Smuggling violence prompts stronger warning to visitors at national monument south of Phoenix

PHOENIX (AP) — An increase in smuggling violence at the Sonoran Desert National Monument about 80 miles south of Phoenix has prompted a stronger warning to visitors about drug and immigrant traffickers passing through the public lands, officials said Tuesday.

The monument and three other federal lands in Arizona already have signs warning visitors that they may encounter smugglers. But 11 new signs have recently been erected and two more were planned at the Sonoran Desert National Monument.

The new signs warn visitors about speeding smuggling vehicles and instruct them to walk away when seeing something suspicious and avoid abandoned vehicles and backpacks because they might contain drugs stashed there by smugglers.

Tom Lister, the Bureau of Land Management's chief law enforcement ranger in Arizona, said authorities felt a stronger warning was needed because the area is near where a Pinal County deputy was shot in a confrontation with marijuana smugglers in April and where two men suspected of being involved in smuggling were fatally shot earlier this month.

Signs warning visitors of smugglers have been put up in the past in southern Arizona at the Sonoran Desert National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Coronado National Forest.

The new signs were erected at the Sonoran Desert National Monument's access points south of Interstate 8 between Casa Grande and Gila Bend.

While the monument isn't located directly on the border, it's used as a pathway for traffickers headed to Phoenix, a busy hub for moving illegal immigrants and marijuana across the United States.

Smuggling at the monument declined from 2005 through 2008 but is picking up again, Lister said.

Authorities said they weren't telling visitors to stay out of the monument, though the new signs encourage people to use the monument's lands north of the interstate.