For Mexican drug smugglers, the U.S. border fence is more of a suggestion than barrier. Billions of tax dollars are spent trying to get ahead of the criminals who are moving incredible amounts of marijuana and heroin through Arizona, and on to cities like Detroit, Chicago and New York. On Full Measure's trip south, some experts told us we're not even keeping up.
On our trip to Arizona, multiple law enforcement officials told us it's Mexico's drug smugglers who largely control our Southern border.
Philanthropist Howard Buffett owns some of the most heavily-trafficked border ranchland in the U.S. He says people south of the border are suffering too. An amateur photographer, he's seen the desperate and poor in Mexico and Central America lured by the hope that a porous border gives.
Buffett: First, I would say that I separate the drug activity from the human activity, because the people coming across this border that are fleeing violence in the countries south of here, have a very legitimate concern. Their kids are getting killed. Their parents are getting killed. They're getting killed. We have to be empathetic and sympathetic to that, and figure out how as a nation do we deal with that, in terms of our character and morality as a nation.
Buffett's foundation has donated an incredible amount of money, $300 million dollars, for both humanitarian help to immigrants and for U.S. border security.
Buffett: I'd say, you know, we can't accept what comes across this border. We just can't do it. As a society, it's the wrong thing to do, and that becomes a public safety issue in a very broad context. It's not just simply enforcement at the border.
Billions of tax dollars and high tech tactics have been devoted in the past decade. There's a radar-equipped drug blimp at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center at Ft. Huachuca, and four new federal radio towers recently installed on one of Buffett's ranches.
Commander Beeson: You see increases in surveillance technology. We have integrated fixed towers, even going up even today to increase our situational awareness. We have mobile surveillance capability that we deploy in areas that don't have the integrated fixed towers, to make sure that we've got good situational awareness.
The Border Patrol's Commander Beeson says that's how they spotted two of our crew vehicles during our visit.
Beeson: We have agents deployed out in the rural environments. We continue to look at and shift based on the activity that we see occurring.
Back at the Cochise County jail, a stark example of how difficult it can be to balance compassion and security.
Sharyl: What's the youngest you've seen smuggling drugs?
Dannels: Thirteen. We just had a girl that was 13.
Dannels says the feds were releasing juvenile smugglers after 30 days, so the cartels realized children would make ideal drug mules.
Dannels: It's productive for the cartels and transnational organizations to grab juveniles and use them as smugglers to bring meth and heroin and marijuana, whatever they can put on their backs and bring it across. And what's really sad is, they go into our high schools and recruit 'em, and these are vulnerable kids. They say, 'look here's 3,000 dollars to go across the border'.
Dannels and the County Attorney joined to take a hard line, prosecuting smugglers as young as age 14. There are on average 25 juveniles in the county jail at a given time.
Sharyl: Some might say these kids are victims, just nice kids that got mixed up with the wrong people. What do you see?
Dannels: And there are people that say that, but unfortunately, I take an oath of office to enforce the laws of the land and if somebody is, whether they're 16, 17, 15, 14 or they're 45, doesn't matter. There's gotta be consequences to those actions.
In the end, Dannels and others working the border told us they're putting out fires without an effective master plan from Washington.
Dannels: After over three decades of working this border, I can tell you this much: the will to secure this border is not there.
Del Cueto: Those politicians that end up in those positions, they're helpful to whoever funded their campaigns, that being somebody that produces cameras or someone that produces different lights, that ensures them more business. But they need to listen to the actual agents that are the ones putting their lives on the line, not just the people that are contributing to their campaigns.
Federal officials point to success in terms of more drugs recovered and fewer caught crossing the border.
Sharyl: Would you say the U.S. has solid control of its Southern border?
Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske: I would say the U.S. has significantly greater control of its border than one, many countries around the world but two, just from the numbers and the information we have, that it is much more difficult now to cross the border than it was in the past.
Gil Kerlikowske is head of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Kerlikowske: It wasn't that many years ago, in fact, it was about 2000 that we had over one and a half million people that we apprehended coming across. Last year, we had below 400,000. So we have more people and more technology on the border than ever before.
Buffett, who's helped run some of the largest companies in the world, questions the measure of success.
Buffett: You know, if I was a shareholder of a company, and I had my CEO show up and tell me year after year, 'well, we did better this year, we just lost less money,' and that's the kind of metrics Border Patrol uses. When the metrics are, 'well, we captured less people, we apprehended less people, or you know, we got a little bit more drugs,' that can be for a whole host of reasons. There could be less people crossing. They could be doing a better job of it. Border Patrol could have prioritized resources in a different location, and I'm always careful when I make that criticism because I don't have a really good answer to that, but I do think part of the answer is our government admitting that we're failing at this. We're not doing the job we need to do.
For more reporting on the border, visit our website fullmeasure.news.