FLORENCE, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) - Thousands of pounds of illicit drugs cross the Arizona border and through Southern Arizona each year. Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu says his deputies are fighting drug cartel members too far north of the border, but the cartel is often one stop ahead with the help of scouts on hilltops.
Babeu says these cartel scouts are generally unarmed, but provide the eyes and ears for smugglers bringing drugs north of the border.
"At least 75 to 100 lookouts in Pinal County. There is far more than that and I don't want to give you the impression that they are always staffed with cartel lookouts, it's fluid and it's depending on where their smuggling operations are," said Babeu.
Sheriff's deputies have found scouts with numerous cell phones, solar panel chargers, binoculars, even encrypted radios.
"While they are talking on secure networks for their communication from mountain top to mountain top, they are listening to my deputies. They are listening to deputies on patrol in Pinal County and whether or not they are coming up on them," said Babeu.
Babeu says his deputies will have encrypted radio communication until next year.
In the past year, Pinal County Sheriff's deputies arrested 19 cartel scouts, something Babeu says had never been done before.
"They are sitting next door in our jail, we will not turn over anyone we arrest. They will stay in our county, in our jail, they will be prosecuted by our county attorney," he said.
Babeu says every one of the scouts they arrested was sentenced to at least two-and-a-half years in prison for aiding a criminal syndicate.
"Normally in law enforcement we look at the actual smugglers," says Babeu. "[Scouts] are clearly a part of this operation and their network, so we have been able to prosecute them and now the feds are starting to do this."
Congresswoman Martha McSally recently introduced a bill to begin prosecution of scouts when they are arrested.
In the past, scouts would be released back to Mexico on VR, or voluntary return.
"They'd sign a waiver for going through the process here in the U.S. and they'd return to their country of origin ready to try again," said Babeu.
He says they have financial incentive to continue trying. During interviews with scouts, deputies learned they earn thousands of dollars a week, about $100 for each load they get usher past authorities.
"The downside of this I've never mentioned is that far more than that number get away, probably 30 or more have gotten away while we have attempted to capture or arrest them," said Babeu.
The sheriff took Nine On Your Side in a helicopter above his county to show where the scouts, what they are doing, and why it is so difficult to arrest them.
On small hilltops across the county, scouts clear small areas and set up a camp. Sleeping bags, water bottles, and more show where exactly scouts spent their time. From the tops of the hills, they can see for miles in each direction, able to alert smugglers with drug loads where authorities are lurking.
Deputies have spotted scouts on the hills, but by the time they try and make an arrest, the scouts will spring down the hill and hide in small ravines.
"If you checked every mountain out here, I'm sure they are tons of them on just about every mountain peak," said Lt. Scott Elliot as he piloted the helicopter.
One reason Babeu and his deputies are fighting the cartel is because what they do here, affects the rest of the country.
"They are coming through our backyard, but they are ending up in communities all over the country."