By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
When Fat Albert is working, he floats on a tether 10,000 feet above the border. But he's more of a buffoon than a balloon.
A few months ago, a Sierra Vista cop was driving over the San Pedro River on Arizona 90 when he saw a low-flying airplane zigzagging into Cochise County from Mexico.
Was it a dope smuggler? The cop notified Fat Albert. He expected to hear later that day about a drug bust he had initiated with the phone call. But the cop found out that Fat Albert hadn't detected anything. The cop's co-workers teased him: You were seeing things. After all, Fat Albert sees all, doesn't he?
Fat Albert, as the U.S. Customs Service's $18 million Aerostat is dubbed, has been billed as the feds' hottest new weapon in its war on dope. The blimp is supposed to hover above the mountains on the southeastern edge of Fort Huachuca. Fat Albert, who is the size of a 747, is supposed to beam sophisticated radar 160 miles into Mexico in an attempt to spot airplanes sneaking into the United States.
When Fat Albert's keepers detect a suspicious-looking plane, they are supposed to notify an air squadron located at Tucson's Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. The squadron--which includes two Blackhawk helicopters, several fixed-wing planes and a jet--is supposed to scramble and give chase.
But Fat Albert has a bad reputation. For one thing, he has been directly credited with leading cops to just two drug busts totaling 3,600 pounds of marijuana since he started work in June 1988.
"I haven't seen the balloon help us on the ground at all," says Bill Townsend, the head of Cochise County's beleaguered antidrug strike force. "When they bring the balloon down because of wind or whatever, all that happens is that somebody over here calls Mexico and lets the smugglers know. The planes immediately fly in from Cananea, drop the stuff off and are back in Mexico in minutes. Meantime, we start hearing from people: `I just saw a plane, I just saw a plane.' All we can do is thank them."
Customs Service officials admit their vaunted blimp doesn't detect about one quarter of the planes that fly within its range. Even if Fat Albert's presence has caused some drug traffickers to move their operations from air to ground, local agencies don't have the manpower to cope. The Sierra Vista Police Department has just one detective--David Wheeler--working narcotics. That's in an area with a population approaching 50,000.
"If I'm doing something in one place, I can't be across town doing something else," Wheeler says. He adds sardonically, "We don't have a drug problem down here anyway, so I guess it doesn't really matter what we do."
The county's narcs laugh that the feds ought to sell advertising space on Fat Albert.
"We might just as well blink a neon message on it that says, `Just Say No,' and maybe then it would at least be worth something," says one agent. "The balloon is a big deal in Washington, D.C., for some reason, and it's Customs' baby. We need all the weapons we can get in this war, but that blimp is just a public-relations eyesore."
For now, Fat Albert isn't even that. A dust devil tore him apart May 10, and currently he's undergoing repairs that will take several months and cost nearly $1 million. The wisecrack around Sierra Vista is that one of the horde of retired Army honchos who live here blasted a hole in the thing with a high-powered rifle.
"There's a lot we could do with $18 million," sheriff's major Larry Dever says, referring to Fat Albert's fat price tag. "By `we' I mean we as police departments and we as parents who want the schools to educate their kids about drugs. Give us some of that $18 million and give some to the schools, and I promise we'll put it to good use."
Welcome to the free state of Cochise, drug-smuggling capital of Arizona. Welcome to southeast Arizona's wild outlands. Everyone in this Arizona border county knows the "war on drugs" is a dismal failure. And no one quite knows what to do about it.
"We've declared our own war down here and we're working hard, but we're mostly getting the crap kicked out of us," says Cochise County Sheriff Jimmy Judd. "I'd hate to be a kid today with all these damned drugs. When I was coming up, our biggest problem was when to say no to a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer."
SOME PEOPLE INVOLVED in the day-to-day struggle against drugs in Cochise County sound downright radical.
"Sometimes," says a veteran narc, "when I'm out there on the border, I get to thinking. When I hear about Ollie North and them maybe being drug smugglers in the Iran-Contra thing, I wonder, `Does that mean that Reagan and Bush are the drug kingpins? Are they the guys I'm fighting in this, quote, `war on drugs'? It's crazy, but I'm still fighting."
Others, like long-time Border Patrol agent Gary Patrick Callahan, have wound up being accused of joining the smugglers. Callahan is charged with stealing drugs from seized shipments and sending them to Paradise Valley dentist Bill Bartel.