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Sheriff Babeu warns of cartel assassins in Pinal County
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Sheriff Babeu warns of cartel assassins in Pinal County

  • Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu led a news conference at which sheriffs called for President Barack Obama to name a special counsel to investigate Operation Fast and Furious.
    Stephanie Fernandez/Cronkite News Service Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu led a news conference at which sheriffs called for President Barack Obama to name a special counsel to investigate Operation Fast and Furious.
  • Members of Pinal County Sheriff's Office and U.S. Border Patrol stand over 14 men suspected of smuggling drugs in the country in November.
    PCSOMembers of Pinal County Sheriff's Office and U.S. Border Patrol stand over 14 men suspected of smuggling drugs in the country in November.

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu has warned Memorial Day travelers of possible groups of Mexican drug cartel assassins in Arizona's western desert.

Babeu, who's built his political career on controversial statements about immigration and drug smuggling, said Monday that visitors to the western part of Pinal County should be "very cautious and consider carrying a firearm" in case they find themselves caught between rival drug smugglers.

Other Southern Arizona sheriffs said that they didn't see any reason to issue specific warnings in their counties.

Babeu issued the warning Monday along with an intelligence report from his agency's anti-smuggling unit, which said that cartel assassins or 'sicarios' were actively hunting down rival 'rip crews,' or bandits known for ambushing drug smugglers and stealing their loads at gunpoint. 

The report written by the supervisor of the Pinal County Sheriff's Office "Anti-Smuggling Enforcement Unit" warned that officers working near the northern tip of Tohono O'odham Nation in southern Pinal County should be aware of the danger in being "mistaken for rip crew or becoming involved in an ambush." 

Deputies — the supervisor wrote — should wear identifying body armor, carry "long rifles," and work with a partner at all times while in the area. Deputies should also prepare to "respond to calls involving gunfights between these groups." 

Babeu said that his agency was taking the threat seriously, and he believed that "the public and my deputies deserve to know there is an elevated risk of encountering gun violence in certain areas of Pinal County." 

The information came from interviews of men arrested by PCSO who also told the deputies about "rumors of several other gunfights in the area" that were "beginning to surface," PCSO said. However, the supervisor wrote that "No exact location of these unreported shootings has been located." 

Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos said his office had not received advisories from federal officials regarding an increased potential for violence between cartel members and "rip crews." 

"I'm just not sure where he's getting his information," Nanos said. "We’ve not seen any increase in activity in our area, and in fact, our referrals to Border Patrol have been decreasing in the last year or so." 

"I hate to think that he’s grandstanding or anything, but I don’t know of anything or significant change that would make me issue an warning to my deputies in this county," Nanos said.  "If he has intelligence that's different from mine, I would certainly be interested in that." 

Nanos noted that Pima County shares the longest border with Mexico of any county in the nation, covering 126 miles. "I would hope that somebody would give me a heads-up," Nanos said. 

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada said that he advises people working and living along the border, especially in the rural areas, to pay attention to their surroundings because of drug smuggling and illegal immigration, however, he had not issued a warning to his deputies or to people in the county. 

"People need to remain careful and mindful, very mindful, of their environment because there have been issues in the past with smuggling, but we're not issuing an alert at this time," Estrada said. 

In the published intelligence report, the PCSO wrote that during the "past six weeks several violent incidents had taken place" just south of Pinal County and that those incidents were "shootings between backpacker groups and rip crews." 

Border Patrol agents had responded to both incidents, said PCSO. 

The first was in early April when members of U.S. Border Patrol were "shot at during a takedown of drug smugglers" and the second was a few day later when Border Patrol agents and members of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office responded to a call in the Vekol Valley that a man had been shot and wounded during a "gunfight." 

The man was shot while stealing drugs, PCSO said. 

Border Patrol said that it was working on a statement regarding the incidents and forwarded TucsonSentinel.com to the U.S. Attorney's office. However, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney was not sure which agency was ultimately charging the men. 

TucsonSentinel.com also contacted members of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to confirm the details of these incidents. 

However, during a press conference in April regarding the use of force by agents, Tucson Sector Chief Paul Beeson did not speak about either incident, but said that Border Patrol's elite tactical team, known as BORSTAR, were involved in a shootout with five suspected smugglers near Cowlic, a small hamlet southwest of Sells, Arizona, roughly 41 miles south of Pinal County. No one was injured in the exchange of gunfire and the men were arrested.

While Pinal County is at least 53 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, several smuggling routes run through the county, including vehicle traffic running along Interstate 10 and Interstate 8.

Over a few days in January, Tucson Sector Border Patrol agents working at part of the Western Desert Task Force netted $1.1 million in marijuana, seizing three different loads in the western desert of Pinal County. 

PCSO has also netted several large loads of marijuana and in November, deputies arrested 21 men and seized 1,737 pounds of marijuana in a single day. 

As part of the news release, Babeu made sure to criticize President Barack Obama, saying that his agency had been "fighting the Sinaloa Cartel violence in Arizona for years." 

"We’ve arrested 21 of their scouts and many more smugglers last year, we are seizing thousands of pounds of their drugs and yet Obama’s response is to erect signs that warn American citizens that it’s not safe to travel." 

Babeu continued, "I’m telling our citizens that want to enjoy the outdoors to travel armed and not let these drug cartels think they have any control over American soil." 

Babeu made his comments as the Pinal County sheriff, but he is also in the midst of a crowded fight for the Republican nomination for Arizona's first congressional district. 

Babeu has regularly bashed the Obama administration over border security, first by starring in a commercial with U.S. Sen. John McCain, who promised to "build the dang fence" along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Babeu then spurred a 2014 protest in Oracle, north of Tucson, by leaking information that a nearby boarding school was about to receive a group of unaccompanied minors, as part of a federal effort to deal with the sudden influx of thousands of children who crossed into the Rio Grande Valley and were held in temporary processing by federal officials in Nogales beginning that May. 

Since the protest, Babeu has regularly appeared on national media arguing that the Obama administration has failed to secure the border, and used arrests of drug cartel scouts and drug seizures by deputies to build his political profile. 

However, Babeu's political run has been dogged by two separate scandals. 

In 2012, Babeu was forced to drop out of the race before the Republican Party primary when allegations surfaced that he threatened to deport his boyfriend at the time, an undocumented immigrant, if he revealed his relationship with the sheriff. 

And, in late January investigative reporter Dave Biscobing with ABC15 launched a series of stories about Babeu’s tenure at a therapeutic boarding school in Massachusetts that may have abused its students. 

Babeu denied knowledge of the practices, but Biscobing unearthed home video showing Babeu "praise the abuse practices in detail," said ABC15. 

In March, Babeu joined with members of the Border Patrol's union, the National Border Patrol Council, to again hammer at the Obama administration. He said that the White House was "handcuffing" Border Patrol agents to their desks and had failed to enforce consequences against immigrants who came into the country illegally. 

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