June 9, 2013
AJO, Ariz. — On a recent morning, Lt. Bill Clements, commander of a remote sheriff’s department substation here, sent his deputies into the sun-blasted Sonoran Desert to recover a body — the fifth in five days. Hours later, back at the station, a deputy unzipped a white body bag, revealing the corpse of a man who had died making the brutal crossing from Mexico, his lips shrunken, either with dehydration or from being partly eaten by wild animals, the deputies said.
Out here, life expires suddenly and without dignity. The Ajo district station recovered 18 bodies last year. As of late May, the station had recovered eight, and the summer sun was still a few weeks away.
In Ajo, where cactuses dot the horizon and blue hangs in the sky like a canopy, national drug and immigration policies meet desperation.
The deputies here act as the tip of the sword. Their work is a routine of grinding boredom broken by blasts of grotesque reality. Drug seizures, domestic violence, arson and methamphetamine addictions are all part of what they confront on the job. And, of course, the bodies in the desert.
The sheriff’s department in the Ajo district of Pima County operates as a kind of self-sufficient outpost of the county sheriff’s department in Tucson, some 140 miles east. Most shifts are covered by four staff members — two deputies, a corrections officer for the 21-bed jail and a 911 dispatcher — who are responsible for a brutal 3,000-square-mile stretch of terrain between the Arizona-Mexico border and Phoenix, 110 miles to the northeast.
The Pima County Sheriff’s Department collaborates with federal agencies like the Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection, and the Fish and Wildlife Service. The alliance of agencies is called the Border Anti-Narcotics Network. The network made 440 drug seizures in the first quarter, netting 18,000 pounds of marijuana, according to Lieutenant Clements. That’s 2,500 pounds more than the first quarter of last year.
Lieutenant Clements attributed that to “increased technology and more officers in the field.” Still, he said, there is no way to know how many illegal drug shipments are making their way northward, undetected.
What does a law enforcement officer have to do to end up in a place like this? Some deputies out of the police academy, eager to make their mark and ascend department ranks, agree to serve three years in Ajo. Most leave after their required stint expires.
Back in Tucson, a deputy who chose to put in his time at the desert outpost joked that he did so without realizing what he had signed up for. “Nobody told me I wasn’t supposed to check the box,” said the deputy, Jesus Bañuelos, who served three years in Ajo before becoming a spokesman for the sheriff’s department.
Despite its drawbacks, serving in Ajo is a rite of passage for young officers. Because of the small staff, officers often work their cases from beginning to end — making arrests, filing cases with the district attorney and presenting facts to the grand jury if needed, Deputy Bañuelos said.
The deputies’ primary responsibility is to cover the community — usually sticking to town unless called by Border Patrol or other federal agencies operating in the area. Ajo, an old copper mining town, has about 2,500 residents. A green tint runs down the mounded rock just outside town, a vestige of the mine, which closed in 1986.
“There’s no industry here,” said Deputy Brad Gill, adding that law enforcement agencies keep the community afloat. “This is a government town.”
Spanish colonial architecture rings the Ajo plaza. Throughout the town, tidy southwestern-style homes share a block with dilapidated ranch houses — some of which, deputies suspect, could be active drug spots.
Small-town sensibilities mean knowing that the individuals whom deputies arrest for heroin today may well stand next to them in church tomorrow, Deputy Gill noted. He said it is hard to build rapport with the community if people assume the officers will soon move on, leaving Ajo and its problems behind.
Since April, a serial arsonist has set three fires in town. Officers speculate the fires could be drug related, since a fire requires all deputies on duty to respond, creating a possible diversion for drug shipments to move unimpeded through town.
But officers said that despite its isolation, working in the Ajo district has its advantages. “I like the freedom of working out here,” said Deputy Andrew Fletcher, 28, who has served two years in Ajo. “You see things you’d never see anywhere else.”
Deputy Fletcher said that in mid-May he stopped a man carrying 75 pounds of marijuana in his backpack.
Accompanied by a reporter and a photographer on a blazing hot day recently, he drove his truck down the rough dirt road straddling the border 40 miles from town.
Two miles from the small border checkpoint, a high pedestrian fence drops to a short cattle fence. Farther along, there is no fence at all separating Mexico from the United States.
It is easy to cross the border here, if you do not know what lies ahead. Deputy Fletcher pointed to an empty black water jug, probably left behind by a migrant heading north. “Those must be standard-issue in Mexico,” he said. “They use black jugs because the clear ones reflect sunlight.” That could give away a migrant’s position, he said.
So far this year, the border network has apprehended 257 immigrants crossing — a 38-person increase from the same period in 2012.
A border-length fence might help to deter those crossing illegally, Deputy Fletcher said. “But it’s just like anything else,” he said. “You solve one problem and people are going to find another way around it.”
Deputy Fletcher said that discovering human remains is a regular part of the job. His boss, Lieutenant Clements, said that he had encountered 300 to 400 bodies in his 15 years at the outpost.
Sometimes, Deputy Fletcher said, the officers come across migrants who have gone mad with dehydration, walking in circles or making “snow angels in the sand.”
And sometimes, Deputy Gill added, “They quit and just walk down the highway. They’ll get picked up and brought back to Mexico and try again another day.”
A recent report by the federal Border Patrol indicated that the number of immigrant apprehensions has fallen sharply since its peak in 2000, but Deputy Gill is unconvinced that the situation is improving. “All I know is that people are still coming, people are still dying, and Border Patrol is busier than ever,” he said.
On patrol, the deputy parked his truck near the edge of town, looking for routine infractions: speeding, a vehicle whose windows were too darkly tinted, a too-noisy muffler, or fuzzy dice blocking the view from a rearview mirror.
“Tickets are a method of correcting behavior,” he said, adding that he uses his discretion with each traffic stop. “If I’m convinced someone is going to slow down, I’ll let them off with a warning.”
“I’m looking for the real criminals,” he said. “I’m looking for the drugs.”
But when it comes to immigration, he said, he has no latitude.
In Pima County, the passage of the hotly debated SB 1070, commonly referred to as the “show me your papers law,” had little effect on the way deputies do police work, Deputy Gill said.
“As a law enforcement officer, it didn’t change how I do my job,” he said, adding that he uses “good police work” to establish a probable cause.
If an individual is wearing multiple layers of clothing or carrying a backpack, or is dirty from trekking across the desert, the person may be worth a second look, he said.
“All of that adds up to a kind of profiling, but there’s value to that,” he said. “Profiling is a dirty word. People assume that when I’m profiling, I’m making a judgment,” he added. “But I’m not judging them, I’m doing my job efficiently.”
Deputy Gill said that he did not actively seek to detain immigrants crossing illegally. Often, he said, he feels sympathy toward migrants who come north to work.
“It’s hard,” he said. “I stop these guys and they pull out their wallets. I see the pictures of their kids and I think about my own kids. I realize I’d probably do the exact same thing if the situation was reversed.”