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Pinal sheriff's Stonegarden-funded copter carries BP agents near Ajo

A helicopter crew with the Pinal County Sheriff's Office, on a mission funded by Operation Stonegarden, carried Border Patrol agents and their dog to an area southeast of Ajo to arrest eight Guatemalan men Wednesday morning, authorities said. 

During the morning, agents using portable cameras spotted a group of men in a wash "several" miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, and a Huey OH1 helicopter flown by a PCSO crew carried agents and a BP dog to the area to search for the group on the ground, said Meredith Mingledorff, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

After about 30 minutes, the dog found the men, a each wearing camouflage outfit. The group was "presumably abandoned by their smuggler," said Mingledorff. 

The men ranged from 16 to 43 years old, she said. 

The men were transported to the BP station in Casa Grande for "further processing of immigration violations," and during that they found that four of the men were previously deported, Mingledorff said.

The area where the men were found lies within Pima County; the closest Pinal county line to Ajo is about 40 miles northeast. Most of the area southeast of Ajo also lies inside the borders of the Tohono O'odham Nation.

PCSO's helicopter crew was flying under Operation Stonegarden, an increasingly controversial program run by the Department of Homeland Security, and managed by Border Patrol. Stonegarden grants pay state and local law enforcement agencies to "enhance and strengthen" border security.

Last September, the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted to terminate Operation Stonegarden here, rejecting a $1.4 million federal grant for border-enforcement patrols by the Pima County Sheriff's Department.

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An 'Huey' OH1 helicopter with the Pinal County Sheriff's Office waits for men apprehended by BP agents near Ajo.