We are just minutes into our visit to the southern border when we see it in an IHOP parking lot in Sierra Vista, Arizona. An overturned SUV, its roof crushed in, the right rear tire completely shorn from the axle.
Authorities say the vehicle fled an immigration stop, rolling over a spiked strip laid down by Cochise County deputies to prevent escapes. According to a report in Cochise County’s Herald/Review, the vehicle apparently “drove into oncoming traffic, struck a drainage ditch, [and] bounced a few times before coming to a stop in the IHOP parking lot.”
Law enforcement and fire crews walk the scene, retrieving cocaine in the driver’s possession. A few feet away, five smuggled immigrants sit on a curb, heads down. One is feverishly working his rosary beads. They seemed to have worked so far. He and his cohorts are miraculously unhurt after the escape attempt.
These men got lucky. In the past three years, 40 people, including U.S. teenagers recruited to pick up migrants north of the border, have died in similar car crashes after failing to yield to law enforcement on public highways.
Today’s victims are just the most recent faces of the border crisis, a few representatives of the unyielding flow of human traffickers and their prey, drug smugglers, gun runners, cartel members, coyotes, facilitators and countless others whose activities impact every every corner of the United States and much of Canada.
Representing the Global Consortium of Law Enforcement Training Executives (GCLETE), which is affiliated with Rutgers University’s Miller Center on Policing and Community Resilience, the authors recently led a border visit consisting of about a dozen police chiefs representing cities, states and other jurisdictions from the United States and Canada. The law enforcement executives, several of whom belong to the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the National Sheriffs Association, were there to witness challenges at the border.
Those challenges — human smuggling, drug trafficking and border crime prominent among them — are spiraling out of control as the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) is stretched too thin to deal with the unprecedented migrant crisis. CBP data show that the 2023 fiscal year represents an all-time high of CBP land encounters with migrants along the southwest border, with 2.47 million encounters.
At the administration’s insistence, the valiant men and women of CBP have been relegated to the roles of processors and transporters. For example, a May 3, 2023, report by the American Immigration Council notes that “thousands of agents are spending significant time completing paperwork and managing coordination with Immigration and Customs (ICE), transportation, and release of migrants rather than patrolling in the field.” That leaves our host jurisdiction — Cochise County, Arizona — frantically working to close unprecedented national security gaps.
And the cartels are evolving and adapting. The Jalisco Cartel, for example, has been ramping up its cigarette smuggling activity while the U.S. government is considering rules that would prohibit menthol in cigarettes and flavors in cigars, and limit the maximum level of nicotine in cigarettes. The cartel is poised to take a deep drag on this $30 billion market.
In fact, the border situation has deteriorated so much that right after our group returned home, the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector reported it was pausing its social media accounts used to communicate with and establish community partnerships along the U.S. Border to dedicate all its efforts to the continued massive influx of migrants. This is just one example of the magnitude of this crisis and how Border Patrol assets are being detoured from gun running, drug trafficking and other enforcement duties to manage the migrant crush.
Our host is Mark Dannels, sheriff of Cochise County, Arizona. Its population of 126,000 fans across 6,300 square miles. The county shares 83 miles of border fence with Sonora, Mexico. Ninety-nine brave deputies protect this sprawling landscape. Their duties are as likely to entail investigating cattle rustling as they are arresting shoplifters. These traditional responsibilities sit alongside the enormous workload imposed by their border-adjacent location.
Almost one-quarter of the nearly 137 million fentanyl pills seized in the United States in 2022 were seized in Cochise County or within 20 miles of it. Almost 45% of the 561,533 migrants who were apprehended illegally entering the United States between ports of entry last year were picked up in the Tucson Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol, of which Cochise County is a part. In 2022, Dannels and his team detained 3049 undocumented aliens, investigated 601 border-related felonies, looked into 1,306 human smuggling events and prosecuted 882 smugglers.
But the crisis goes far beyond the numbers. One of Dannels’ deputies shows us footage of migrants hiding and dashing through his backyard just this past evening — only a few feet from where he leaves his wife and children when he puts on his uniform every day. He and his colleagues are operating with scant resources to stay safe and informed out in the desert. Department members don’t communicate with the latest radios or satellite phones. Instead, they use a free push-to-talk walkie-talkie app called Zello to share information reliably.
