YUMA, Arizona—Right along the southwest border, sheriff’s departments are left picking up the pieces in the wake of cross-border crime. It then spreads beyond the border.
Consequently, sheriffs need a bigger seat at the table during border security discussions, said ex-Marine and Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot.
“We all too often see interviews in Washington [with] mayors and governors but, no offence, they are not the ones that are down here on the border,” Wilmot said in an interview at his office on May 25.
“They are not the ones that are investigating the crimes. They are not the ones out here when it’s 120 degrees, processing a crime scene where 14 people were left to die in the desert.”
Wilmot has witnessed it all in his 30-plus years with the sheriff’s department. He knows a vulture will peck a human body down to nothing but bone, because he has seen it. He knows bandits follow the smugglers over the border and rape the women before running back to Mexico, because he is left with the victims. He knows the cartels will commit any crime to get drugs and humans across the border.
Yuma County is 5,522 square miles—larger than the state of Connecticut—and it shares 126 miles of border with Mexico. California and its Imperial Sand Dunes are just a mirage away on the western border beyond the Colorado River.
The Yuma Border Patrol Sector used to be the worst in the country for illegal crossings, until it became a poster-child for the effectiveness of a border fence.
In 2005, before the fence, more than 2,700 vehicles crossed the Colorado River and open deserts, loaded with illegal immigrants and drugs, according to Border Patrol numbers.
Apprehensions steadily increased to more than 138,000 in fiscal 2005.
“Yuma battled entrenched smuggling groups for control of the border,” said Border Patrol in a video. “Mass incursions often left agents outnumbered 50 to 1. Agents were assaulted with rocks and weapons daily.”
Following the Secure Fence Act of 2006, Yuma tripled manpower and added mobile surveillance, as well as fencing and vehicle barriers.
Yuma went from having 5.2 miles of fencing to 63 miles, and subsequently saw an almost 95 percent decrease in border apprehensions by 2009, when Border Patrol made about 7,000 arrests.
Ancillary Crime Down 91 Percent
It also directly affected what the sheriff’s department had to deal with.
“We were able to reduce [ancillary crimes] by 91 percent,” Wilmot said. “The deaths in the desert, the rapes, the robberies, the homicides, the burglaries, the thefts.”
But the fence was only one part of the equation, said Capt. Eben Bratcher. The other part, under Operation Streamline, was 100 percent prosecution of illegal border crossers.
“If you did try to cross and you got caught, you were held accountable. There were consequences,” Bratcher said. “So the combination, the fence slowed them down, but they are going to find a way over it, under it, through it, whatever. But the real issue was, when you got caught, you went to jail. It stopped.”
Bratcher said that before the fence and Operation Streamline, the area was out of control.
“My patrol guys would be out there, and we’re trying to do our primary job, which is community safety and investigating crimes, and we would encounter people who were being smuggled or sneaking across, every night,” he said.
“If you tried to pull over a van that had the windows spray-painted black, you were absolutely ensured that there was going to be a vehicle pursuit coming because they would just take off, and over and over and over again we experienced that. Several horrible crashes, multiple people dying—and not just the people that were smuggling and being smuggled—but innocent people who were trying to live here were impacted hugely by that kind of activity.
“Operation Streamline shut all that off for us.”
However, during the Obama administration, Operation Streamline was curtailed and the 100 percent prosecution policy was halted.
“When they did away with that, they [started] coming again, and the numbers that are coming through Yuma are way back up—not where they were, but it is disturbing to see the trend increasing again and the tactics changed again, too,” Bratcher said. “When you take away the prosecution, rather than trying to sneak through, now they just walk across and give themselves up.”
Border Patrol in Yuma apprehended more than 26,000 illegal aliens in fiscal 2018.
Although the numbers pale in comparison to the Rio Grande Valley in Texas (more than 162,000 apprehensions for the same period), it is still “maddening” to Bratcher that his community suffered due to Obama-era policies.
“When they put their own political agenda above the quality of life of American citizens and Yuma citizens, what is their motivation? It makes you question that,” he said.
During the Obama era, Wilmot was forced to take matters into his own hands.
“It got to the point where, because the feds would not prosecute those drug smugglers backpacking marijuana across, I had to deputize federal officers so they could actually take those cases to our County attorney and charge them with a state crime—and it was a 100 percent prosecutable case,” Wilmot said.
Wilmot said the U.S. attorney would refuse those cases, so prior to being deputized by the sheriff, the federal officers had no choice but to release the smugglers.
“That’s when we saw an uptick in drug smuggling, especially marijuana,” he said. “The individuals would come across, the U.S. attorney’s office would not charge them, the dope was seized, they would cut them loose, and it was a revolving door. They just kept coming back, coming back, coming back.”
But prosecuting on a state or county level, instead of federal, came with a hefty price tag.
“It ended up costing sheriffs in Arizona about $30 million to house these individuals that had committed crimes [and] were here illegally in this country, smuggling in heroin, dope, marijuana, cocaine,” Wilmot said.
“When I’ve got 115 [drug] backpackers in here—it’s $130 a day for us for housing an inmate—well, they’re in here for 118 [days] to a little bit longer, on average. And then the medical cost, we have to [bear] that, too.”
The State Criminal Alien Apprehension Program was designed to reimburse jails with federal dollars for housing illegal aliens, but Wilmot said he was only getting back about 5 cents to the dollar.
“So local tax payers still had to pick up the rest of that burden.”
Wilmot said he has deputized Border Patrol agents, DEA agents, FBI agents, and Homeland Security Investigations agents.
He said he hasn’t needed to take such extraordinary measures since President Donald Trump took office, as the feds have stepped up again to prosecute criminal aliens and illegal border crossers.
“It was frustrating for us, and it was also frustrating for our federal partners that swore the same [oath] that we did to protect and serve and enforce the laws of our country,” Wilmot said. “And to see them hamstrung by politics … and that’s why I said, you can’t mix politics with public safety at all, period. It just shouldn’t happen. Unfortunately, it still does and we see it today.”
In April, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a return to 100 percent prosecution of all adult illegal border crossers. After an outcry over adults and children being separated as a consequence of prosecution, Trump issued an executive order on June 20 to halt the separations but continue prosecuting as practicable.
In response, Customs and Border Protection ordered the temporary suspension of referrals for prosecutions for illegal entry for adults who are traveling with children, while the agency worked out a process with the Justice Department to maintain family unity while enforcing prosecution efforts.
“The executive order continues the zero tolerance policy, which means there are no categories of people exempt from our laws, though family unity must be maintained, and child safety and welfare is paramount,” said a Customs and Border Protection statement on Sept. 11.
Wilmot drove us 100 miles south from Yuma along the Colorado River, which separates Arizona and California, then southeast, straight along the fenceline that separates Arizona and Mexico. Right across the fence on the Mexican side is Highway 2, which provides easy access to the border.
The terrain is bumpy, sandy desert with rocky outcrops and hills interrupting the horizon. No trees live here, only saguaro cacti, which look imposing but provide no shade. Summer temperatures are searing. It gets up to 125 degrees during the day, with ground temperatures of up to 140 degrees. There is no water.
We end up in the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force range, where it’s a 20-mile trek as the crow flies to the nearest inhabitation.
The Sinaloa cartel works the border along here—it is dominant in California and Arizona. Cartels control all the trafficking routes throughout Mexico and the ports of entry, or plazas, into the United States.
“When you’re dealing with drug smugglers and human smugglers, there is always a cost associated,” Wilmot said. “You gotta pay the cartel to utilize their area.”
He said his department has encountered many creative ways the cartels try to get illicit goods across the border, from ramps over the fences and tunnels under them, to ultralight aircraft, and more recently, GPS drones.
“They have used T-shirt cannons to shoot their product across into the farm fields so somebody can go pick ’em up. They will use cranes [to] lift a vehicle over the fence and drop it off,” Wilmot said.
“I mean, whatever the cartels can use, or their criminal element can use, to exploit our weaknesses that’s what they’re gonna use to get their product across.”
The fence abruptly stops at the foot of the rocky ranges, where it’s too steep for a fence but it’s easy to walk between the two countries.
Wilmot said the cartels employ people to sit up in the hills and act as lookouts.
“They keep ledgers and they’ve got radio systems, they’ve got solar panels, batteries, and they communicate back and forth with their partners in crime on the other side of the border. They watch Border Patrol and they watch us … and when the coast is clear, they let them come through,” Wilmot said.
“That’s how they get paid. For every successful load that gets through, that’s what they get paid for.
“So you’re always trying to stay a step ahead of them, and it never ceases.”
Wilmot was a deputy in 2001 when 14 Mexican males died after smugglers led them across the border and told them to walk to the nearest highway.
“Unfortunately, these folks were led to believe that their foot trek across that desert was only going to be short; that they didn’t need to bring much water or food,” Wilmot said. But he estimates they were close to 50 miles from the interstate, and they were out there for days.
“We ended up getting a call, because one individual made it up to the interstate and called it in,” he said.
Border Patrol and local law enforcement found 14 bodies over a mile and a half radius, he said.
“We had one kid who died digging in a wash with his bare hands trying to get to water, and that’s how he died,” Wilmot said.
