Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts featuring a border sheriff and a migrant advocate addressing the immigration crisis on the Arizona-Sonora border from different vantage points.

DOUGLAS, Arizona (Border Report) – Men in camouflage carrying backpacks walk across the desert. Sometimes they get on all fours so border agents can’t see them. Hidden cameras catch their illegal entry into the United States, nonetheless.

An suspected drug courier crosses the U.S. border from Mexico in Southeast Arizona. (Courtesy Cochise County Sheriff’s Office)

Later, one of the migrants can be seen walking with a large, taped square plastic bag presumably laden with marijuana and other drugs. A fully staffed U.S. Border Patrol would normally rush to the scene, apprehend the group and confiscate the drugs. But Cochise County Sheriff Mark J. Dannels says border agents are so tied up at processing centers that many such groups are getting away, their drugs reaching the streets of America’s heartland.

“We’ve had over 60,000 get-aways. These are people that are seen on Border Patrol cameras but have not been captured,” says Dannels, whose Southeastern Arizona county borders Mexico. “I don’t fault Border Patrol on that. I fault Congress and this administration because we must have a strong message when it comes to border security. But when you divert Border Patrol into immigration processing, childcare, administrative work, that opens up opportunity for the cartels.”

To make matters worse, Dannels said staffing challenges have forced the Border Patrol to close several highway checkpoints that serve as a last line of defense to keep drugs and unauthorized migrants from leaving the border region.  

Cochise County (Arizona) Sheriff Mark J. Dannels (photo by Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

“When you take these resources […] that’s 300 agents that we no longer can use when my deputies stop a car with suspected illegal aliens in the back. If they don’t come, I have no immigration authority,” the sheriff said.

In a statement to Border Report, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the Tucson Sector, which includes Cochise County, “has redirected manpower, based on operational needs, in response to shifting traffic patterns.”

The agency confirmed some highway checkpoints – it wouldn’t say which ones – have been closed in Southeastern Arizona. “We expect to reopen these checkpoints as manpower and activity levels dictate,” the agency said.

The staffing changes come at a time when transnational criminal organizations have ramped up production of highly addictive and potentially fatal synthetic drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine. Health authorities blame these and other substances for the opioid epidemic that last year claimed some 80,000 American lives.

Across the border from Douglas, the Sinaloa cartel not only controls the export of illegal drugs into the United States but have taken over migrant smuggling as well. That explains why drug “mules” might walk alongside Mexican or Central American citizens only looking to start a new life in the United States.

“Over there, ‘Tin-Tin’ gets a cut from every migrant that comes over,” said one of Dannel’s top deputies, who took a Border Report crew on a tour of problem areas.

Tin-Tin, whom Mexican media has identified as Martin Alonso Siqueiros, is a “plaza boss” in Agua Prieta, Sonora – the person in charge of a cartel’s operation in each city or territory. The cartel uses spotters and informants to track the movement of Border Patrol agents and sheriff’s deputies and has even built “spider holes” in the desert so that its drug couriers can hide when chased by the Border Patrol, the deputy said.

“They’re very disciplined, very structured and mission driven. That’s how they get their drugs across into the United States,” Sheriff Dannels said. “They are very protective of their business, which is built on fear and violence.”

He said the cartel earlier this year issued a death threat against one of his deputies after a drug seizure. That proves that Mexican criminal organizations are “emboldened” by what they perceive as an open border policy by the Biden administration.

He said he’s relayed to Washington, D.C., the need to send an unequivocal message to the world that the United States will enforce its laws.

“It is very important we have the capacity to say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to tolerate smuggling on the border or anywhere else.’ We have to protect this country and if you open up your borders, who knows where this is going to lead,” Dannels said.

(Courtesy Cochise County Sheriff’s Office)

The sheriff said his deputies are “exhausted” from watching out for cartel drug activity and that residents of the county are frustrated with the increased people smuggling to the point that he fears a violent confrontation may erupt at any time.

“People are truly on edge in my county about what’s going on because they don’t see the solutions. […] What they do see is the trafficking, the invasion to their way of life, the trespass, the pursuits. I worry about that, the horrific event that is looming out there. A citizen or law enforcement is going to get killed,” he said.

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