TUCSON, AZ - Men paid to be lookouts for Mexican drug cartels used sophisticated technology to spot law enforcement and alert smugglers in the Arizona desert, a trafficking tactic under investigation by local and federal authorities for months.
The arrests of the group of men mark what Pinal County authorities say is an ongoing problem in the county 70 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Sheriff's officials say the county is ripe with cartel activity that travels north from two Arizona counties sitting directly on the border.
The men used cellphones, encrypted radios, binoculars and other technologies and said they spent more than a week at a time in the desert working as lookouts, or so-called scouts. They had guns, lived on hilltops, mountains and caves, and alerted criminals smuggling people and drugs when authorities were nearby.
The Pinal County sheriff's office began investigating the lookouts in February after pulling over a 22-year-old man in Eloy. Ramon Garcia was driving a van carrying 600 pounds of food and other supplies. He told deputies he was being paid $4,000 to pick up the van in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler and drop it off in the desert.
During the next few months, Pinal County deputies and U.S. Border Patrol agents conducted an investigation that led to the arrest of seven suspected scouts, three of whom have pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess marijuana for sale. The three men have each been sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. All were arrested on Tohono O'Odham Nation land, Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles said.
Garcia has pleaded guilty to assisting a criminal syndicate, a felony offense.
The federal government should redirect money to secure the U.S. border with Mexico as it "continues to put up signs warning Americans that it is not safe to travel due to criminal smuggling," Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said in a statement.
"The arrest of these drug cartel scouts on mountain tops is further proof that the border is not secure," Babeu said.
A sheriff's spokesman says this marks the first time the county attorney has prosecuted suspected lookouts. Although deputies have arrested them in the past, they have been typically been turned over to Border Patrol. The U.S. Border Patrol did not responded to a request for comment.
"Almost every single violent crime that we have has some ties to alcohol or drugs. That makes these kinds of cases extremely important to me. If you're involved in drug trafficking, it is if not the initiator at least one cause that creates so much more violence," Voyles said.