In speeches and campaign commercials, Gov. Doug Ducey has portrayed Arizona’s Border Strike Force as a recently created law-enforcement bureau designed to attack the flow of drugs into Arizona coming via Mexican cartels. Newly released documents show the reality is far different.
The Border Strike Force does most of its work outside of the border region, concentrating in Maricopa County, but also including counties across northern Arizona, according to documents released by the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
It has made arrests or seized some drugs in every Arizona county, including those encompassing the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert and Monument Valley — hundreds of miles from the Mexican border.
Most of the team’s cases do not involve organized drug-smuggling efforts, the documents show. Many busts involve either non-organized crimes or minuscule amounts of drugs measured in fractions of a pound.
More commonly, there are no drugs at all.
The Strike Force, despite an infusion of $82 million in personnel and equipment, is also not entirely new — at least not in the way it is often portrayed by Ducey.
Most of its operations are conducted by task forces that were created at least a decade ago to target gangs, human smuggling and stolen vehicles.
Thousands of lines of spreadsheet data cataloging Border Strike Force activities, as well as interviews with law enforcement personnel and prosecutors, suggest the bulk of the Strike Force’s seizures come from the solid, unheralded work troopers have done for years — patrols, theft investigations, some smuggling busts — that have been renamed and given a higher profile.
The Border Strike Force has become a key talking point in Ducey’s re-election campaign.
He has extolled the work at news conferences, used it in campaign stump speeches, and it has figured significantly in a barrage of television commercials showing the governor standing along the Mexico border, promising to continue to “secure” Arizona if elected to a second term.
The spreadsheets of cases were released to The Arizona Republic two months after reporters requested documentation to back up the numbers touted by Ducey. While the records are missing some key details and have inconsistencies with the department’s own calculations, they do shed light on the task force’s activities.
They also raise more questions.
It is not clear what constitutes a Strike Force case and what constitutes the routine work of the DPS, which has long tallied impressive statistics of drug seizures during traffic stops.
For fiscal years 2016 and 2017, the last for which DPS seizure numbers are available in annual reports, the Border Strike Force was credited for about three-quarters of all marijuana, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine seized statewide by the complex narcotics investigations. Those types of investigations have gone on for years before the Strike Force.
Also puzzling is that the spreadsheet of Border Strike Force cases produced by the DPS includes a handful of cases that date back to before Strike Force’s creation.
It remains unclear exactly where the funding for the Border Strike Force went, what personnel was added to the team and how many additional cases have been spurred by the presumably expanded — if not brand new — law enforcement teams.
The documents illuminate several details, including:
Overall, DPS drug seizures don’t show a spike after the creation of the Strike Force.
The seizure statistics have continued to ebb and flow, following national trends and calling into question how much has really changed three years and $82 million later.
DPS officials defend how they portray the work of the Strike Force.
“The Border Strike Force is not a catch-all term, nor is it a rebranding for long-standing efforts of the Arizona Department of Public Safety,” the agency said in a statement Friday.
“It is an operational bureau, deliberately designed to enhance and engage existing and new department resources, along with partnering agency resources, in a unified collaboration to successfully complete its mission.”
Ducey, during a brief interview on Wednesday, said the Border Strike Force was performing as planned, despite the lack of focus on the border-area cartel crimes.
“We envisioned the Strike Force working in a way that protects public safety, with a priority on the border, with a priority on drug cartels, human trafficking and child sex trafficking,” he said.
The Strike Force’s mission did not originally extend to human trafficking, but that has been included in speeches and testimony by Ducey since a traffic stop by a DPS trooper found a suspected sex trafficking victim in a vehicle.
Ducey said it made sense that the Strike Force members would encounter smaller-scale crimes. “These are sworn peace officers,” he said, “so when they find crime they’re going to act on that as well.”
But some law enforcement officials are skeptical of the statistics.
“Liars figure and figures lie,” said Navajo County Sheriff K.C. Clark, whose county was among those wrapped into the Border Strike Force documents.
Clark was surprised to find cases from his northern Arizona county included among the Border Strike Force cases, including stops that netted amounts as small as 0.011 pounds of marijuana.
“That’s not cartel-related,” he told The Republic. “You’re padding your stats for an $87 million boondoggle.”
Major drug busts incredibly rare
It is impossible to know what the seizure numbers would have looked like without the Border Strike Force. But its implementation hasn’t resulted in a spike in the amounts of DPS-seized drugs, according to records.
Though some major drug busts have come under the Strike Force’s umbrella and comprise the bulk of the team’s seizure totals, the statistics have also included cases involving very small amounts of methamphetamine, marijuana, heroin or cocaine.
According to DPS documents spanning Sept. 1, 2015, to Sept. 14 of this year, investigators considered to be part of the Border Strike Force seized:
That’s in addition to 421 firearms, 3,458 recovered stolen vehicles and 3,840 arrests.
Strike Force activities have also yielded 761 arrests of what the DPS deems “suspected illegal aliens.”
Those are significant numbers.
But the drug seizure totals are notsignificantly different from previous years or work from the same groups now wrapped under the Strike Force umbrella, a Republic analysis shows.
The DPS, over the past decade, has seized substantial amounts of drugs through traffic stops made by highway patrol members. In most years, the amounts seized by troopers were equal to or greater than the amounts seized by the investigations unit that handles complex drug cases.
In previous years, the DPS reported seizing more than 100,000 pounds of marijuana. That has since slowed and the amounts of heroin have been on the rise, a parallel to national drug seizure trends.
