As is now customary, Richard Schaefer and I dropped south to the border region of Southwestern New Mexico before making our way to Tucson to attend a meeting of the Border Journalism Network.
We left Albuquerque about 7 p.m. and bombed our way to Lordsburg. We were making good time until I got stopped by a state cop for speeding about 10 miles outside Lordsburg. The irony is we were rushing to make sure we could make our midnight appointment with Deputy D. “Andrew” Arredondo of the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s office. We still had time to find the hotel and get to our appointment.
Arredondo was born and raised in Lordsburg. He joined the Sheriff’s Office in 2000 and quickly worked up the ranks – from Deputy, to Corporal, Sergeant, Lieutenant and back to Deputy because of a departmental reorganization.
We started talking about immigration issues and how they impact law enforcement that is not charged to enforce immigration laws and policies. Arredondo talked about a federal initiative, Operation Stonegarden.
“The government provides money for equipment and overtime to the sheriff’s department,” he said, with Texas, Arizona and New Mexico the primary recipients.
“The Border Patrol is the first line of defense in stopping illegal drugs, weapons and people from entering the country. The second line of defense is the sheriff’s offices and the third line is local police departments,” he said.
Putting more officers on the ground helps to combat the flow, he said. Helicopters, ATVs, night vision, and stabilizing binoculars are some of the tools they’ve acquired to help do the job.
“Most illegal immigrants walk from the border to somewhere on I-10. Some carrying 40-50 lbs. of marijuana in makeshift backpacks. It’s a 5-7 day walk to cross the 80 miles,” he said. “They do it to make money to provide for their families,” he added. Arredondo acknowledged the work ethic of the immigrants, but added that he still has a job to do.
He remembers the first illegal immigrant he apprehended. “He was a lone gentlemen hiding behind a bush near the highway. I felt really bad about picking him up. Since then, we’ve had groups of 20 to 30, sometimes with children in the group,” he said.
Arredondo said that the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office found two bodies in the desert this year, but it isn’t the problem it is in southern Arizona. We find drugs, but not the people,” he said, adding that when they do encounter people, they don’t fight – they flee or give up.
When there is violence, it is generally between the cartels. He said that the “mules” are bringing up the drugs while others, the “bandits” hid in the mountains. “They spot the dopers and pull guns on them to steal the drugs,” he said. Arredondo said that the “bandits” are in the Animas, Peloncillo and Chiricahua mountains. “They don’t interact with the public because they don’t want to be visible,” he said.
Arredondo said that Operations Order provides the framework so that every agency understands where their primary duties lie.
He said that the undocumented immigrants they pick up are predominately Mexican and some Guatemalans. Most of them pay $1,000 – $2,000 to cross. “But the Border Patrol picked up a group of Chinese – or Asian – immigrants in 2010,” he said, adding that they have trail camera pictures as well as intelligence they receive from the New Mexico Law Enforcement Intelligence Center and the Joint Operations Information Center that show different immigrant demographics.
“Our department has six deputies to cover 3,447 square miles,” Arrendondo said, as a means of explaining why his department is grateful for the assistance they receive from Border Patrol agents. “There are about 3,400 people in Lordsburg and about 5,000 in all of Hidalgo County.” Lots of terrain, but not a lot of people.
He said that traffic rises and falls with the moon phases. “They can see in a full moon, but are also easily spotted,” Arredondo said, noting that traffic is up in moderate moonlight.
He said that there’s a trend to use ultralights and that they’ve found a crash site. “The drugs were still there, but the pilot was GOA [gone on arrival].”
He said that drugs and undocumented immigrants are a reality. “If my grandson were to become a deputy he’d be fighting the same issues,” he said. Violence south of the border perpetuates the desire for weapons, but the desire for drugs is driven by the U.S. market. As part of Operation Stonegarden, Arredondo said they put a lot of officers in the field – saturating Hidalgo County with officers from Dona Ana, Grant and Luna counties. The cooperation and shared use of resources is beneficial and provides visibility that the public appreciates.
He added, “Living in Hidalgo County is like living in the Old West.”