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Cover Story

Patrolling the Broken Border

In Nogales, Ariz., police officers interdict drug smugglers while facing the threat of cartel violence.

October 31, 2010  |  by - Also by this author

To address this, Nogales Police Chief Jeffrey Kirkham introduced a "crime free" certification program shortly after his arrival for property owners who implement CPTED (crime prevention through environmental design) measures, agree to regular inspections, and accept agency training on rental agreements and liability issues.

Eyes Across the Border

In the rugged ranch country east of town, officers may come into contact with armed smugglers ferrying narcotic loads across a passageway of canyons and hills with nicknames such as Hamburger Hill or Frankenstein Hill that lead to State Route 19 and the Nogales Airport.

It's up in these hills where a group of off-duty officers on horseback seized dope bundles and arrested cartel transporters back in June. After the seizure, criminal informants in Mexico relayed the threats from the cartels that additional busts would bring assaults on officers or sniper fire from the higher ground rising above the south side of the border fence.

As a result, Chief Kirkham issued a directive that his officers must wear body armor and carry a police radio if heading to the area off duty. Patrols in certain areas of the city are off-limits; in other areas, solo-officer patrols aren't permitted.

"You do adjust your habits," says Assistant Chief Roy Bermudez, who has also curtailed his visits to rodeo contests and other off-duty recreational venues. "That's part of the cost of doing business. You learn to shy away from those positions."

Southern Arizona law enforcement officers say the cartels are primarily interested in an uninterrupted flow of contraband rather than the killing of officers. But the officers know that they are always being watched by eyes across the border. In the smuggling corridor, cartel lookouts radio the locations of officers, Kirkham says.

"They're always watching us," Kirkham says. "They tell their scouts how to avoid us. The war zone is south of here. But the potential is there for it to hop over the border." 

Not Backing Down

Despite threats from some of the most deadly and ruthless criminals in the world, Kirkham says he is determined to hold his ground against the smugglers.

Unfortunately, he can't always count on adequate equipment, support, or facilities.

Kirkham took over the department in January with 25 years of experience in Arizona agencies, including assignments as a Maricopa County Sheriff's deputy, Mesa PD officer and lieutenant, and member of the Pinal County Sheriff's command staff.

Coming into the job, he believed that he could find money to improve the department. He still does, but he now knows it probably won't be coming from federal sources.

So far, Kirkham's attempts to gain federal grant funding for a modern police facility to better protect and secure his officers have fallen on deaf ears in D.C.

At the existing headquarters, visitors come and go as they please, pulling into an open driveway that leads back to parking lots with the cruisers, motorcycles, and other patrol vehicles. The lack of access control is apparent. Open lots and driveways lack fencing, surveillance cameras, and keycard entry control.

The physical facilities aren't much more evolved. The town's judge signs search warrants out of a closet-sized office under a City Hall stairwell. The department uses former holding cells as its evidence storage. This day, Cell Block C is filled almost to the ceiling with bundles of marijuana, bags of meth, and bricks of cocaine.

Kirkham has even appealed for funding to Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano, Arizona's former governor. "I've sent her personal letters," Kirkham said. "To date, I've heard no response. If they (the drug cartels) are going to target officers, we're wide open."

Kirkham will next turn to the Tohono O'odham (T.O.) Nation Native American tribe's public safety grant program. A portion of the tribe's gaming proceeds fund local projects.

Related:

Combating Human Smuggling

VIDEO: Drug Cartel Threatens Arizona Officers

«   Page 3 of 3   »

Tags: Drug Enforcement, Drug Trafficking, Organized Crime, Nogales (Ariz.) PD, U.S.-Mexico Border, Los Zetas Cartel


Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

little Pebbles Academy @ 1/20/2011 11:33 AM

Its too bad our peoples arn't like Star Trek, where the whole planet takes part in the whole instead of killing each other.

Bob@Az. @ 6/4/2012 9:15 PM

little pebbles academy, HUH? I think you've been watching WAY to much tv. Our LEOs are being killed all along our "safe" border by the scum that run drugs & people. The locals scream bloody murder when one of their own is harmed but "didn't see anything" when questioned. Too many sheep.

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