If stretching 99 deputies over 6,300 square miles weren’t enough, Dannels must also monitor the boundless realm of social media. Platforms openly advertise for American teenagers who are willing to ferry migrants from the border throughout the United States for big bucks. Cartels dangle their wares, promising easy profits for couriers and great deals for buyers.
After our flipped-over SUV greeting to Cochise County, we drive mile after mile across a parched, yet beautiful landscape. To the casual observer, it looks completely desolate, as we emerge at a border obelisk and scan the horizon with binoculars. But tune your senses and you see, hear, smell and touch telltale signs of nefarious human activity such as human trafficking and meth smuggling.
One of our team pulls a carpet and canvas contraption out of the scrub grass. Migrants wear them over their shoes or bare feet to avoid leaving footprints. Elsewhere, Mark Genatempo, senior fellow at the Rutgers Miller Center for Policing and Community Resilience, follows the trails among the tall grass near the highway where border crossers will be picked up and driven north. The paths resemble game trails, he observes, formed by tens of thousands of migrants walking, crawling and scrabbling through the brush. Among his findings: camouflage shirts, pants and backpacks, and worn knee pads, crucial for eluding the binoculars of law enforcement officers and the lenses of surveillance cameras.
Cochise County Captain Tim Williams takes us to a high peak, and we encounter an unexpected chill in the air. In hushed tones, he describes the mental, physical and emotional toll on his colleagues. “It’s not only that they risk their lives, but it’s the effect of seeing the children and families who didn’t make it, who were led to false hope by those who would exploit them,” Williams says.
Later, at another desert mountaintop, Williams gestures to a craggy spot under a tree in the distance. Cartel members are at that post around the clock without fail, cavalierly observing U.S. law enforcement. Their belvedere gives them an excellent view of the border wall and its protectors. From there they can route border crossers so they can avoid apprehension.
Something about the wide-open plains and rugged mountain vistas elicits profound thoughts from these ordinarily laconic lawmen and women. Mark Pfeifle, who trains law enforcement executives, listens as a sheriff’s deputy points toward Mexico from the Montezuma Outlook at Coronado National Monument. Intelligence reports say there is a meth super lab in an abandoned mine about 25 miles across the border. The potent, high-grade meth is regularly packed and shipped due north. And Cochise’s sheriffs and deputies are powerless to stop it.
The team splits up into groups under the direction of Dannels. We watch deputies, state troopers and border control officers work together. “Once an [illegal migrant] gets out of Cochise County, the odds of being apprehended are drastically reduced.” Dannels says.
Part of our tour involves Operation Safe Streets, in which we ride with deputies looking to catch loaders — drivers who pick up migrants and drive them north. Loader activity is so frequent that neighboring jurisdictions lend Cochise officers to help with apprehensions. We are sitting on the shoulder on the southwest corner of a rectangle of roads flanked by I-62 to the west when an SUV exhibits the telltale maneuvers of a loader. We take off after the vehicle, but the driver turns on I-62 North, hits the gas and disappears. Was this a loader? It’s unclear, but our deputy says that the vehicle’s presence on that road at that time pushes it into the realm of healthy suspicion.
Others of us are driving through a school zone when Sheriff Dannels stops and gestures. “Here is where the whole town drops off and picks up their children and grandkids,” he says gravely. “There isn’t a month that goes by without loaders driving by 100 miles per hour,” he says. These loaders are often U.S. teenagers who are enticed by ads on social media, and the promise of big money, to drive from Oregon, Indiana, or wherever they live, pick up migrants, and then drive them into the interior of the country. The social media appeals by the cartels echo the tactics used by ISIS and white supremacists to attract followers, Dannels points out.
We then meet up with border patrol agents. Not 1,000 yards from where we just stood, these officers just picked up several migrants and took them to a processing station. One of them is telling Peter Lambrinakos, chief of police of Via Rail Canada, that the apprehension wasn’t unusual. “If you’re not capturing 15-20 illegal migrants a day, you aren’t doing your job,” the officer says.
