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McSally, McCain target 'spotters' who warn border traffickers

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McSally, McCain target 'spotters' who warn border traffickers

  • Bundles of marijuana found with six men in January 2015 by Tucson Sector Border Patrol agents in the desert near a Gila River Indian community in Pinal County.
    CBPBundles of marijuana found with six men in January 2015 by Tucson Sector Border Patrol agents in the desert near a Gila River Indian community in Pinal County.

WASHINGTON – With her first piece of legislation, introduced Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Martha McSally joined with Sen. John McCain in focusing on spotters for drug cartels — who conduct covert surveillance to help smugglers dodge border agents.

The director of the Arizona High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Area testified Tuesday that lookouts are “fundamental” to the success of drug cartels, but there is currently no law that specifically outlaws what border spotters do.

“It’s been difficult for us to prosecute the scouts. There’s just nothing specific for them,” said Elizabeth Kempshall.

She and others testified to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that border spotters are able to use high-end technology and strategic positions – in Mexico and as far as 75 miles into Arizona – to steer smugglers away from police and border patrols.

“The scouting network provides a continuous view of law enforcement presence on both sides of the border, making it easier to direct loads around law enforcement presence,” Kempshall said. “The scout’s role is fundamental to the drug organization’s success in supplying drugs to the U.S. cities.”

Her testimony came the same day that Arizona lawmakers introduced bills in the House and Senate aimed at stopping that problem by specifically criminalizing “illicit spotting” and destroying fences or monitoring devices along the border.

The Transnational Criminal Organization Illicit Spotter Prevention and Elimination Act calls for fines and up to 10 years in prison for those violating the law, and up to 20 years for those caught with a firearm while destroying border security devices.

The bills were introduced by McCain and McSally, with five other House members from the state — Republicans Trent Franks, Paul Gosar, Matt Salmon and David Schweikert, and Democrat Kyrsten Sinema — signing on to her bill.

Aides in McCain’s office said until spotting is criminalized, lookouts can only be charged with conspiracy or illegal presence. McSally said the current situation is “very frustrating” for police and border patrols who deal with spotters.

“This was one area as I’ve talked to local law enforcement that are dealing with the security issue, that is very frustrating for them,” she said. “They’ve seen an increase in spotters that are directing cartel traffic and there’s very little that they can do to these spotters in order to punish them and deter future activity.”

"Stricter penalties will prevent experienced spotters who are caught from quickly returning to action and deter many others from joining a criminal cartel," the freshman Republican said in a news release touting her first piece of legislation.

The chief of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, Manuel Padilla, supports the bill, saying in McSally's release that "We need to make sure that after we catch them, spotters don't end up right back at their posts, and this bill makes the positive step of helping stop and deter these activities."

Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, told the committee Tuesday that spotters are an issue for border residents as well as police, relating the story that an Arizona rancher told him.

“As he walks in his five miles of U.S. farm here, there are dozens of cartel scouts wearing camouflage uniforms, with padded boots … with $2,500 solar power encrypted satellite phones, with AK47s,” McCaffrey testified. “That’s who is in control of the border.”

McCaffrey and Kempshall both said at the hearing that prosecuting scouts is an important element of combating drug smuggling, but that at least part of the problem isn’t the cartels supplying the drugs – it’s Americans demanding the drugs.

“If you want a war on drugs, sit down at your own kitchen table and talk to your own children,” McCaffery said. “That’s really where it starts.”

Kempshall also stressed the importance of drug education to stemming the demand.

“They bring their drugs to the United States because we have an appetite for illegal drugs,” she said.

Her prepared testimony said drugs funneled through Arizona find buyers across the country.  The 451 seizures outside Arizona that could be tied back to the state between fiscal 2012 and 2014 netted 10,223 kilograms of marijuana, 202 kilograms of methamphetamine, 141 kilograms of cocaine and 37 kilograms of heroin.

“I think to address that problem we must continue those education efforts, we must continue to teach our children the dangers of drug abuse,” Kempshall said. “Even experimenting once can be dangerous with some illicit drugs.”

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