PINAL COUNTY, AZ - If you think the desert south of Interstate 8 and west of Interstate 10 is quiet, think again. The federal government has posted warning signs telling travelers and hikers it's a drug and human smuggling corridor.
For Pinal County Sheriff's deputies, the signs concede the area to the drug cartels. But everyday deputies turned soldiers on the front lines fight to reclaim it, despite being out-manned and out-gunned.
Lt. Matthew Thomas leads the team on the front lines and tells us human smuggling in the area is actually down, because smugglers can't pay the high prices set by the drug cartel that now runs the corridor. Deputies refer to them as "narco-terrorists."
The battle is a chess game and the stakes are high. For the cartel it's about big profits and for deputies it's about their lives and our safety.
"There's always a counter move. When we figure out their move and do something new to combat it, then they figure out what we're doing and do something else," Thomas said.
The resources of this sheriff's office are stretched between covering the 9-1-1 calls from the area they patrol to trying to confiscate more drugs than most people realize.
On any given day, their evidence lockers can have anywhere from 60,000 to 85,000 pounds of marijuana.
"A normal person would walk into this and think ‘Oh my God.' Do I still get the ‘Oh my God' factor? No, it's normal to us," Thomas said. "But when you see it lined up like this it blows your mind how much is coming through."
Thomas showed us the drug backpacks human mules carry through the desert for five days as they hike from the border to Interstate 8. Some can weigh as much as 125 pounds. Deputies call the human mules that carry the large loads "rock stars."
"They run, sometimes straight uphill carrying these. Many times what we've found is that these guys are drugged up. They're taking methamphetamines, they're taking pain killers so they're not feeling anything," Thomas explained.
What isn't carried on foot is driven sometimes in state-of-the-art vehicles with James Bond-like compartments.
"They'll have different combinations of things that you'll have to do to the vehicle, like you honk the horn or turn the windshield wipers on and a compartment opens up," describes Thomas.
But some vehicles blend in with your typical sports-mom SUV vehicles.
The county's storage yard even has semi-trucks cartels use to move large loads of drugs. It's a needle in a haystack when you put one of these on the freeways with thousands of other trucks moving goods.
But what's more frustrating for deputies than the drugs are the politicians living in denial.
"When you hear leaders of the country saying 'don't worry about it, there's no problem' that gets real discouraging at our level," Thomas said.
The Pinal County Sheriff's Office has teamed up with the Bureau of Land Management and Border Patrol, but it's still no match for the military weapons and training used by drug cartels.