Sheriff Paul Babeu is a liar?
Sheriff Paul Babeu is a liar?
"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary."
H. L. Mencken
Statistics don't support Pinal Sheriff Babeu's statement on trafficking
by Dennis Wagner - Apr. 10, 2011 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
In mid-February, officers from more than a dozen police agencies swarmed the drug-trafficking corridor in western Pinal County's notorious Vekol Valley.
They got into wild vehicle chases, arrested 102 suspected smugglers, illegal immigrants and drug traffickers, and seized 3,200 pounds of marijuana.
When it was over, Sheriff Paul Babeu issued a news release declaring that Pinal County is "the No. 1 pass-through county in all of America for drug and human trafficking."
It's a line the sheriff has used countless times - most recently on Thursday in testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security - as he criticizes the federal government for failing to secure the border.
There's just one problem: There is no data to support the assertion.
In fact, an Arizona Republic analysis of statistics from local, state and federal sources found that, while sheriff's officials do bust smugglers and seize pot, Pinal County accounts for only a fraction of overall trafficking.
The newspaper also found that other headline-grabbing claims by Babeu are contradicted by statistical evidence or greatly exaggerated.
For example, the charismatic first-term sheriff raised eyebrows two months ago when he predicted that his deputies would get into a gunbattle with cartel members in the desert during the next 30 to 60 days. The forecasted encounter did not happen.
Although critics, including the Department of Homeland Security and some border mayors, have challenged Babeu's veracity and questioned his motives, the sheriff shows no sign of tempering his claims.
In an undated letter seeking donations for a legal battle against the federal government, Babeu says "things are just going from bad to worse now that our own federal government has sided with the criminals instead of law enforcement."
Babeu, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed, saying he was too busy. He did, however, respond to questions sent via e-mail. He wrote that Pinal County residents have reported such rampant increases in smuggling activity that they are terrified to leave their homes.
By contrast, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and others in the Obama administration point to statistical evidence that America's border is more secure than ever. They have drawn support from some border officials who publicly accuse Babeu of conducting a fear campaign.
Some county residents are concerned that the sheriff is overstating the crime rates in Pinal County. A group called Pinal County Residents of Responsible Leadership has been making automated phone calls in the area, with a male speaker criticizing Babeu's "irresponsible" rhetoric about border-related crime. Listeners who want to lodge a complaint with the sheriff's "political office" are transferred to the Arizona Republican Party.
No one disputes that Pinal County, which lies 70 miles from the border, emerged as a smuggling channel during the past decade.
Up until the 1990s, smugglers and illegal immigrants could enter the United States almost anywhere without worry.
Then, gradually, border enforcement increased. Routes into California and Texas were squeezed until crime syndicates began relocating to the Sonora-Arizona line.
At first, crossings concentrated near Nogales, Douglas and other municipalities where roads were relatively accessible. As the crackdown expanded into those areas - with more agents, technology and fencing - smugglers were forced deep into the outback, trekking several days to evade an enforcement gantlet.
Federal officials say the plan all along was to make illegal crossings more difficult.
Today, much of the traffic moves through the Tohono O'odham Reservation and north into Pinal County, where smugglers and illegal immigrants can meet waiting vehicles near Interstate 8.
Now, federal officials say, the final squeeze points are under assault by task forces in places like Vekol Valley, where hundreds of human trails zigzag through the jagged mountains and thorny desert and where bandits sometimes prey on those who enter.
For years, a single deputy was assigned to patrol the entire western part of the county. Then, last year, Babeu, who oversees 700 full-time employees, including 210 deputies, announced a dramatic increase, telling KGUN9 TV in Tucson, "We're sending out three different teams of eight to 15 deputies in each that are heavily armed, even with sniper teams, out to the desert at all hours of the day and night."
Besides those deputies, law- enforcement task forces have flooded the area with agents and officers from the Border Patrol, Bureau of Land Management, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Drug Enforcement Administration, Arizona Department of Public Safety and police from Casa Grande, Eloy and the Tohono O'odham Nation.
But is Pinal, an area larger than Connecticut with about 341,000 residents, "the No. 1 pass-through county in all of America" as Babeu claims?
The data showing amounts of drugs seized and numbers of illegal immigrants arrested in Arizona does not support his assertion - unless Babeu does not consider border counties "pass-through" areas.
DHS records for last year show that the Border Patrol seized 18 times as much marijuana and arrested 15 times as many illegal immigrants in Pima County as in Pinal. In Santa Cruz County last year, the agency seized nearly 10 times as much marijuana and arrested six times as many illegal immigrants as it did in Pinal. The agency also says 90 percent of all drug interdictions occur within 5 miles of the border and says only 3 percent of marijuana seizures made in its Tucson Sector occur in Pinal County.
In his e-mail, Babeu responded that "DHS and U.S. Border Patrol should expect to see higher numbers of drug seizures anywhere they have increased manpower, which historically has been along the border."
To assess Babeu's claims, The Arizona Republic obtained public records from the Pinal County Sheriff's Office, DHS and other federal agencies.
Among the findings:
- Babeu told the Berkshire (Mass.) Eagle in February, "Out of the 3,000 counties in the nation, Pinal County ranks No. 1 when it comes to smuggling drugs and humans across the border."
That claim appears to be incorrect.
Although Babeu is often identified as a border sheriff, his jurisdiction is 70 miles removed from the Mexico line. Moreover, DHS records show Pinal County accounts for a tiny fraction of drug and immigrant captures, fewer than any of the three border counties within the Tucson Sector.
