Thursday, November 3, 2005
Border authorities warn governor that gang activity increasing
By Gentry Braswell
Thursday, November 3, 2005 1:41 AM MST
DOUGLAS — Gang activity, likely fueled by illegal immigration, is becoming more of a problem in Cochise County, law enforcement authorities said Wednesday.
Sheriff Larry Dever and Douglas police Chief Charles Austin updated Gov. Janet Napolitano and other officials on that topic at the Douglas Visitor’s Center as she made the first of several stops in Arizona border communities.
Dever and Austin also offered ways to help battle illegal immigration, including additional tools of manpower and laws.
The governor also heard from an area rancher about ongoing ordeals arising from illegal immigration.
Dever spoke to the governor about trends of increasing violence in the county.
“Twenty years ago, we would jump loads of narcotics right on the fence, and they’d just give up. Then they started to run, and now they’re starting to fight,” the sheriff told state and local officials during the governor’s conference.
Increased violence corresponding with border crime probably arises from a increasing gang culture in Cochise County towns, Dever said.
“That’s what is beginning to happen in places across the nation where illegal aliens are taking up residence,” he said.
The Douglas police chief said a veteran Douglas police officer’s recent death from a heart attack came after a confrontation with gang members — suspects who refused to back down during the incident.
“They’re older and more willing to take on law enforcement,” Austin told the governor.
Dever said police throughout the county “need a tool to extract the criminal population from the responsible population. We certainly could make a dent.”
The sheriff said anyone who is determined enough and spends enough time planning can cross the border with impunity, and the actions of criminal aliens who make it past federal border personnel become the responsibility of local law enforcement personnel.
Dever said such legislation would have to be worded to avoid an “unfunded mandate.”
Napolitano told reporters that the Clear Act considered last spring was “drafted poorly, as Sheriff Dever pointed recognized. It was an unfunded mandate.”
The act proposed that local law enforcement personnel be able to arrest federal immigration violators. At that time, Dever called it an unfunded mandate that would cause a burden for county jails and patrol areas already struggling with other criminal impacts of illegal immigration.
The sheriff said the 4th, 9th and 10th circuit federal courts have ruled that no federal laws provide for channeling federal dollars to help with police, jail and court infrastructure struggling in border areas because of illegal immigration. However, he said, there are no federal laws to restrict such money flow.
Dever also talked about the liability involved for those working along the border.
Last spring, the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department was sued on behalf of 16 illegal immigrants who accuse a local businessman of assaulting, threatening and detaining them near Douglas. The civil suit seeks $32 million.
“We’re engaged, whether we want to be or not, because of the proximity to the border,” Dever said.
In addition to potential liability, the cost to incarcerate illegal immigrants who commit crimes in Cochise County is usually higher because they usually are indigent, stay in jail longer and often need extra medical attention.
“We’ve been trying on the federal side, and it’s very difficult,” Napolitano said. “The congressmen and the senators from non-border states? It really doesn’t bother them.”
Arizona Sen. Ken Bennett, who was accompanying Napolitano during the border tour, asked Austin if it would be helpful if Douglas had its own police unit to concentrate on gangs.
Austin said a recent gang unit sent down from Tucson helped with networking through intergovernmental jurisdictions, which is a must for dealing with gang-related crime.
Gang activity is cyclical, so it would be a good idea for such a gang unit to keep up with that cycle, he said.
“Sierra Vista, too?” Napolitano asked, inquiring about increasing gang influence.
She received nods of yes. Dever and Austin indicated evidence of gang-related crime is being observed.
The governor told reporters that the border counties remain the “first line of defense” on Arizona’s international border, though they have a smaller tax base and law enforcement staff.
In response to questions about what is being done to address border problems, Napolitano said 60 more Arizona Highway Patrol officers are being moved to Southeast Arizona to handle southbound traffic. More gang units are on their way, too.
She said she discussed these issues by telephone two days ago with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff.
“This is now an area of national focus,” the governor said, adding more attention and money is needed from the federal government.
Organized crime doesn’t stop with gang-related violence and drug trafficking.
Austin said Douglas police are aware that organizations trafficking in human cargo are based in and around Douglas.
“These are particularly dangerous because the driver remains in the vehicle. This causes a high-speed chase back toward the border,” Austin said.
On the quieter, dirtier side of illegal immigration in Cochise County, Wendy Glenn of the Malpai Ranch near Douglas, which is about five miles from the border, made sure to tell the governor how the on-foot, rural illegal immigration traffic impacts the local land and citizens.
“Constantly. Daily, we are wading through fecal matter, plastic jugs, diapers,” the local rancher said, and continued with more details of what litters the Malpai Ranch. “I hate to even talk that way here, but that’s what we’re putting up with.”
The ranch has employed full-time help to keep the refuse from illegal immigrants picked up, Glenn said.
She said the springs at the ranch are fouled and the wildlife is dying.
“Everything is suffering out here. The plants, the animals, the people. Every canyon is full,” she said.
“Nobody's perfect. We're all just one step up from the beasts and one step down from the angels.”