Border Patrol’s access to some federal lands along the southwestern border had been limited because of various land management laws. The decision has resulted in delays and restrictions in its ability to patrol and monitor drug and alien smuggling operations.

Rep. Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, has introduced legislation that would prohibit the Interior and Agriculture departments from impeding Border Patrol access on lands within 100 miles of the border. The Border Patrol also would be allowed to build fences and deploy sensors and other equipment on those lands.

Story Continues →