- PALOMINAS -- The night is
infinite out here.
- It hides the drug runners and the human smugglers trying
to cross the border over the rocky spine of the Huachuca Mountains in southern
- It also hides the National Park Service rangers, who
10 years ago would have been the guys making sure visitors were enjoying
themselves in the park.
- On this night, they have traded their wide-brimmed hats
and brown uniform shirts for night-vision goggles and camouflage as they
search for lawbreakers.
- National parks and other federal recreation sites in
Arizona have some of the highest crime rates of any public lands in the
country, and those in southern Arizona lead the list.
- "It's the Wild West out here every night,"
one ranger says.
- Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, southeast of
Yuma, has more crimes per visitor than any other piece of public land in
the West. The Coronado National Forest in southeastern Arizona leads all
forest lands in the number of crimes committed on it. Two rangers in Arizona
have been shot in the past two years. Rangers now spend more time patrolling
the border than guarding resources they were hired to protect.
- The rangers at Coronado National Memorial were hired
to patrol the park but also to protect its resources and educate visitors.
Now they spend much of their time on special operations in the park, running
down drug- and human-smugglers, wondering which ones are carrying automatic
- Working as a ranger these days for U.S. Forest Service,
National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management or Fish and Wildlife Service
along the U.S.-Mexican border is mostly about being a border cop.
- Park staff involved in drug busts are often stalked or
threatened. Abandoned cars litter the lands set aside for protection.
- If you need a ranger at the Agua Fria National Monument,
north of Phoenix, for, say, a broken leg, chances are you won't be able
to find one.
- He's probably working the border.
- Smuggling highways
- Coronado National Memorial, near Sierra Vista, was named
one of the nation's 10 most dangerous parks by the Fraternal Order of Police's
park ranger organization this year. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument,
near Ajo, was named the nation's most dangerous park for the second year
in a row.
- Both parks are virtual highways for smuggling, and both
rank in the top 10 of Western parks for crimes committed per visitor, an
analysis by The Arizona Republic shows.
- They are part of a swath of public lands in Arizona that
extends in a crescent, 100 miles at its widest, from the state's southwestern
corner to its southeastern corner.
- Within that crescent is one national forest, six national
park sites, three national wildlife refuges, two national conservation
areas and two national monuments.
- Crime within the area has climbed in the past decade,
partly because the Border Patrol has squeezed smugglers out of urban areas
and into wide-open spaces and partly because smugglers have figured out
how easy it is to cross the border when it's a barbed-wire fence and then
miles of rarely visited public land.
- The public lands within the "Smugglers Crescent"
have crime problems driven by drug- and human-smuggling.
- They are all sparsely covered by law enforcement. Cabeza
Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, for example, has one ranger to cover 860,000
acres of land, an area larger than Rhode Island; the Las Cienegas National
Conservation Area, southeast of Tucson, doesn't even have a full-time law
enforcement officer to patrol its 84,000 acres.
- Arizona is not unique in this. Big Bend National Park,
Padre Island National Seashore and Amistad National Recreation Area in
Texas have similarly high crime rates, driven by similar smuggling problems.
- North Cascades National Park in Washington has more serious
crimes per visitor than any park in the country, and the national parks
and forests that butt up against the Canadian border have smuggling problems
as well. High-grade marijuana and heroin come in from Canada the same way
that low-grade weed and cocaine come up from Central and South America.
- The similarity between the two regions: They are vast
lands with few people patrolling them.
- On the southern border of the United States, particularly,
the smuggling has become a resource magnet, pulling in rangers and wardens
whose job it is to protect resources like the rare organ pipe cactus or
the endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope.
- Tired of being stalked
- There were five rangers assigned to Coronado National
Memorial, a 4,750-acre park that has become a boulevard for illegal trafficking.
Two of the rangers transferred out of state after a year. Maybe, some of
the rangers left behind speculate, they got the experience they wanted
and transferred to be closer to home.
- Or maybe they got tired of being stalked.
- This is a typical story from the border, one that every
park ranger who works there knows: One day two years ago, a ranger who
lived in the park was getting dressed. The phone rang. It was the Border
Patrol. It had been monitoring smugglers' radio transmissions and had overheard
someone say, "Yeah, Fred's getting out of bed. He's putting his pants
- One of the rangers spent five years as a Border Patrol
agent, then joined the Park Service to do something different: writing
speeding tickets, going out on medical calls, fighting fires.
- It hasn't quite worked out.
- "What I'm doing now," he says, "isn't
very different from what I did for the Border Patrol."
- Before he was a Border Patrol agent, the ranger was a
cavalry scout for the Army.
- "Come to think of it," he says, gunning the
engine, "what I'm doing now isn't much different from what I did in
the Army. It's the same language, the same equipment and the same tactics."
- There is a place on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife
Refuge called Little Tule Tank, a place where Sonoran pronghorn antelope
and mule deer are supposed to drink when the refuge's natural water sources
- But it is an attraction for others, as well.
- Rob Peloquin, the refuge's only ranger, is guarding two
undocumented immigrants he caught drinking out of the tank.
