TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - Within minutes of takeoff from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Agents Keith Kincannon and Jack Painter get a bird's-eye view of Tucson.
"There's not much of a barrier between every day life here in the city, and what goes on in the middle of the desert," Kincannon said.
Kincannon and Painter are with Air and Marine Operations. AMO is a federal agency within U.S. Customs and Border Protection. About 90% of what AMO agents do is provide Border Patrol with air support, spotting alien and drug smugglers in the desert.
"We're in a transit zone," Painter said. "So they come from the border, flow through the Tucson area."
AMO agents in Tucson patrol Southwest Arizona and the 365 miles of the Arizona-Mexico border. The rugged areas they watch over would take hours to get to on foot, and may be too dangerous for officers on the ground. When agents detect a group of smugglers, AMO helps find them from the air. The AMO Tucson Air Branch is home to a sophisticated fleet of aircraft with infrared systems, including three Black Hawk and 14 AirStar helicopters.
"Using that type of equipment for those types of missions really helps secure, or keep agents and officers safe on the ground," said agent Alexander Zamora.
With new technology, agents say smugglers have found new ways to hide. Years ago Painter says he would see groups of up to 100 crossing, and now the groups are much smaller and include 5 or 6 people.
"They'll be dressed in full camouflage from head to toe, which makes them really hard to find," Kincannon said.
"They know the agents are trying to follow their tracks in the sand or on the trails, so they'll actually put carpet underneath their feet," Painter said.
AMO also uses its aircraft to aid in rescue missions. In September, agents helped the Tucson sector BORSTAR team in the aerial rescue of a pregnant woman near Sells in the Baboquivari Mountain range. The woman and her husband who crossed the border were from Ecuador. Agents say she got stuck in harsh terrain, and was lucky to be rescued in time.
This year the AMO branch in Tucson has flown 3,500 missions for 11,000 hours. Agents have helped seize 267,650 pounds of marijuana and 276 pounds of methamphetamine. It has also seized 72 vehicles, 64 weapons and $55,000 in currency.