Thursday, December 8, 2011

Riding in the Desert: Child Sexual Exploitation, Drug Running, Human Smuggling and Violence

This week I was privileged to participate in a ride along with the Arizona Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and got a first hand look at what deputies are dealing with on a daily basis. Although we didn’t get into any major cartel chases during my time with them, the education I received about a number of border issues was eye opening.

I started off the day by driving to Florence, Ariz. where the Pinal County Sheriff’s headquarters is located. I met with Chief James Kimble and he gave me a tour of the adult detention center. He explained to me that the Department of Homeland Security uses this particular detention center to house illegal aliens on a contract basis. According to Kimbell, illegal alien inmates are in the detention center on average 28-32 days, but some stay longer based on certain criteria. The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t conduct any activity outside of arrest and detention for illegals, the rest is handled by I.C.E. including classification and making a decision to deport.

Illegal aliens are classified three ways by I.C.E.:

Level 1: Crime-illegal entry
Level 2: Dangerous with criminal record but not repetitive
Level 3: Dangerous with a repetitive criminal record

Let’s just say taxpayers are shelling out a good amount of money to keep these guys in the system and to determine whether they should or should not be deported.

(Side note: The United States cannot deport an illegal alien back to their country of origin unless the U.S. has a treaty with that country. If a person is in the United States illegally from a country like Somalia, a country which the U.S. doesn’t have a treaty with, I.C.E. must either let that person stay in the U.S. or find a country that will take them. )

After touring the detention center, I met up with Lieutenant Matthew Thomas who is a member of the Pinal County SWAT team. Thomas gave me a ride to my car in the parking lot so I could follow him to the city of Casa Grande, which is a hot spot for cartel activity.

I hopped in his unmarked dusty Chevy SUV and one of the first things he said was, “Sorry about the mess, this is my real office.”

To which I responded, “Quite the office! I’ll take it.”

Thomas’s “office” was similar to a typical police car, but way better. He had an AR-15 style long gun rifle in a rack on the roof just behind the driver and passenger seats, with a multi-frequency radio in the front.

After I followed Thomas from Florence to Casa Grande, I parked at the Border Patrol station there, hopped in his office and we were off. We started down Interstate 8, which runs east to Interstate 10 and west all the way to California, making it the perfect freeway for drug runners to get their dope into Phoenix, and then to mass distribute to the rest of the United States. I-8 is about 30 minutes south of Phoenix by way of I-10. The cities near this intersection, which used to be predominantly ranching and farming communities, are Casa Grande, Arizona City, Maricopa, Hidden Valley, Eloy and Stanfield. Now, although some farms still exist, this area is inundated with cartel activity. The bad guys, members of the Sinaloa cartel, live in these communities, run stash houses and have turned access roads, literally right next to farms that have been in operation for decades, into major smuggling routes. Thomas called this the “city problem.”

Nearby is the infamous Vekol Valley, the largest hot bed of drug and human smuggling in the United States and where a Pinal County Deputy was shot in April 2010. Vekol is surrounded by nasty mountain ranges on both sides. There is wide-open desert starting from mile marker 160 on I-8 and stretching all the way to Mexico. Because of the terrain, Vekol acts as a funnel. As we drove into the area, I could feel that it just wasn’t a safe place to be.

Cartels also take advantage of the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation on the west side of Vekol Valley. They use it as an entry point, marry into Indian families so they can live on the reservation and if a village is small enough, cartel members will simply walk in and take property to use for smuggling activity, threatening death if confronted.

While we were driving near Vekol, Thomas explained the “terrain” problem to me after pulling off the side of the road to show me the “Travel Caution: Smuggling and Illegal Immigration May Be Encountered in This Area,” sign provided by Homeland Security. (Remember, according to Janet Napolitano, the border is secure) He said the cartels have a vast intelligence network. Men know as “spotters,” sit up on the top of hills and mountains with cell phones and radios, calling drug running crews in the U.S. and Mexico about where Sheriff vehicles are located and where Border Patrol is cruising. As soon as Thomas shows up on patrol, most of the time the cartels are watching and know exactly where he is. For the spotters, failing to identify where U.S. authorities are located can result in a beating or even death. If a spotter calls into the boss in Mexico or down the road, says that they are clear to come through with a load, but then the authorities show up and seize the load, that spotter pays the price for the loss.

But these cartels aren’t just targeting Border Patrol. U.S. citizens travelling along I-8 who stop for a restroom break, often find themselves car jacked right off the road. The area can’t be used for camping, hiking or hunting as it used to be because the area is dangerous and drug and human smugglers are carrying high-powered weapons like AK-47s.

“If you see too much you may get killed out here because they [cartel members] don’t want witnesses,” Thomas said.

Throughout the day, Thomas stressed to me the issues the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office deals with on a daily basis are so much more than just an illegal immigration problem or an illegal drug problem. They’re dealing with the Sinaloa Cartel, a large and very complex organization.

Over the past three years, Thomas has seen cartel members become increasingly defiant to U.S. law enforcement agents. Smugglers have become bolder, more brazen; they’re running more drugs and have no regard for obeying or submitting to authority. Thomas used to be able to tell a group of illegal aliens to sit down and they would obey, but now they just run. Pursuits used to be occasional, but now they happen on a daily basis if not more than once a day, endangering the public. Deputies are also finding more high-powered weapons.

