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Border Patrol agents continue to target cartel scouts in Pinal County

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Border Patrol agents continue to target cartel scouts in Pinal County

  • A Border Patrol agent ropes down from a Black Hawk helicopter during a demonstration in April.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comA Border Patrol agent ropes down from a Black Hawk helicopter during a demonstration in April.

Over the last two months, Tucson Sector Border Patrol agents conducted multiple operations in Pinal County targeting men suspected of working as scouts for drug smugglers, including one where agents ambushed an observation post by roping down from a helicopter.

On May 20, an Air and Marine Operations aircrew flying a CE550 Cessna Citation spotted two scouts dressed in camouflage on a steep mountainside in the Silver Bell range outside of Arizona City. 

The men were suspected of acting as observers for drug smugglers and were operating from a makeshift post in a mountain-side cave, said Rob Daniels, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. 

That evening, a Black Hawk carrying Border Patrol agents with the Tucson Sector's Special Operations Detachment flew to the mountainside. 

Once there, at least two agents used ropes to quickly descend from their helicopter, and arrested one man, who tried to flee after he was spotted hiding in the cave, said Daniels. 

A video released by the agency shows two agents working their way over the jumbled rock toward the man, who then bolts from his hiding place and tries to clamber through the rocky terrain away from the agents. 

The chase ended near a 30-foot cliff, with a "dangerous and potentially fatal drop to jagged rocks below," said Daniels. 

In a statement, Tucson Sector Chief Paul Beeson said the operation conducted by the agency's special detachment highlighted the dangers that Border Patrol agents face "day-to-day." 

"Agents jumping out of helicopters onto mountain tops is dangerous enough on its own," Beeson said. "The risk of injury or death to everyone involved is increased more so when you add having to pursue dangerous criminals in a harsh environment."

The head of the Tucson Sector Air Branch, Mitch Pribble, said that these types of operations are risky for pilots as well.

"It takes a great amount of training, expertise and precision by our aircraft crew to operate the Black Hawk during insertion operations over mountain ranges," Pribble said. "There is no room for error when keeping an aircraft that large steady in gusty cross-winds among narrow mountain peaks to enable other agents to descend as safely as possible."

The suspect, who was not identified by the agency, will be charged with conspiracy to smuggle drugs, after agents found a "large cache" of surveillance equipment at the site, including radios and cellphones, said Daniels. 

A second man was spotted by the AMO aircrew, however, agents did not see him during the operation, said Vincente Paco, a Border Patrol spokesman. 

Though the agency keeps these operations close to the vest, this is at least the second operation targeting scouts conducted this year by Border Patrol agents. 

On May 29, agents with the Casa Grande Mountain Team launched an operation over the Memorial Day weekend, two men were arrested in the Sawtooth Mountains outside of Casa Grande, Ariz. 

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