Half of the 991 Strike Force cases involving marijuana seizures were for a pound or less. Though not an insignificant amount, two border sheriffs and others in law enforcement said that quantity is typically seen as indicative of personal use, not distribution or dealing.
Sheriff Leon Wilmot of Yuma County said his own department doesn’t consider personal use drug busts part of its border enforcement mission and questioned why the DPS would do so.
Wilmot’s department is one of two Arizona border counties that do not participate in the Strike Force. If his department did, Wilmot said, he would object to small-scale amounts, indicative of personal use, being counted as part of the Strike Force statistics.
“That’s not what the Border Strike Force was about,” Wilmot said.
Wilmot has sent a letter to lawmakers asking them to audit the Strike Force, and he has said the DPS could do more to improve safety by restoring 24-hour patrols of the border regions — among the earliest goals of the Strike Force, which has yet to be fulfilled.
Santa Cruz Sheriff Tony Estrada, whose county encompasses the busy Nogales port of entry, said he doubted the small-scale busts are only affecting the people arrested.
“I don’t believe that’s really hurting the cartels,” he said. “When you’re talking personal use (amounts), they’re not big time. They’re not the ones that are moving it.”
Stretching the definition of ‘border’
Ducey’s Border Strike Force has extended the definition of Arizona’s border region.
Stops and seizures credited to the Strike Force have extended into each of the state’s counties. Its largest drug seizures, some of which have been featured in news releases and news conferences, have come from a mix of the border regions and the interior of Arizona.
The two largest meth seizures reported by the Strike Force, for example, came from Pima County in May and September of this year. But the two largest marijuana seizures reported by the DPS were from the non-border counties of Pinal and Maricopa.
Just over one-third of the Strike Force’s more than 7,000 cases originate in the state’s four border counties, Yuma, Pima, Cochise and Santa Cruz. About one-third come from Maricopa County, which encompasses most of the Phoenix metro area.
About 17 percent comes from the state’s remaining counties, which include all regions north of Phoenix. The remaining cases are listed as either originating in Mexico or from an unlisted area.
“Border-related crime is not contained in the four border counties — in fact, it far exceeds international, state, and county boundaries,” the DPS said Friday. “… To merely focus our efforts along the border would ignore the reality of a threat that permeates at the border and is then transported via highways and freeways.”
A sheet of statistics produced by the DPS, meant to be a primer on the Border Strike Force, describes its “geographical focus area” as being central and southern Arizona. A map shows that portion of Arizona highlighted.
Over time, the share of Strike Force cases out of Maricopa County has risen.
State Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Kingman, said he considered the drug busts in Mohave County, which he represents, and the other non-border counties as evidence of the residual effects of drugs that stream across a porous border.
Borrelli, a supporter of the Strike Force, said small busts in non-border areas could still lead to cartel investigations.
“They’re getting it from somewhere,” he said. “It just didn’t land out of the sky.”
Wilmot, the chairman of the Southwest Border Sheriffs Association, said both that group and the federal government consider the border region to extend only to the area 100 miles north of the border. It would not encompass the entire state of Arizona.
Estrada said large quantities in northern Arizona could indicate smuggling but said there would need to be “a lot of criteria to determine that.”
The cases the Attorney General’s office sees from the Border Strike Force spring from highway stops, said Ryan Anderson, a spokesman for the office.
“Our mandate is we want to move up the chain and find bigger fish,” he said.
But, he said, the caseload for the southern Arizona office is becoming unwieldy. The Attorney General’s Office has asked the Legislature for additional funding to hire more prosecutors.
If the funds aren’t granted, the office will have to prioritize the cases it takes and, Anderson said, the Strike Force cases would probably be the first the office would stop prosecuting.
Vehicle thefts driving the numbers
Records show 80 percent of Strike Force cases involve no drugs at all.
Rather, the longstanding Vehicle Theft Task Force results in significantly more cases than any other unit in Ducey’s Border Strike Force — 55 percent of the group’s cases since 2015, according to the spreadsheet.
It remains a much less flashy aspect of the team’s operations, though adding 3,458 recovered vehicles to the Strike Force’s stat sheet.
It is funded in part by more than $3 million from the little-known Arizona Automobile Theft Authority, which collects a $1 surcharge on Arizonans’ car insurance policies — that group had millions of dollars siphoned to create the Border Strike Force.
“While the VTTF is combating vehicle theft, they are also having a significant impact on the overall crime problem facing our state,” DPS spokesman Bart Graves said recently.
“…The mission of the VTTF has not changed for decades. What has changed are the trends, tactics and technology that are utilized by both the criminals committing vehicle theft and the law enforcement officers trying to stop them.”
How do officials explain the numbers?
The cases that do involve drugs seizures are split among three units: K9, southern investigations and the GIITEM gang task force.
DPS Director Frank Milstead previously told The Republic that the Strike Force was a separate entity from GIITEM. He said GIITEM was focused more on street gangs, not immigration.
Milstead also suggested that many drug seizures are initiated by another unit: regular highway patrol troopers.
The DPS said it is continuing its “all-crimes approach” on “transnational criminal organizations” that might be involved in a range of criminal activity or border-related crime, even if that might include lower-level offenders caught up in long-standing programs.
Responding to The Republic’s questions about where the Strike Force’s statistics come from and what accounts for the relatively small percentage of drug busts, Ducey said the group needs to be looked at in totality to appreciate its effectiveness.