- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - The men hired to be look-outs for drug cartels near the southern Arizona border with Mexico should face tougher penalties, the state’s congressional delegates say.

A new House of Representatives bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Martha McSally, R-Arizona, would target the so-called scouts who use sophisticated technology to warn smugglers if federal agents are near.

The so-called scouts use solar panels, encrypted radios and cellphones to warn smugglers when police or agents get close. They live in canyons and other remote areas, keeping a large supply of food, water and weapons on-hand. Many of them are young men in their 20s and 30s, and most of their supplies come from the United States, authorities say.

McSally’s bill would increase fines and impose a maximum prison sentence of 10 years for illicit spotting, though that would increase to 20 years if the scout is armed. It would also impose the same punishment for suspects who attempt or conspire to warn smugglers of agents’ presence.

Currently, many of the suspected scouts are charged at a local level and with drug-related crimes.

The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies conducted three stings targeting look-outs last year that resulted in the arrest of 19 people. The majority were charged with the felony count of conspiracy to possess marijuana for sale, and most have been sentenced to 2 ½ years in state prison.

Cartel scouts have been operating for many years, but they came to the attention of local authorities last year when an Arizona man was pulled over while driving a van filled with 600 pounds of food and other supplies. The man told Pinal County Sheriff’s deputies that he was being paid $4,000 to pick up the van in a Phoenix suburb and drop it off in the southern Arizona desert.

The U.S. Border Patrol has conducted its own stings targeting scouts. The operations usually involve special agents repelling from a Blackhawk helicopter to get to the scouts because they are in treacherous areas and because they are trained to evade authorities quickly. The agents descend from the helicopter using a fast rope.

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