Ariz. sheriff expects armed conflict with cartels soon

Says a gun battle is all but certain within the next 30 to 60 days

By Lindsey Collom
The Arizona Republic

FLORENCE, Ariz. — Pinal County's sheriff is anticipating an armed conflict between his deputies and cartel members within the next 30 to 60 days.

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu made that prediction last week as he addressed an Ahwatukee, Ariz., Republican women's club, and reiterated it Tuesday on the heels of a speech by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asserting that border communities are safer than ever.

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A gun battle is all but certain because his deputies and members of a regional SWAT team now work routinely to stop smugglers from pushing cargo through the county, Babeu said.

"We have had enough," he said. "That's why we're going into these areas and sending a very clear message to the cartels: We see you, and we're not going to let you through."

An outspoken critic of U.S. immigration policy, Babeu said cartels have stepped up their tactics in Pinal County by reinforcing smuggling routes with armed guards to ward off potential bandits in addition to stationing more lookouts on high points of the landscape.

Some bandits are impersonating police, Babeu said, and he worries that smugglers won't know the difference.

"When we announce ourselves in Spanish, 'This is the sheriff. Drop your weapons. This is an arrest,' I pray every time they will surrender," Babeu said. "In the event that any of them decide to point their weapons at our deputies, . . . my directive is there had better be rounds going downrange to neutralize that threat."

Babeu for months has faulted Napolitano, accusing her of downplaying border-related violence and of being "divorced from reality."

Speaking at the University of Texas in El Paso, Napolitano said numbers show 30 percent less violent crime in border counties since the Southwest Border Initiative began in March 2009. And border apprehensions have decreased by 36 percent, she said, with increased manpower and technology as a deterrent.

"It is inaccurate to state, as too many have, that the border is overrun with violence and out of control," Napolitano said. "This statement, often made only to score political points, is just plain wrong."

But Babeu says apprehensions, drug seizures and immigration-related pursuits are on the rise in his county, about 70 miles north of the border.

"The border is not more secure than before and this problem hasn't gone away," Babeu said.

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