Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey won election promising to do his part to close the "wide-open and unprotected border."
To that end, he is taking steps to create a Border Strike Force that would be part of the state's Bureau of the Department of Public Safety – its main goal, to disrupt the operations of drug- and human-trafficking groups.
The strike force hasn't been formally announced, but the Associated Press confirmed its existence Thursday after obtaining a letter the governor sent to the Cochise County sheriff.
The force is designed to work with state, local and federal agencies to "stop border-related crime," according to the letter. It is apparently still in the planning stage and a timeline for deployment or a price tag isn't known.
According to the Arizona Republic, the governor is hoping to grow the force of 10 to about 180 state troopers, analysts, pilots and other personnel.
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State troopers would conduct frequent patrols of highways in well-established trafficking routes, the paper reported. Some added state funds would be used to hire more prosecutors and to reimburse border counties for the cost of jailing traffickers.
The Republic is reporting that the force’s first operation took place last month, and it involved flushing out cartel scouts from the desert south of Phoenix.
“They have night-vision capabilities, and they’re lightning fast,” Capt. Dave Nilson, who led the October operation, told the Republic.
“On any given day, we get 911 reports of people stopping, seeing people loading bundles and bundles of large amounts of narcotics and illegal aliens,” he said, “right on the side of the highway, and getting into cars and leaving. It literally is the wild West.”
In the letter about the strike force to the Cochise County Sheriff, Mark Dannels, Ducey wrote, "The goal of the Border Strike Force is to bolster your current efforts, not dictate to you or any other sheriff how to combat the issues we are facing … Additionally, it is intended to build and design innovative strategies and work groups to effectively deter, disrupt, and dismantle border-related crime."
The Republican governor's move is among the first he's made since making border security a top priority during his 2014 primary campaign. Earlier this year, Ducey gave about $560,000 to sheriffs in Yuma and Cochise counties for border security efforts by shifting money from two inland counties.
Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato confirmed the effort but declined to provide details. Scarpinato said it was part of a broader border security effort where the governor is working with counties and other stakeholders.
Asked about the initiative earlier this week, DPS Director Frank Milstead said he could not provide details in advance of a planned announcement by the governor.
That announcement is expected as early as next week.
Santa Cruz County sheriff Tony Estrada said he's met with Milstead and a member of the governor's staff in recent weeks and said the initiative involved 200 state troopers. Milstead said that number wasn't accurate, but he mentioned a similar number during a September meeting with border sheriffs, according to the Sierra Vista Herald.
Arizona's border with Mexico has long been known for drug and immigrant smuggling. Officials complain that break-ins and violent crime are often committed by groups coming from or returning to Mexico.
Federal efforts along the border have been paying off, however. The federal government has greatly expanded its border presence. Immigration from Mexico has also slowed considerably this decade, and the number of immigrants apprehended in the Border Patrol's Tucson sector in 2014 dipped to a 22-year low. Nearby Yuma plummeted to 1960s lows starting in 2011.
A version of the Oct. 28 letter sent to Dannels was apparently also sent to at least one other sheriff. The Yuma County sheriff's Office confirmed it had received a letter from the governor, but the office has not yet provided it under a public records request sent Tuesday.
"There is no limit to the violence and lawlessness committed by criminals who use our southern borders to smuggle people, illicit drugs, and money derived from criminal activities," Ducey wrote to Dannels. "As the governor of the great state of Arizona it is my commitment to you and the people in our state that we will combat this threat together."
Estrada said Wednesday that he has not received a similar letter. He said during a recent meeting with Milstead he told him that state troopers need to boost patrols in the early morning hours, when smugglers and other criminals take advantage of DPS's lack of overnight shifts in his county.
"You've got money, you've got weapons you've got cars and fugitives going south. You've got drugs, illegals and money and everything else going north," Estrada said. "And you don't have anything after 2 o'clock in the morning. That's an open invitation."
Ducey made border security a major issue in the 2014 GOP primary, promising to "fight back with every resource at my command" to secure the state's border with Mexico.
"Fencing, satellites, guardsmen, more police and prosecutors," Ducey said in a campaign ad. "We'll get this done. If Barack Obama won't do the job, Arizonans will."