PINAL COUNTY, Ariz. - Violence raging across the southern border is being fought by courageous law enforcement officers doing their best to stop the flow of illegal drugs coming across from Mexico.
But instead of help from the federal government, a group of sheriffs in Arizona are being hauled into court. Residents along the border are fed up with what they say is a slap in the face for all Americans.
H.L. Cooper has been flying ultralight aircraft around southern Arizona for more than twenty years. This incredible view shows the vastness of the desert along the Arizona-Mexico border.
Armed and Dangerous
But along with the beautiful vistas of mountains and saguaro cactus, Cooper sees another sight on a regular basis from his vantage point in the sky - illegal aliens transporting drugs across the desert, bound for America's fifth-largest city: Phoenix.
"Nowadays, there's a whole lot more drug running than there used to be," he said.
Illegal immigration has always been an issue. What's changed is the level of violence.
"It's been getting worse and worse," Cooper continued. "As far as safer? No. We're right in the middle of it."
"When they come out of this valley, we're one of the first places they come to," he said, sweeping his hand over the landscape view below. "We've been vandalized, we've been stolen from."
"We used to hike all over the desert out here. Anymore now, we don't go out without being armed," he said.
And the problem isn't only on the ground. Border patrol reports that drug runners are using ultralight aircraft to bring loads of drugs across the border and drop them in the United States. But they aren't the only thing in the sky.
Recently, border patrol agents started using two remotely piloted surveillance aircraft to patrol the desolate stretches of desert where smuggling is prevalent. These eyes-in-the-sky also help the effectiveness of agents on the ground.
Suing the Sheriffs
But residents along the border say more needs to be done. Rancher Ed Ashurst's neighbor was murdered by an illegal earlier this year.
"When I first moved to this country, most of the activity you saw was people going north looking for a job," Ashurst said. "The last several years it's changed into mainly outlaw activity - they pack dope north, drop it off. And on the way south they like to break into homes here on the American side and pack off things like a gun, something like that."
"And eighty percent of the homes have been burglarized in the last two winters by illegal aliens," he said.
Further north, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu says his hands are full protecting residents from the drug violence. And he hasn't gotten much help from the federal government.
In fact, the Obama administration recently supported the American Civil Liberties Union in bringing a lawsuit against Babeau and several other Arizona sherrifs, suing to stop them from enforcing Arizona's immigration law.
"This is a hotbed for criminal activity," Babeu said during a press conference in Casa Grande, Ariz.. "We need soldiers, armed soldiers to the border now to stop this from continuing. And in response to our plea for help and for armed soldiers, they put up these signs not written in Spanish, not facing south to the Mexican border, but facing north - in English. A warning to our citizens, 'Travel not recommended.' This is unacceptable."
While the war of words continues in Washington, the people of southern Arizona face weapons that are much deadlier. This year alone, the drug war along the border has claimed more than 2,500 lives -- nearly five times the number of American troops killed this year in Afghanistan.
"I believe this is a greater threat to our national security, than any other threat that exists today," Babeu said.
Pinal County law enforcement regularly encounters armed drug smugglers who have all but taken over wide areas of this high mountain desert.
Out in a remote area of this county, one of Babeu's deputies pointed to a sign encouraging Americans to avoid the area.
"From this point on it's a standing order that we don't come out here without two deputies, due to one of our deputies getting shot in the leg about four miles south of this area,"
In addition to the danger, trash left in this area is a big problem. Illegals come down out from the mountains, across the desert, three to five days walking. Then they dump all their stuff here next to the freeway, get on trucks and head into Phoenix.
One bag here has an American flag on it that says, "United States Aid from the Agency for International Development, USAID." This is a bag that America sent down to Central America filled with Bulghur wheat. It's now coming back filled with drugs.
But piles of garbage are the least of these deputies worries, as they continue to face attacks from the narco-traffickers as well as the federal government.