PINAL COUNTY, Ariz. — "If he wants to see fresh tracks and footprints, these are hours old," Lt. Chris Lapre told me and Pinal County Chief Deputy Sheriff Matthew Thomas through the thick brush right off of I-8. Thomas had just shown me the improvised waypoints smugglers from Mexico use on their trek north.
Full black water jugs were in the brush not too far from where the fresh footprints were. The "resupply points" are well-hidden to drivers who are zipping by on the road and were filled with trash that was discarded by the border crossers.
"We missed them by a couple of hours," Lapre said.
While Pinal County is not directly on the southwest border — it is about an hour and a half drive from Mexico— the local law enforcement officers are directly on the frontlines of the slowly emerging border crisis that has begun to take shape with President Joe Biden reversing key immigration policies set in place by former President Donald Trump.
Even before Biden took office, Thomas said they started to notice an increase in foot traffic in the late fall of 2020 because the Mexican cartels knew the more "hands-off" approach Biden would take when dealing with the southwest border. The effect is what he's calling "Obama 2.0" since they saw similar behavior under President Barack Obama's administration.
"When [Trump] took office, we saw that this area out here went completely dead. Nobody was moving, nobody was smuggling because [the cartels] knew that Trump was going to put all hands on deck out down here and that they would be intercepted so it came to a screeching halt," Thomas said. "It was a very slow trickle to get back to some kind of normal but it never got back to where it was."
The Pinal County Sheriff's Office saw a dramatic decline in human trafficking for a few years in the early 2010s because the cartels wanted to focus on getting drugs into the United States. Once marijuana started to become legal in the U.S., it devalued their cash crop so the cartels switched to hard drugs, such as fentanyl, which is easier to transport and is not limited to growing seasons like marijuana. Now, law enforcement in the county is seeing human smuggling making a comeback in addition to the regular drug runs.
While most illegal drugs enter the United States through different Ports of Entry, Thomas explained cartels still run drugs on foot since detection methods at the POEs are getting better.
With the construction of the new border wall system being ordered by Biden to be halted as one of his first acts in office, Thomas said this was an issue because in areas where the barriers were not built, it has created a funnel that leads directly into Pinal County. Outside of Tucson and a few Indian villages in the Tohono O'odham Nation Reservation nearby, the smugglers who work for the Sinaloa cartel take full advantage of the open desert to get to I-8.
"For us, effectively, I-8...becomes the new border and even the cartels will tell you that's their goal line because once they get there, they're shooting west or they're shooting east and then they're on a main interstate right into downtown Phoenix...we become the kickoff point for that," said Thomas.
As for how the smuggling traffic affects the rest of the country, Thomas put it bluntly: Drugs and illegal immigrants get by them due to the lack of manpower.
"These people and these drugs are not coming here to Pinal County to stay. This is a transport location. This is a spot they get through to get to their final destination and they're being sent all over the country."