Today, we head to the Southwest border for an incredible story about an Arizona county that felt overrun by Mexican drug cartels for years. Now they claim they’ve been able to slow that to a trickle— without a lot of money, high tech, federal help or even a wall. How are they doing it? Today’s cover story is: Desert Eyes.
Sharyl: John Ladd is a fourth generation rancher. His great-grandparents settled this land in Arizona along Mexico’s border in 1896.
John Ladd: Originally the ranch was about twice as big.
By Ladd’s count, the Border Patrol has caught hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants on his 16,000 acres over the past thirty years.
John Ladd: It's an every day deal.
Sharyl: What do you do?
John Ladd: We used to help them, but when you get 200 a day it gets overwhelming. They’ve stole about every car or truck we owned, and saddles, and horses.
Sharyl: The march of illegal immigrants into Arizona from Mexico is virtually nonstop. Here, a large group crosses over a so-called Normandy fence— like it’s not even there.
And with the traffic comes a steady stream of crime. This man crossed from Mexico and fired off a few shots.
These five drug smugglers brought 7 backpacks of meth and marijuana.
In a matter of days 380 pounds of pot, heroin, and meth, 1600 pounds of pot, Fentanyl opioids hidden in shoes, smuggled in bras, Meth disguised as ice pops, in vehicles, 50 pounds, 227 pounds.
But in Cochise County, where John Ladd lives, we found there’s been an incredible turnaround you may not have heard about.
Sheriff Mark Dannels: What I'm talking about is a virtual system of cameras, up to over 500 cameras now, that we've implemented.
Sharyl: One camera covers about 200 square feet. The success has been so dramatic, it surprised even those responsible, including Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels.
Sheriff Mark Dannels: We’re doing something right, and it's fair to our citizens. It's what they expect. I'm pretty proud of what we've done here.
Sharyl: And to point out, you've done this improved enforcement and you've gotten this result without a wall?
Sheriff Mark Dannels: Without a wall. Without a wall.
Sharyl: To see firsthand, we took to the air with Sheriff Dannels over the 6,200 rural square miles of Cochise County
Sharyl: Flying over the rugged terrain, it's easy to see why some people think you don't need a big wall here it’s too tough to cross but is that actually the case?
Sheriff Mark Dannels: No. The cartel likes this area out here. Though it's rugged, it provides great concealment for them to smuggle both humans and drugs into this country.
Sharyl: That led to the simple but ingenious concept to deploy a carefully placed network of motion-activated cameras in areas where there are gaps in federal surveillance.
Sheriff Mark Dannels: Remember that the end of that fence is where the federal government stops their protective plan. We pick that up here and that's where our virtual system has become effective. We have cameras inserted, throughout this region, this grid.
Sharyl: We landed to see the type of area where the hidden cameras have been put to good use, their precise locations a tightly held secret.
Sheriff Mark Dannels: You know this is where our virtual system was implemented, in places like this.
Sharyl: There are cameras out here, we just don't know where?
Sheriff Mark Dannels: Yeah, we have, this is part of our virtual system.
Sharyl: Dannels explained that cartels learned to evade Border Patrol cameras by traveling in gullies and ditches. The new system plugs some critical holes.
Sheriff Mark Dannels: You know, the surface systems that the federal government has in place are up on top surface areas. They don't get down to the washes like this. So the cartels have exploited these areas. So we came into our areas with our virtual system. This is the areas we watch cause we know they're coming through here just like we're standing and, and that's one of the reasons we've been successful. We went to areas that the federal government didn't go.
Sharyl: So Mexico is right there?
Sergeant Timothy Williams: And we're probably being watched right now.
Sharyl: Sergeant Timothy Williams leads the Sheriff’s Department effort called SABRE which stands for Southeastern Arizona Border Regional Enforcement.
Sgt. Timothy Williams: We have some of the best fencing that turns into a vehicle barrier that we're looking at now that turns into nothing but a six strand barbed wire fence. And here you can physically see a trail that goes, that's not a legitimate trail, like we say, that starts in Mexico and comes over the pretty much no fence into the United States. And it's a well trafficked trail.
Sharyl: Used by?
Sgt. Timothy Williams: Illegal alien smuggling, either human smuggling or narcotics smuggling, or any of the above.
Sharyl:Is this part of the surveillance?
Sgt. Timothy Williams: Yes. Everywhere, yup, yeah. So, yeah.
Sharyl: But the most surprising part of the whole SABRE program is how little it costs. Just a few agents monitor the motion-activated cameras by mobile phone. When an alert comes in, they coordinate a response to catch the interlopers.
Sharyl: We travelled by car deep into the Cochise County, Arizona desert with what amounts to about half of the SABRE team: Deputies Mike Magoffin and Jake Kartchner.
Sharyl: Can you sort of describe what this program is about to use the cameras on surveillance in simple terms.
Mike Magoffin: The simplest terms is we're trying to see who's crossing the border, who's sneaking across the border illegally and then responding to catch those guys. Or coordinating a response to catch them.
Sharyl: With thousands of miles to cover, the deputies say the key is careful placement.
Mike Magoffin: There's a lot that goes into choosing where we're going to put a camera in. We have to find routes that are being used, whether that's our own intel, whether that's border patrol's intel, whether that's ranchers’ intel. And we put the cameras on those trails.
Sharyl: These are the kinds of images the cameras capture alerting sheriff’s deputies to human smugglers and drug traffickers in real time in places where the Border Patrol technology might have missed them altogether. Internal statistics from the Sheriff’s Department show a dramatic uptick in the number of illegal crossers detected with more than 1,700 arrested over the past two years after being caught on camera.
Sheriff Mark Dannels: The ranchers say it best, this is the best it's been in three decades, because we took the weakness of the Federal Government and made a strength.
John Ladd: We've had the steel fencing since '06.
Sharyl: Ladd says he’s seen the feds spend enormous funds and try countless tactics he never would have believed something so simple would work so well when Sheriff Dannels first suggested it about two years ago.
Sharyl: What did he say it was going to entail?
John Ladd: He said, "We're going to put surveillance out." So, they put those out, and look at your cell phone, "Oh, there's a load of dope coming."
Sharyl: How many cameras are on your property?
John Ladd: Oh, I don't know. I'd say over 20.
Sharyl: Because of those cameras, they can see drugs coming across, they can make the arrests and prosecute them?
John Ladd: Yup.
Sharyl: Compare it to before this surveillance system, what you might've seen in terms of drugs versus an average day now.
John Ladd: Oh, we had three or four loads a week of marijuana coming through. Truck-fulls, backpackers, you name it.
Ladd: So we haven't had drugs on the ranch for 18 months.
Sharyl: That's amazing.
Sharyl: What’s so remarkable, he says, is that a handful of officers and strategically-placed cameras managed to tame prime drug trafficking territory that went largely unprotected for decades.
John Ladd: They shut down a 15-mile corridor of drugs in about six months.
Sheriff Dannels has been spreading the word about his strategies and success with other departments and federal law enforcement.