Last year, for example, agents recovered 527,667 pounds of marijuana in Pima County. That's 18 times as much marijuana as they captured in Pinal County. They also made 15 times as many arrests in Pima County. In Santa Cruz County, the Border Patrol reported nearly 10 times as much marijuana seized and six times as many arrests as in Babeu's jurisdiction.
Jeffrey Self, head of the Border Patrol's new Joint Field Command office in Tucson, said nine out of 10 undocumented-immigrant arrests in Arizona occur within 5 miles of the border. Only 2 percent of all illegal crossers are captured in Pinal County.
In his e-mail, Babeu said federal enforcement is stronger along the border, so arrest and seizure totals are higher there.
- On Fox News, the sheriff told host Greta Van Susteren he's facing "one of the highest crime rates in America" and crime is "literally off the charts in Arizona."
That claim also appears to be inaccurate.
Pinal County does not have the highest crime rate in Arizona, which is listed 16th among the states for violent offenses, according to the Statistical Abstract of the United States.
An analysis of U.S. Census data and Department of Public Safety records shows 11 of Arizona's 15 counties have crime rates higher than Pinal County's. Residents of Maricopa County are victimized nearly twice as frequently as their neighbors to the south.
Pinal County records show violent crime plummeting over the past few years in every major category except homicides, where numbers are too small for statistical significance. Aggravated assaults in Pinal County decreased 29 percent since 2007. Armed robberies are down 41 percent. Border Patrol records indicate that illegal-immigrant apprehensions in Pinal County have declined every year since 2008.
In his e-mail, Babeu acknowledged that crime is down in the area but said that decrease would be greater if the border was protected.
- In his letter to border mayors, and elsewhere, Babeu has said that federal intelligence analysts identified "75 to 100 mountains or high-terrain features that are occupied by Mexican drug cartels" in Pinal County.
According to Self, that tally represents the number of possible vantage points, not locations manned at any one time by cartel scouts.
In his e-mail, Babeu agreed with that clarification.
Critics say some of Babeu's other claims spread fear unnecessarily.
Babeu says the Arizona border is so porous that national security is in jeopardy, based on arrests in Pinal County of undocumented immigrants from terrorist-linked nations.
In the past decade, there is no known record of a terrorist entering the United States via Arizona's border. Since 2008, according to DHS and sheriff's records, only one undocumented immigrant - a Cuban - was detained from a nation on the State Department's list of state-sponsored terror nations. Three others were from Afghanistan and Sudan, countries with significant terrorism issues.
In his e-mail, Babeu said he is concerned that the entire border of nearly 2,000 miles remains open to intruders. "Even if only a few (non-Mexicans) were caught, how many more got through undetected?" he asked.
Still work to be done
Babeu, who says cartels have put a green light out for his assassination, is hardly alone in bemoaning federal efforts along the border. Napolitano constantly complained about the same issue during her tenure as governor of Arizona.
Security has improved under her watch, though: The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported last year that control of the border has grown by 126 miles per year. Border Patrol staffing has more than doubled since 2004. Arizona now has 4,900 agents, plus 900 Customs and Border Protection officers and 561 National Guard troops. The result, according to DHS: a nearly 40 percent drop in the number of immigrants caught entering Arizona unlawfully.
But there is still work to be done. The same GAO report said 56 percent of the U.S.-Mexico line is still not under "operational control."
Babeu said in his e-mail that having less than half of the border controlled amounts to "a failing grade," and government efforts are too little, too late.
"If this administration was truly committed to securing the border, they would have already implemented the . . . 10-Point Border Security Plan" advocated by Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona. That proposal calls for more National Guard units, fences and other deterrents.
Independent experts say rhetorical exchanges and media sound bites often preclude rational approaches to border security.
Rick Van Schoik, director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University, said Babeu may sincerely see Pinal County in a public-safety crisis based on his personal law-enforcement experience. At the same time, he said, "the border really is safer than it has been in a long time."
Van Schoik complained that vital issues, such as border trade and the threat of smuggled nuclear materials, get lost amid political posturing. He added that enforcement has improved, illegal crossings are down, drug seizures are up and border communities are generally safer. "By almost any metrics, CBP and DHS have accomplished a lot."
In Nogales, the biggest border city leading into Pinal County's smuggling pathway, no murders were reported in 2010 or 2009. In February, Mayor Arturo Garino and his counterparts in Douglas and San Luis wrote to Babeu, asking him to stop painting the border as crime-infested.
"Creating panic where only vigilance is warranted helps nobody," they wrote. "While your misstatements about efforts to keep communities along the U.S.-Mexico border may keep national media coming to Arizona, at the same time your consistent inaccuracies hurt cities and towns like ours" by sabotaging commerce.
Weymouth Fogelberg, who generated the automated phone calls criticizing Babeu, said he's 92 and tired of seeing elderly residents frightened by false rhetoric. "He's a very charming, intelligent man," Fogelberg said of the sheriff. "But he's using us for the furtherance of his political career."
Thayer Verschoor, communications director for the state Republican Party, said the phone strategy didn't work. "We've gotten some calls," he noted, "but most of them are actually pretty positive" about the sheriff.
Babeu said in his e-mail that he represents the people who elected him. "The citizens of Pinal County and Arizona have demanded help" in combating border-related crime, he wrote, adding that smugglers in his jurisdiction "will be met with a heavy law-enforcement presence."