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Cartel lookouts give go-ahead from desert hilltops

By Astrid Galvan

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) - Men paid to be lookouts for Mexican drug cartels used sophisticated technology to spot law enforcement and alert smugglers in the Arizona desert, a trafficking tactic under investigation by local and federal authorities for months.

The arrests of the group of men mark what Pinal County authorities say is an ongoing problem in the county 70 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Sheriff's officials say the county is ripe with cartel activity that travels north from two Arizona counties sitting directly on the border.

The men used cellphones, encrypted radios, binoculars and other technologies and said they spent more than a week at a time in the desert working as lookouts, or so-called scouts. They had guns, lived on hilltops, mountains and caves, and alerted criminals smuggling people and drugs when authorities were nearby.

The Pinal County sheriff's office began investigating the lookouts in February after pulling over a 22-year-old man in Eloy, between Phoenix and Tucson. Ramon Garcia was driving a van carrying 600 pounds of food and other supplies. He told deputies he was being paid $4,000 to pick up the van in a Phoenix suburb and drop it off in the desert.

Over the next few months, deputies and U.S. Border Patrol agents conducted an investigation that led to the arrest of seven suspected scouts. Early on March 7, a Border Patrol Blackhawk helicopter descended on a lookout post near Stanfield, about 33 miles west of Eloy off Interstate 8. Three suspects ran, hiding in a cave and behind rocks, but all were arrested.

Two of those men, Jose Aispuro and Jose Gambino-Ruiz, have pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to possess marijuana for sale and were sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison.

Authorities made more arrests three days later. One of those apprehended, Francisco Noriega-Nunez, pleaded guilty to the same charge and received the same sentence.

Garcia has pleaded guilty to assisting a criminal syndicate, a felony offense.

Border agents frequently encounter lookouts and say they are crucial to drug and human smuggling. The lookouts are often men in their 20s and early 30s who spend weeks in the desert and receive food and materials originating in the U.S.

The federal government should redirect money to secure the U.S. border with Mexico as it "continues to put up signs warning Americans that it is not safe to travel due to criminal smuggling," Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said in a statement.

"The arrest of these drug cartel scouts on mountain tops is further proof that the border is not secure," Babeu said.

The case is the first time the county attorney has prosecuted suspected lookouts, a sheriff's spokesman said. Although deputies have arrested them in the past, they typically were turned over to the Border Patrol. The federal agency did not respond to a request for comment.

Join the discussion

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iroquois90 June 16 2014 at 11:33 PM

We should've slammed the border shut 20 years ago; anyone who enters legally, we welcome with open arms! Anyone else; go home & come in the right way!

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9 replies
lpengrg June 16 2014 at 11:00 PM

It is absurd how little the department of homeland secutiry is doing about securing our sourthern border. If they would spend as much time there as they do on spying on American citizens we may be able to stop some of this criminal activity.

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14 replies
Jim & Carol June 16 2014 at 11:14 PM

Why should Obama stop them from coming in? They are a lock for future Democratic votes.

Flag Reply +99 rate up
22 replies
walt.hafer June 16 2014 at 11:30 PM

Tuesday Obama is welcoming, illegal invaders, in the White House giving two of them AWARDS, for helping others to invade the US.
Truth truly is stranger than fiction.

Flag Reply +82 rate up
4 replies
moooooooooochelle June 16 2014 at 11:41 PM


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3 replies
cptberm55 June 16 2014 at 11:33 PM

Use Blackhawks what they were meant to be used for blow the bastards to hell ....

Flag Reply +58 rate up
4 replies
revivalman June 16 2014 at 11:13 PM

So in the past, the captured lookouts were turned over to the Border patrol and then what? They were sent back to Mexico? They were released? They were transported to Phoenix so they could collect welfare? Who knows, because the US Border Patrol did not respond to a request for comment.

At least Pinal Co. Sheriff Paul Babeu is doing something. He's arresting them and they are being sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. Of course prison to these Mexicans is probably like staying at a Hilton Hotel.

Flag Reply +52 rate up
7 replies
bigfoot12158 June 16 2014 at 11:30 PM

The efficient use of bullets would cure this. Perhaps even Quigley style--a two-fer with people lined up in a row!! This kind of tactic would minimize the invasion from the south!

Flag Reply +26 rate up
2 replies
naojf22936 bigfoot12158 June 17 2014 at 7:41 AM


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5 replies
prispiggie bigfoot12158 June 17 2014 at 1:35 PM

The really "effecient" way to stop a drug problem is to do what China did at the turn of the 20th century. They didn't worry about the pushers or suppliers, they killed all the users. The message was loud and clear. If you use drugs you will be killed. Eventually suppliers went out of business. What are they going to do when no one buys your product? Eat it? Thousands died but the problem was solved.

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1 reply
jabaileydc prispiggie June 17 2014 at 1:49 PM

What's the difference between marijuana and alcohol? When prohibition was revoked, it took the bootleggers out of business and rid of the crime for such activity. Your suggestion to "kill the user" is absurd! Apparently, to make such a suggestion, you have a real bad alcohol or prescription drug problem! Or, maybe you were just dropped on your head when you were a baby?

Flag +1 rate up
Fraginals5@aol.c June 17 2014 at 7:41 AM

What is happening right now is an invasion of our country. Yes, an invasion, and the government is doing nothing to stop it.

Flag Reply +5 rate up
printquick June 17 2014 at 8:17 AM

You're not gonna like this but the solution is simple, we catch you crossing the border illegally and you will be shot on sight. Problem solved. I bet less than 50 people would be shot before the illegal drugs and people would trickle to almost nothing.

Flag Reply +4 rate up
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