TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - Dozens of eyes are watching our nation's border in Tucson tonight, and it is not just the trained eyes of border patrol agents. It is concerned citizens who are arming themselves, trekking into dangerous cartel territory, all to keep an eye on the line.
To find out what exactly they are doing out there, and what they are seeing, Tucson News Now decided to spend the day and night deep in the Sonoran desert with a group called Arizona Border Recon. We walked the trails used by drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. We wanted to know why concerned residents were arming themselves and risking their lives to do a job that Homeland Security officials felt should be left up to highly trained border patrol agents.
Nailer, the founder of Arizona Border Recon said the groups mission was to provide intelligence and security services to border patrol agents on the ground.
"When we go out, we let border patrol know where we're going and how many are going to be there," he said.
Tucson News Now observed that many of the agents on the ground were familiar with the members of Arizona Border Recon. They simply wanted to know where they were going to be, and how many people were in the group.
Art Del Cueto, President of the Local 2544 Border Patrol agents Union said they had instances when armed citizens tripped up their sensors. That is why it was extremely important for groups to inform agents where they were going to be.
"Nailer" told us he preferred not to disclose his full name because of the cartel members he sometimes encountered while on his patrols.
"I've been threatened six times in the last two years by two different cartels," said Nailer.
Since the immigration situation in Texas, hundreds of border patrol agents had been re-assigned and pulled out of the field. Tucson News Now heard from many residents living in border communities who said they were not seeing agents patrolling their streets anymore. Some residents said they were seeing an increase in illegal immigrants crossing their "backyards," others said they were afraid and were arming themselves.
Nailer said his group was getting dozens of calls from all over Arizona who were interested in learning how to patrol the desert and keep an eye out for illegal activity. Many of the men felt it was their patriotic duty to do so.
"It's my country, not theirs," said Nailer.
All of the men involved in his group were former military or law enforcement officials. They worked in an area with thousands of trails used by drug smugglers and migrants. Nailer said trail cameras set up in the desert by other citizen watch groups like Arizona Border Defenders showed almost non-stop traffic. We watched the videos and saw lines of illegal immigrants walking through the desert, some with huge bundles on their back.
We reached out to the Department of Homeland Security and asked them how they felt about armed citizens doing the job that border patrol agents were trained to do.
Customs and Border Protection sent us a statement saying:
"CBP does not endorse or support any private group or organization from taking matters into their own hands as it could have disastrous personal and public safety consequences. We appreciate the efforts of concerned citizens as they act as our eyes and ears. CBP strongly encourages concerned citizens to call the U.S. Border Patrol and/or local law enforcement authorities if they witness or suspect illegal activity.
"Securing our nation's borders can be dangerous. Interdicting narcotics and deterring and apprehending individuals illegally entering the United States requires highly-trained, law enforcement personnel. Border Patrol Agents undergo 17 weeks of specialized training and are uniquely qualified to do this type of work. In all cases, individuals should refrain from providing transportation or other assistance to migrants that may be viewed as furtherance of illegal entry. This type of assistance to an undocumented migrant could result in prosecution."
Nailer said their mission was to try to help a department they felt was understaffed and overworked.
"We are an extra set of eyes and ears for them. We run around with radio scanners to listen to an international drug syndicate that is sitting on top of mountains inside the United States and try and gather intel from them on where and when the stuff is moving," said Nailer.
He stressed that all information was turned over to CBP officials.
Nailer showed us what they look for in the desert. He showed us what appeared to be "fresh trails" or activity indicating migrants had just moved through the area. We found "carpet shoes" worn my illegal immigrants to cover their tracks. We also saw empty packages of food, jugs of water, backpacks, and clothing littering the Sonoran desert.
Nailer said the stuff appeared "fresh" because the labels were not faded out by the hot Arizona sun.
We asked Nailer if he felt they had a good relationship with CBP officials.
"With the line agents, the boots on the ground: yeah. The bureaucrats up above: Probably not."
Del Cueto said he could not disclose how many border patrol agents had been removed from the Tucson sector.
"If you take one agent out, it's one too many, especially when you say the Tucson Sector is responsible for 60 percent of all drug seizures in the country," said Del Cueto.
Humanitarian immigrant rights and advocacy groups like "No More Deaths" were also concerned, saying the citizen border watchers were destroying the water jugs and food they left out in the desert for illegal immigrants, many of whom were mothers and children, or families trying to find a better life and fleeing the violence in their own countries.
"We see many people from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala," said Paula Miller, a volunteer with No More Deaths.
"Our mission is to end deaths and suffering in the desert. We don't ask people why they're crossing. We don't ask where they're coming from or what they have on them. Please respect the water that is there, don't destroy it. It saves lives," said Miller.
Miller said members of their group always carried trash bags and did regular trash clean ups in the desert as well.
Nailer said he could not speak for other armed citizen groups out there, but his group Arizona Border Recon did not destroy any water they found in the desert, in fact he said they provided water and first aid to all illegal immigrants they encountered, and contacted border patrol with their whereabouts.
"Everybody we come in contact with is treated like a human being. I understand they want to get away and want something better. I got no problem with that, but do it the right way."
We asked Nailer what made his group different than other extremist militia groups.
"We're not all flaming lunatics down here. We love our country. We're doing something to help border patrol that's spread too thin," said Nailer.
CBP officials said while they could not stop citizens from going out into the desert, knowing their location was critical.
"It's important because if they get into trouble we can send properly trained personnel to assist them," said Del Cueto.
Nailer and his group took us up a 1,000 foot high steep mountain, which they said was one of the first cartel look out points in the Sonoran desert.
"There's a whole chain of them up here," said Nailer. He added that cartel scouts would sit up there for a week to two weeks at a time, runners would bring them food and supplies, and from there they would direct all the drug smuggling that was taking place through the Sonoran desert.
"From this look out they can see 250 to 300 square miles of Arizona," said Nailer.
Arizona Border Recon members said they had been able to mark several key cartel scout locations, and reported the areas to local CBP agents.
The group also swept through abandoned homes in the community to look for migrants spending the night there. Nailer said he had pulled out 20-30 illegal immigrants out of one home. We "swept" through the homes with the group. In at least two abandoned homes we found trash left behind by the migrants. Food packages, electrolyte bottles, black jugs of water, clothing, and graffiti all over the wall.
In one home a migrant had scrawled the words "La Migra Buenas", or "The Border Patrol is good". Another migrant had scrawed a prayer for safe travel in Spanish. Another wall said "Martin was here". Nailer said he contacted border patrol and agents would show up and take the migrants into custody.
"We do it all within the bounds of the law. It's like a game of hide and seek. It's their game and we're trying to jump in their game and figure out their rules," said Nailer.
He stressed that the area was dangerous. Not just because of the drug smugglers or cartel members but it was a war zone among cartels. Rival cartel members would often attack the drug mules to steal their "stash". They called them "rip crews". Human smugglers would leave behind those illegal immigrants who fell behind or could not keep up with the tough journey.
CBP officials asked residents who had concerns about illegal activity in the desert to contact border patrol or local law enforcement agencies.