In Mexico, cartel members have no problem using roadside IEDs, killing women, killing children, peeling off peoples’ skin while they are still alive or beheading people while they are still alive so long as their dope arrives on time. Thomas describes them as sociopaths and narco-terrorists.

“These guys are ready for a confrontation,” Thomas said. “They have no issue directing violence toward law enforcement.”

On top of the cartel, Thomas has to deal with rip crews, groups of men who steal human and drug loads from the cartel in order to make a buck for free. For example, the Sinaloa cartel is smuggling both humans and drugs in the Vekol Valley on a daily basis, which deputies are combating. Then, deputies have to worry about rip crews coming in to the scene to steal human and drug loads, which often occur violently with shootings, rapes, robberies and extortions.

An aspect of the cartel business that is often overlooked is sexual exploitation. Sexual exploitation of both women and children is occurring at an alarming level.

Thomas said sexual predators in the U.S. will order children from Mexico through cartels; cartels then send those children along with a drug run through the desert after payment and deliver that child to their new owner for sexual use.

“They [Americans] don’t understand how much activity is going on,” Thomas said.

Cartel activity in Vekol Valley has also taken a huge toll on the environment. Smugglers are constantly creating new trails and driving all over the desert to avoid U.S. authorities. The Arizona Game and Fish Department reported 14 tons of trash were hauled out of the area last year. Wildlife habit and water tanks have been destroyed.

So what is the solution to these problems?

According to Chief Kimble and Lieutenant Thomas: Secure the border, build a double layer fence with a paved road in between and enforce the law. You can’t begin to heal if you don’t stop the bleeding.

“This is not just an Arizona issue, it’s a country issue,” Kimble said.

Logistically, Thomas says the cartels have the upper hand. They have more men, more money, bigger weapons and more time. When the public sees a single big bust on the news, that's just one of many drug loads coming across the border everday. Once the Sheriff’s Department targets a specific area, smugglers move to another area; deputies follow, smugglers move again. The fence has been built, completed and is working in the Yuma Sector of the border, but not the Tucson sector, where Pinal County is located.

“The problem has been solved in other areas,” Thomas said.

Thomas and Kimble also made it clear border security is national security, and that with a porous border, bad people, including terrorsts like the ones who attacks us on 9/11, have easy access to the United States.

"We're screaming that something bad is going to happen," Thomas said.


British police cross-check just one in seven foreign criminals' records, even after they are arrested in the UK

Police are failing to check the criminal histories of tens of thousands of foreign offenders – even after they are arrested in the UK. Officers request details from a suspect’s home country in just one in seven investigations involving EU nationals, according to a Home Office review.

And each year, around 30,000 foreign offenders who pass through the courts do so without anyone knowing the full extent of their criminal past. Judges are therefore unaware if the offender they are sentencing is a convicted rapist, murderer or paedophile – or someone with no criminal history at all.

In the worst cases, it could mean the alert is not sounded when dangerous offenders wanted on the continent are picked up in Britain.

Without information on their criminal past, an offender could face a much shorter sentence, be bailed even though they present a threat to the public or escape deportation.

Details of the way officers are failing to carry out even basic checks emerged in a Home Office review of criminal records systems. Sunita Mason, the independent advisor on criminal records in England and Wales, said: ‘It is clear that we should be making such checks routinely when EU nationals are arrested and charged. ‘Even minor offending in the UK might lead to the disclosure of much more serious offending overseas.’

Under EU data-sharing rules, officers can ask to see the records of any EU nationals they arrest. Of the 35,000 EU nationals charged with criminal offences in England and Wales last year, checks were ordered on just 5,500. A similar proportion – 15 per cent – of the EU nationals arrested in this country had their criminal histories explored.

Astonishingly, police may not even be aware they can request the records, the report found. Miss Mason also warned funding for the UK body which handles requests to foreign forces is in doubt. She said: ‘To not address this issue is a potentially huge public protection risk.’

The same report showed EU countries alerted the UK to 20,000 Britons convicted of crimes overseas. That includes 450 Britons convicted of serious violent or sexual offences and 276 criminals who committed offences against children. Just 37 were already known to the UK authorities.

The Association of Chief Police Officers said many offenders refused to say where they were from or lied about their nationality, making it difficult for officers to find out about their past.

The ‘free movement’ directive means it is virtually impossible to stop EU citizens with criminal convictions from entering Britain. Even in cases where officials are aware of serious convictions, criminals cannot automatically be turned away.

Regulations say they can be barred to maintain public security, but ‘convictions in themselves do not constitute grounds for taking such measures’. In reality, they allow all but the very worst criminals free access to the UK.

Just two weeks ago a Latvian axe-killer was jailed after running down an innocent woman while drink-driving. Police had no idea Intars Pless, 34, was a convicted murderer and living in the UK until February this year when he ran his car straight into moped rider Valentina Planciunene, who died on the road.

A Home Office spokesman said: ‘It is an operational matter for police to decide when to request information on foreign nationals. ‘The UK worked hard to implement an EU-wide agreement to share this information – but we know all countries do not currently comply fully. ‘That is why it is important that the new European legislation implemented next spring will require member-states to share this information.’


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