That observation resounds with Ed Cetnar who sees many of these same asylum seekers thousands of miles away at JFK Airport in New York. The airport falls under the jurisdiction of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey where Cetnar is the superintendent of police and director of public safety. A warehouse called Building 197 at JFK holds hundreds of temporary residents, and “more and more buses are coming every day,” he notes. Trying to shelter them and provide food “is a challenge like no other I’ve seen,” he says.
To get to Bisbee, Arizona, it’s a 1,751-mile stampede from Calgary. It’s a Grand Ole 1,545 miles from Bisbee to Nashville. Fuhgeddabout getting to the Jersey Shore quickly. It’s about 2,400 miles. But law enforcement from each of these areas feels the pain of border issues.
Dannels’ goal for this visit was to give the officers a glimpse of the grim reality of the border, getting them to think about how North American law enforcement can unite, share intelligence from the border, and take appropriate measures in their own jurisdictions, be they urban, suburban or rural.
Darryl Richardson, assistant director of the Drug Investigation Division of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, battles the fentanyl and meth crises every day. “Every county in Tennessee has fentanyl,” he says. He adds that many Venezuelans, seeking asylum from their failing country, often fall prey to sexual trafficking and labor abuses.
“What struck me was the magnitude of [the issues], how often it happens,” Richardson says. “We thought we saw people looking lost on dirt roads. They were [smugglers] there to pick people up. We actually saw some of that.”
Richardson will bring back to Nashville the new network he established with Dannels, his team and his fellow visiting executives. “We also learned of the availability of financial crime tools,” he emphasizes. “We can identify sources of labor and fentanyl trafficking in Tennessee.” This tool allows law enforcement to identify who is sending money into Mexico. Through his conversations with Cochise County investigators, Richardson learned that one business in Nashville had sent more than $14 million to Mexico this year alone. He’s not sure whether this was legitimate or criminal activity but says, “it’s a good place to start looking.”
Fentanyl is also taking a massive toll in New Jersey — it kills eight New Jersey residents every day, says Col. Patrick J. Callahan, of the New Jersey State Police. “It’s a huge issue for us in the convergence of public safety and public health.”
As is the case with Richardson, Callahan marvels at the size of the problem and the thankless burden taken on by Dannels and his deputies. “It’s a huge and daunting task, and the border isn’t even their only mission,” he says. “I liken them to soldiers. He says they are the last line of defense from drug traffickers, cartels and illegal migrants from Latin America, China, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Russia and elsewhere.
And what has he brought back to New Jersey? Collaboration. “Who would think the Cochise County sheriff would have a connection to New Jersey?” Callahan muses. Sheriff Dannels previously visited the Garden State’s regional operation center, in fact. “We showed him what happens on the tail end of it, how we try to save people every day,” Callahan says, noting that 2,300 New Jerseyans have lost their lives to fentanyl in 2023. “Now we have a phenomenal relationship where we can have direct connectivity with the southwest border.”
What every law enforcement agent — from beat cop to chief or sheriff — needs to understand is that the U.S. southern border is being protected by a small band of deputies and police with little to no support from the federal government, bare-bones technology and DIY intelligence. Many of the tools come at the deputies’ own expense. They are the front line of defense for every community in the nation.
The authors have witnessed or reported on policing in extreme conditions around the world: In Ukraine during the war with Russia, in Roma camps in Hungary, during the war in Bosnia and in nations overrun with human trafficking. We, as well as other police executives on the mission, believe that we are in the most tumultuous time the world has seen since World War II. While the U.S.-Mexican border is of course not the source of all our ills, it delivers a potent brew of drug and human trafficking, cartel violence, gun running, extortion and terrorism.
As this article was going to press, FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he has “never seen a time where all the threats or so many of the threats are all elevated, all at exactly the same time.” Since the October 7 massacre in Israel, Wray has seen “a veritable rogues’ gallery of foreign terrorists” threatening the United States. “I see blinking red lights everywhere,” he warned.
This brings us back to our first image of the border — the overturned SUV. Wray’s blinking red lights are not unlike the traffic signals that loaders blast through at speeds over 100 mph.
And if we’re not careful, the wreckage of that vehicle is an apt metaphor for what your communities face at the hands of cartels, terrorists, traffickers and smugglers at our southern border.
Policing Matters podcast host Jim Dudley talks to Sheriff Mark Dannels and Paul Goldenberg about illegal immigration and the drug interdiction crisis at the Mexican border.