“We in law enforcement from the local communities, we have to investigate those cases. It’s not something that’s done by Border Patrol, it’s not done by … any other agency.”
Several years ago, deputies were searching for an illegal alien who had been abandoned by smugglers because he was sick, Wilmot said.
The area was too remote for vehicles so the Border Patrol helicopter started sweeping the area. When agents saw a flock of vultures fly out of a tree, they went and picked up the deputies to drop them near the location.
“We hiked down there, and the guy had—typically, if you get dehydrated, you start getting rid of your clothes and stuff—so the only thing he was wearing was his pants. Everything else, he’d taken off,” Wilmot said.
“Well, the vultures had sat there and cleaned him from the waist up. I mean, it was just bones, and then the rest of the clothing that covered was still there. Weird, the stuff that we see.”
The Colorado River runs down the western boundary of Yuma and first separates Arizona and California, then forms the international border between Arizona and Mexico for around 20 miles.
The river is the site of many illegal crossings into the United States. In May, National Guardsmen were deployed to clear the thick scrub from the U.S. side of the river banks to help give Border Patrol better visibility. It also served another purpose.
Several years ago, the cartels and smugglers were using the scrub as cover.
“They would build tunnels in this stuff to hide themselves from Border Patrol,” Wilmot said. “[The] smugglers would bring [illegal aliens] across, then the bandits would follow and rape and rob them and then run back into Mexico.”
He said Border Patrol would catch a group of 12 to 15 aliens and then call the sheriff’s department to deal with the rape, robbery, and homicide cases, “because it’s not something that the federals do. So that’s an impact on our resources.”
‘Get the Politics Out of It’
Wilmot says law enforcement and public safety should be looked at completely separately from politics and immigration policy issues.
“It’s two separate deals,” he said. “Politics and public safety are not synonymous at all. We need to enforce the laws of this land. If they don’t like it—which you hear all the time—they’re the lawmakers, change it. But until then, let’s do our job.”
Wilmot said most politicians that visit the border, “they’ll do their photo op, they’ll get a 20 minute briefing, and then boom, they’re done, they’re out. And that’s the problem.”
He said border security needs to be tailored to each geographic area, “because what I might need in Yuma County is not necessarily going to be needed a couple of hundred miles away over in Pima or Cochise or Santa Cruz.”
He has a suggestion for politicians in regard to border security: “Don’t do what the governors say, don’t do what the mayors say. Get with the local law enforcement leaders and then tailor it to the needs for that area. It’s the boots on the ground that know best.”
Yuma deputies work closely with local Border Patrol agents as part of a Homeland Security program called Operation Stonegarden, which provides federal funds to enhance cooperation between federal immigration authorities and local law enforcement along the border.
“Every day, our guys are at Border Patrol briefings as they pull out into the field, so they know what to expect, where they’re needed, et cetera,” said Bratcher. “We still have the primary focus of doing our job enforcing state law, but we’re extra eyes out there in areas that they need us, and we’re in direct communication.”
In 2005 and 2006, before the border fence, most of the crime in the community was committed by illegal aliens, drug traffickers, and human smugglers, said Bratcher. Now, the majority of crime the sheriff’s department deals with is caused by local drug addicts trying to support their habits.
“The methamphetamine addicts and those types probably commit 80 to 90 percent of the property crimes, the burglaries, the thefts, that kind of stuff,” Bratcher said. “So there is a tie when you consider that it’s the drug problem causing the crime problem—where are the drugs coming from? Mexico.”
Wilmot said he has noticed a transition away from marijuana being trafficked into the United States since some states legalized it. Mexico is instead increasing its poppy cultivation to make heroin.
“Unfortunately, we’re starting to see an uptick in the meth and the cocaine and the heroin that has been coming across the border. We’re seeing the OxyContin right now. Fentanyl is a big one,” he said.
“Now, one of the battles that we are seeing, is the cartels are trying to get juveniles to smuggle that stuff across the border.”
Right along the border, thousands of American citizen children live in Mexico, but cross the border to attend school everyday.
“They’re trying to exploit these kids, thinking they won’t get charged,” Wilmot said.
The sheriff’s department has partnered with Border Patrol to conduct an education program in local schools to deter children from becoming drug traffickers.
The law enforcement challenges caused by cross-border crime are relentless and ever-changing in Yuma County, but the sheriff is clear on the formula for border security:. “You have to have a tactical infrastructure, you have to have the boots on the ground, you have to have the electronic surveillance, and you have to have the prosecution side,” he said.
“What’s happening on the border ain’t coming across and staying here—it’s going throughout the United States.”