First, right-wingers reported Mexican drug cartels had invaded Laredo, Texas — nevermind that law enforcement says it never happened. Now, Arizona Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu is lending the stamp of authority to the idea that the cartels are conquering parts of the red, white and blue — nevermind that other law enforcement says that’s not true.
In a Washington Times article about recently erected signs warning citizens to be cautious of border crossers and smuggling activity in Arizona (which has Republicans like Gov. Jan Brewer up in arms) Babeu delivers the news:
“Mexican drug cartels literally do control parts of Arizona,” Babeu told the Times. “They literally have scouts on the high points in the mountains and in the hills and they literally control movement. They have radios, they have optics, they have night-vision goggles as good as anything law enforcement has.”
“This is going on here in Arizona,” he added. “This is 70 to 80 miles from the border - 30 miles from the fifth-largest city in the United States.”
As you may recall, Babeu is the smooth-headed sheriff who appeared in Sen. John McCain’s “complete the danged fence” campaign ad. He also made waves in August when he told CNS News, in response to the Department of Justice’s lawsuit against Arizona’s controversial immigration law, “our own government has become our enemy.”
Sheriff Babeu’s office did not return calls for comment from TPM, but the sheriffs of Santa Cruz and Pima counties (which both border Mexico, unlike Babeu’s Pinal) told TPM the cartels do not control any territory. Neither disputed the seriousness of the problem posed by the cartels, or the fact that drug smugglers operate in Arizona. But they did reassure TPM that the cartels are not on an annexing spree.
“They do not have control of any territory,” Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada told TPM. “That would be like saying we are useless and we’re not here and we’re out of the way.”
“They do have sophisticated technology and scouts and all that, that’s been known for years,” he said.
Estrada, who said he’s been in law enforcement for 40 years, said the cartel leaders were “smart businessmen” who try to draw as little attention as possible to their activities. When one violates a nation’s territorial integrity, one tends to make noise.
Regarding Babeu’s claims, Estrada couldn’t “say that he’s lying,” but he did say that “there are a lot of things that are happening this election year.” Neither Babeu nor Estrada is currently running for re-election, but Estrada suggested that he thinks “a lot of the fear is going to die after November.”
“I’ve seen just about everything,” Estrada said. “But what I’ve not seen is a beheading. and I’ve not seen the cartels controlling American territory.”
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was also hesitant to speak negatively about another sheriff. And he said “there is some truth to what [Babeu’s] saying.”
“The drug cartels certainly have an interest in seeing that their drugs are not ripped off on this side. And there are groups of people that prey on drug smugglers,” Dupnik said. But he acknowledge that he “wouldn’t go so far as to say that the drug cartels are controlling any part of Arizona.”
Contacted by TPM, a spokesperson at the Maricopa sheriff’s office, home of “America’s Toughest Sheriff” Joe Arpaio, said the office had “no response” to Sheriff Babeu’s statements. When asked if cartels had taken control of any portions of Maricopa County, the spokesperson maintained: “We don’t really have any reply.”
The Department of Homeland security would not directly address Babeu’s statement either. Matt Chandler, a DHS spokesperon, told TPM that “the southwest border is more secure than ever before” as a result of the administration’s dedication of “unprecedented manpower, infrastructure and technology.”
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com