Babeu: We're targeting the real threat to border security

Babeu: We're targeting the real threat to border security

CREATED Jun 30, 2011

Reporter: Sergio Avila
Web Producer: Layla Tang

PINAL COUNTY, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) - A multi-agency operation in the mountains of Pinal County has just ended, netting hundreds of criminals and thousands of pounds of drugs.

The four-day operation in the desert was similar to one KGUN9 was recently invited to observe. The only difference was, this most recent operation included agencies from Pinal, Pima, and Maricopa Counties, along with the Tohono O'Odham Nation and the Ak-Chin Indian Community.  Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said he is appreciative of the tremendous effort, and said these types of operations are dealing with what he believes to be the real threat to border security--the drug cartels.

The smuggling activity in Pinal County has also caught the eye of state legislators.  The Arizona House Appropriations Committee just unanimously passed a bill to give Sheriff Babeu $5 million  to battle the cartels.  If the bill passes, Babeu plans to use the money to buy state-of-the-art radars, night vision equipment, light armored vehicles, weapons, and possibly get air support for the county.

9 On Your Side asked Sheriff Babeu why this bill got bipartisan support while others targeting illegal immigration have been so controversial.

"This isn't a bill that divides us as a community here.  It's not about race color, national origin. It's about violent criminals who have nearly toppled the Mexican government and why we have to fight them," Babeu said.

So why Pinal County, and why hand out money at a time of fiscal crisis?  The state is facing a nearly $2 billion budget shortfall over the next year and has been slashing other state-funded programs like Medicaid to make up the deficit.

"We all know that Pinal County is the number one pass-through county for drug and human smuggling in all of the country. So more than Santa Cruz County or Pima County, more than Cochise County or Yuma or anywhere," Babeu said.  "At a time when there's tremendous budget issues and concerns, that there's cuts being made in other priorities in the state.  Yet, if we don't have public safety and we don't have security, what do we have?"

Sheriff Babeu is adamant his operations target the worst threat to border security.  He admits the cartels are higher on his priority list then the illegal immigrants living and working in his county.

"I've never gone onto farms.  You know how many people would like me to do that?  Quite a few.  You know how many people want me to pursue employers?  You know how many people want me to aggressively go into other workplaces and government buildings?" Babeu said. "I've never done that.  One, I don't have the resources to do that, that is not my primary focus. The threat and the dangers are too great and too real when it comes to cartel activity and trafficking through my county that I barely have enough resources to bring the fight against them, and that's the most severe threat."

Sheriff Babeu says he doesn't discredit the work being done in other border counties.  On the contrary, he's quick to point out that because of the terrain smugglers are funneled through Pinal County making operations like these more opportunistic for law enforcement.