- Peloquin has been working the refuge as a ranger for
3 1/2 months. To date, he hasn't done much to protect visitors. That's
partly because this section of the Sonoran Desert, with its postcard cactuses
soaring up from brown hills into blue skies, is inhospitable to the sane
during the summer. But he also has spent virtually all of his time tracking
undocumented immigrants in the desert.
- It has been 25 minutes since Peloquin caught these two
men, 23 minutes since he called the Border Patrol. There's a Border Patrol
to do this job, he says. At least, that's how it should be.
- Tough to recruit
- "When we advertise job postings here, seldom do
Fish and Wildlife Service officers apply," Peloquin says. "They're
checking hunting and fishing licenses and talking to hunters, and it's
a great job. Who would want to give that up to be a de facto Border Patrol
agent? We've had people who do details here leave and say, 'I'm a federal
game warden, not a Border Patrol agent.' "
- It is 20 more minutes until the Border Patrol gets there
and Peloquin can get back on patrol.
- Even the humdrum days have their excitement or moments
of danger. In the past two years, two rangers have been shot on public
recreation lands in Arizona, and several more have been shot at, as well.
- The one who was killed was Kris Eggle.
- He was ambushed on Aug. 9, 2002, as he was working the
dirt road that separates Mexico from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
He was helping the Border Patrol chase two men wanted in Mexico who were
in the park.
- Eggle's picture smiles over the conference table in the
ranger office at Organ Pipe. Outside the visitor center, there's a memorial
to him. It is a rock with a ranger hat and a plaque on it. The plaque contains
the standard wording about bravery and service that won't be forgotten.
- But there is a phrase that stands out: "While protecting
visitors from harm . . . "
- There are few documented cases of visitors having problems
with smugglers. The drug runners tend to avoid everyone. The undocumented
immigrants will come up and ask for water or steal food from an empty tent.
But generally there's little interaction.
- Public not served
- Rangers are often so busy patrolling the border that
they don't get to see the public.
- Whenever the staff at Coronado National Memorial runs
a special operation to interdict smugglers, it strips the number of rangers
available to the public down to one. Organ Pipe, even when it gets the
full number of rangers it has the budget to hire, still will not be able
to provide 24-hour patrols.
- Interaction with immigrants most often comes between
groups of undocumented migrants and park staff - biologists, hydrologists
and geologists - working in the field.
- Usually working alone, some of the scientists have taken
to asking for law enforcement escorts in areas of known smuggling activity.
- Guy Jontz is a ranger at Organ Pipe now, but he spent
five years as a biologist at the Fish and Wildlife Service's Buenos Aires
National Wildlife Refuge near Sasabe.
- It was only a few months ago that Jontz was working the
Buenos Aires where his radio didn't work and he saw a truck cutting across
- "I thought they were hunters," he says, "and
I walked over to give them a little lecture about driving through the desert.
As I was walking over, I was thinking, 'Why are they trying to drive away
from me and trying not to look like they're driving away from me?'
- "When I got closer, I saw there were three guys
sitting up front, and I saw the drugs in back. I said, very quickly, 'Hi,
don't drive in the desert,' and walked back the way I came. I was just
waiting to get mowed down."
- Rangers have all sorts of stories like that. Like the
time Jontz was walking along a wash near Arivaca and came up on three horsemen
with AK-47 automatic rifles. ("I said, 'Hi.' They said, 'Hi.' Then
I got the hell out of there, waiting to be cut in half.").
- Or Bo Stone's first day as a ranger at Organ Pipe when
he ended up in a chase involving eight smugglers' vehicles and 2,200 pounds
- Or the time park rangers came up on an ATV near the Growler
Mountains in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and the driver
ran away. When the ranger got there, he looked into the cargo boxes and
found batteries, water, beans, tortillas, ammunition, all the fixings for
a lookout's nest being set up to give the all-clear to smugglers once rangers
and the Border Patrol leave the area.
- This is not the traditional job description of the park
- Good-guy image gone
- "In my other jobs," says Organ Pipe's Stone,
who has worked at three other national parks and for Wyoming as a game
ranger, "I'd say 95 percent of my job was being the good guy in the
white hat. Here, 99 percent, maybe 100 percent, of my job is drug interdiction
and border patrol."
- In the Huachuca Mountains, where the park rangers acting
like border cops are staking out trails under a star-filled sky, Spanish
fills the air.
- The voices are coming up a trail from Mexico and belong
to people crossing the mountains, south of Sierra Vista, to make it to
a road, where they expect to be picked up and taken to Tucson, Phoenix
and points beyond.
- Hidden by the night, a park ranger steps into the group.
A man nearly walks into him. The ranger puts his hand to stop the group,
and a woman farther back yells, "°Ay!," which echoes through
- The migrants are made to throw down their packs and take
off their shoes, then sit a little bit up the trail, where they will huddle
together for warmth as the night chills.
- None of the Mexicans, including eight men and two women,
fight. Most of them say it's their first time crossing, but the rangers
don't believe them. This is, for many, a weekly attempt.
- On the radio is a report of another group trying to cross
over from the east.
- Copyright 2003, azcentral.com. All rights reserved.