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.
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.
Similar legislation passed the House last year, but the Senate never took action.
Mr. Bishop, chairman of the House Natural Resources subcommittee that oversees public lands, said the Border Patrol’s limited access means the country has “rolled out the welcome mat for drug cartels on federal lands because environmental policies restrict the U.S. Border Patrol’s ability to secure some of the most heavily trafficked areas of the southern border.”
The issue also came up during the Senate’s debate in June on its immigration bill.
Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, offered an amendment that would have allowed the Border Patrol access to federal lands within 100 miles of the border.
“Many Americans might be surprised to know that Border Patrol agents are not given full access to all federal lands in carrying out their border security mission,” Mr. Coburn said.
But his amendment was never considered during the Senate debate, which Democrats strictly controlled, allowing only a few chosen amendments to be heard and approved.
Environmental groups oppose giving the Border Patrol exemptions, saying the government should be able to do immigration enforcement and ecological protection at the same time.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano last year said carving out an exemption for the Border Patrol was “unnecessary and a bad policy.”
“We don’t need it for our immediate border control needs. We already have an agreement with the Department of Interior. If we’re doing a chase or there are exigent circumstances, we can go onto lands without having to seek prior approval or any of that,” she testified to Congress.
The administration says it has reached memorandums of understanding among the various departments that help reduce the conflict between the Border Patrol and the conservation agencies.
But the GAO said in its report that despite the memorandums of understanding, cooperation hasn’t always occurred.
In one case, the GAO noted, when Border Patrol agents requested permission to move surveillance equipment, it took the land manager more than 4 months to conduct the required historic property assessment and grant permission, but by then illegal traffic had shifted to other areas.
The scope of trafficking through federal lands is immense.
Dozens of drug- and alien-smuggling trails run through BLM land and the western edge of the reservation between Ajo on the south and Gila Bend along Interstate 8.
The area resident who asked not to be identified used GPS coordinates to document 39 active smuggling trails in one area of the corridor in April 2012. The source said a second inventory this June identified 51 active trails along the same set of two-track roads and washes.
“I have seen groups of illegal aliens as large as 19 moving through the area. Drug load and resupply vehicles pass through the East Tactical Range [heading north and south] day and night,” the source said.
The Border Patrol has set up a highway checkpoint along state Route 85, just west of the corridor, but drug and alien smugglers use trails in nearby Black Gap and Lookout Mountain to evade the checkpoint. After working their way through the Gap, the smugglers generally turn northeast across the Goldwater Range heading toward Interstate 8.
Area residents have said an abandoned railroad line — the Tucson Cornelia and Gila Bend Railroad — lies just east of state Route 85 and smugglers use the elevated berm to conceal their movement from the Border Patrol and highway traffic.
“Many groups are transported from Ajo by the sympathetic citizens of that town to drop-off points south of the BP Checkpoint where they unload and cross over the railroad tracks,” the source said.
All of the smuggling trails east of Ajo and state Route 85 pass through the Goldwater Range, and eventually connect with Interstate 8, east of Gila Bend — where connections are made to transport the drugs and illegal immigrants throughout the United States.