Feds Debunk Another Sheriff Babeu Claim, Say Cartels Not Really Occupying "75-100" Hilltops in Pinal County

Cartel members aren't really turning Pinal County into something more like Afghanistan, despite what Sheriff Paul Babeu wrote in a letter last week to the mayors of several Arizona border cities.

Ironically, the sheriff had written in response to the mayors' urging that he stop putting out inflammatory, inaccurate statements about drug cartel violence because of its affect on regional tourism.

"Just this week, the US Department of Homeland Security confirmed that Pinal County has a minimum of 75-100 mountains or high terrain features that are occupied by Mexican Drug Cartels," Babeu wrote.

That sounded like total bullshit to us when we first heard it. After a few e-mails and phone calls, we realized we were wrong: It's only 98 percent bullshit.

Babeu's spokesman, Tim Gaffney, began backpedaling the story as soon as we called about this issue on Friday.

"They're not occupied 24/7," Gaffney said. "They don't sit around in one location. They move around. Cat-and-mouse-type games."

A better way to put it would be "occasionally used hideouts," he said.

But there's an even bigger boo-boo in Babeu's statement: Gaffney admits that the DHS briefing had been referring to cartel scouts in Pinal County AND the sprawling Tohono O'odham Indian Community, which stretches to the Arizona-Mexico border.

A DHS official says "occasionally used hideouts" isn't correct, either.

The official, who asked to remain unidentified for some crazy reason, sent an e-mail to New Times stating:

...what the Sheriff may be referring to are potential locations, where tactically that is a possibility, but not necessarily a reality. As part of regular enforcement operations in Tucson Sector, the Border Patrol identifies and documents possible scouting locations in each specific border zone. This information is distributed to agents working in each specific area, as well as our partners with the Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats (ACTT), including the Pinal Cty Sheriff's Office. This information does not indicate that all of these scouting locations are being occupied by Mexican drug cartel members.

How did Babeu turn "potential locations" in Pinal County and the Tohono reservation where cartel scouts might hide into something quite different?

Gaffney tells us this morning that the briefing by ICE had been about cartel activity in Pinal County, so Babeu assumed that a reference to the Tohono meant the part of the Indian reservation that overlaps with Pinal. He sent us part of an e-mail from Eric Balliet, resident agent-in-charge of DHS investigations in Casa Grande, which Gaffney hoped would explain why Babeu wrote what he did:

The information we provided is: (Drug-trade organizations) deploy approximately 75-100 scouts positioned throughout the mountains in Stanfield and on the Tohono O'Odom reservation

Obviously that does not translate to 75-100 scouts within Pinal County as the Tohono O'Odom reservation stretches all the way to the border.

We're not really sure how that helps Babeu's case.

Gaffney commits another mistake in a follow-up letter Gaffney sent to the mayors last week:

Tonight when you go to bed and have "sweet dreams of tourism dancing through your head" please say a prayer for the men and women of the Pinal County Sheriff's Office who are involved nightly with vehicle and foot pursuits involving cartel members responsible for drug and human trafficking.

When asked about the "involved nightly" quote this morning, Gaffney admits that he doesn't have stats to back up that claim.

The county sheriff's office noted 340 pursuits last year, he says -- but he acknowledges that the figure includes pursuits that had nothing to do with cartels. Clearly, in a growing county with an estimated population of 350,000, non-cartel pursuits occur on a regular basis.

This isn't the first time we've debunked info about cartels coming from Babeu's office. And, in a story that made national headlines, New Times writer Paul Rubin cast major doubt on the tales of Deputy Louie Puroll, who was later fired.

Thing is, Babeu's office doesn't need to exaggerate the smuggling activity in Pinal County to get our attention. Pursuits involving cartel members may not be occurring "nightly," even on average, but they are common. Gaffney says the sheriff's office was involved in four smuggling-related pursuits on February 16th, and two on the 19th.

It's also scary to think that 75-100 drug cartel scouts may be employed in Arizona, even if they're not all in Pinal County. A multi-agency, anti-smuggling enforcement effort led by the Arizona Department of Public Safety in the Vekol Valley recently resulted in 110 arrests and seized drugs and guns.

But Babeu's extremely ambitious. His name has lately showed up in news articles pegging him as someone who might be interested in a possible run for the U.S. Senate. It's easy to speculate that his desire to be in the news causes him to skew the facts a tad.

His office prides itself on its "transparency," and we'll be the first to admit that Babeu doesn't play games with public information as does Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Still, transparency isn't worth much without accuracy.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern