Cartel lookouts give go-ahead from desert hilltops

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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.