Cartel lookouts give go-ahead from desert hilltops

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Cartel lookouts give go-ahead from desert hilltops
MISSION, TX - APRIL 11: U.S. Office of Air and Marine (OAM), agent Jake Dreher stands over a drug smuggler on the bank of the Rio Grande River at the U.S.-Mexico Border on April 11, 2013 in Mission, Texas. Agents with helicopter support from the U.S. Office of Air and Marine broke up a marijuana smuggling operation from Mexico into Texas. In addition to the drug smuggling, U.S. Border Patrol agents say they have also seen an additional surge in immigrant traffic in Texas' Rio Grande Valley sector since immigration reform negotiations began this year in Washington D.C. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
SONOITA, AZ - FEBRUARY 26: A U.S. Border Patrol patrol searches for undocumented immigrants and drug smugglers on February 26, 2013 near Sonoita, Arizona. The Federal government has increased the Border Patrol presence in Arizona, from some 1,300 agents in the year 2000 ro 4,400 in 2012. The apprehension of undocumented immigrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico has declined during that time from 600,016 in 2000 to 123,000 in 2012. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
SONOITA, AZ - FEBRUARY 26: A U.S. Border Patrol patrol searches for undocumented immigrants and drug smugglers on February 26, 2013 near Sonoita, Arizona. The Federal government has increased the Border Patrol presence in Arizona, from some 1,300 agents in the year 2000 ro 4,400 in 2012. The apprehension of undocumented immigrants crossing into the U.S. from Mexico has declined during that time from 600,016 in 2000 to 123,000 in 2012. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
HIDALGO, TX - APRIL 10: A U.S. Border Patrol Agent inspects a pickup truckload of marijuana seized from drug smugglers near the U.S.-Mexico border on April 10, 2013 in Hidalgo, Texas. The agents, guided by helicopter surveillance from the U.S. Office of Air and Marine, waited more than four hours in hiding before seizing more than 900 pounds of the drug. The smugglers ran and escaped by swimming back across the Rio Grande River into Mexico. Border Patrol agents say they have also seen an additional surge in immigrant traffic since immigration reform negotiations began this year in Washington D.C. Proposed refoms could provide a path to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million undocumented workers living in the United States. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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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.


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