PHOENIX - Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said Friday that most people who cross into Arizona illegally are being used to transport drugs, an assertion that Border Patrol officials said is wrong and that numbers don't seem to support.
Brewer said the motivation of "a lot" of the illegal immigrants is to enter the United States to look for work, but that drug rings press them into duty as drug "mules."
"I believe today, under the circumstances that we're facing, that the majority of the illegal trespassers that are coming into the state of Arizona are under the direction and control of organized drug cartels and they are bringing drugs in," Brewer said.
"There's strong information to us that they come as illegal people wanting to come to work. Then they are accosted and they become subjects of the drug cartel," she said.
Observers contested her assertions.
"Unless Governor Brewer can provide hard data to substantiate her claim that most undocumented people crossing into Arizona are 'drug mules,' she must retract such an outrageous statement," said Oscar Martinez, a University of Arizona history professor whose teaching and research focuses on border issues.
"If she has no data and is just mouthing off for political reasons, as I believe she is doing, then she must apologize to the people of Arizona for lying to them so blatantly."
The governor is right to emphasize the involvement of drug cartels in human smuggling, but her numbers are wrong, said Brandon Judd, president of the union representing Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector.
"The vast majority of those whom we arrest are not smuggling drugs," said Judd, who heads the National Border Patrol Council's Local 2544.
Tucson Sector spokesmen could not say Friday how many arrests agents make for drug crimes. However, there have been 170,873 apprehensions of illegal immigrants in the Tucson Sector so far this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, and federal prosecutors in Arizona have filed 1,107 drug prosecutions in the same period.
Brewer's comments came Friday when asked about statements she made in a recent debate among Republican candidates for governor.
"They're coming here and they're bringing drugs, and they're doing drop houses, and they're extorting people, and they're terrorizing the families," she said during the June 15 debate.
Late Friday, the governor's office put out a statement emphasizing that drug cartels have taken over human smuggling along the border.
"The simple truth is that the majority of human smuggling in our state is under the direction of the drug cartels, which are by definition smuggling drugs," Brewer said in the statement.
Sen. Jesus Ramon Valdes, a member of the Mexican Senate's northern border affairs commission, called Brewer's comments racist and irresponsible.
"Traditionally, migrants have always been needy, humble people who in good faith go looking for a way to better the lives of their families," he said.
Illegal immigrants do sometimes carry drugs across the border, a Border Patrol spokesman said, but he couldn't provide numbers because the smugglers are turned over to prosecutors.
"I wouldn't say that every person that is apprehended is being used as a mule," said Mario Escalante, and agency spokesman. "The smuggling organizations, in their attempts to be lucrative and to make more money, they'll try pretty much whatever they need."
Brewer's comments were "an oversimplification of reality," a spokesman for a human rights group said.
"We have some stories of people being forced to carry drugs," said Jaime Farrant, policy director for Tucson-based Border Action Network. "We disagree with the assessment that people are crossing (to carry drugs). We have no evidence that's the truth.
"We think most people come in search of jobs or to reunite with their families."
On April 23, Brewer signed a controversial new state immigration enforcement law that will take effect July 29 unless blocked by a court. Five legal challenges are already pending in federal court, and the U.S. Justice Department may file its own challenge.
The Arizona law requires police officers enforcing another law to question a person's immigration status if there's a reasonable suspicion that he or she is in the country illegally.
Francisco Loureiro, who has run a migrant shelter for more than 20 years in Nogales, across the border from the Arizona town of the same name, said Brewer's comments are aimed at turning the people of Arizona against migrants and strengthen support for the state's new immigration enforcement law.
"That governor is racist and she has to look for a way to harm the image of migrants before American society and mainly before the people of Arizona," Loureiro said.
Tim Steller of the Arizona Daily Star contributed to this report.