Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu says the effects of cross-border smuggling are "far worse" there than in Arizona's border counties, and that's why his county merits $5 million in special border-security funding from the Legislature.
But a county-by-county breakdown of apprehensions and drug seizures carried out by the U.S. Border Patrol in Arizona suggests an entirely different picture.
More than 95 percent of all apprehensions and pounds of marijuana seized in Arizona from Oct. 1, 2007, through March 17, 2011, have occurred in Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise counties, figures from U.S. Customs and Border Protection show.
Yuma and Pinal counties each account for just 2 percent of all apprehensions and pounds of marijuana seized over this 3 1/2-year span.
The concentration of arrests and seizures in Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise counties is not surprising considering that the three border counties are in the heart of what has been the busiest drug- and people-smuggling corridor along the U.S.-Mexico border for the last decade.
But it might be surprising to legislators and voters who've heard Babeu's discussion of the droves of illegal immigrants and drug smugglers trekking through his county, located 80 miles from the border.
"It's far worse than Pima County, Cochise County or Santa Cruz County," Babeu said in an interview this month. The Border Patrol, he said, "are the ones who've said that all roads lead to Pinal County."
Elected in November 2008, Babeu has earned nationwide recognition as a border-security hawk, criticizing the Obama administration while calling for more troops and fences on the border.
He often calls Pinal County "the No. 1 pass-through county for drug- and human-smuggling in America."
To demonstrate, he cites department figures showing a surge in vehicle pursuits, marijuana seizures and calls to the Border Patrol in the last two to three years. His spokesman, Tim Gaffney, says these metrics are greater in Pinal County than the Arizona border counties but does not provide statistics to back that.
The federal statistics suggest Pinal County is quiet compared with Pima, Santa Cruz and Cochise counties.
Since Oct. 1, 2007, there have been 19,457 apprehensions of illegal immigrants in Pinal County. By comparison, there were 303,634 in Cochise County and 301,844 in Pima County in that time span.
In that same period, there were 74,945 pounds of marijuana seized in Pinal County. That was a fraction of the 1.69 million pounds seized in Pima County and the 1.2 million pounds seized in Santa Cruz County.
Broken down per square mile, Pinal County still accounts for far fewer arrests and seizures than the other counties. There were 3.6 apprehensions and 14 pounds of marijuana seized per square mile in Pinal County, which pales in comparison to the three busiest counties.
In Santa Cruz County, there were 148 apprehensions and 975 pounds of marijuana seized per square mile. In Pima County, 33 apprehensions and 185 pounds of marijuana seized per square mile. And in Cochise County, 49 apprehensions and 73 pounds of drugs seized per square mile.
Despite the figures, Babeu stands behind his assertion that the problem is magnified in his county, Gaffney said.
The concentration of arrests and seizures in the other counties is a direct result of Border Patrol having most of its agents in those counties, said Babeu in a written statement from his office.
"Border Patrol should expect to see higher numbers of drug seizures anywhere they have increased manpower, which historically has been along the border," the statement said.
Two weeks ago, the Border Patrol assigned 100 agents from a specially trained tactical unit known as Bortac to work in Pinal and Maricopa counties and the Tohono O'odham Reservation because of an increase in smuggling activity, Gaffney said. Arrest and seizures will likely increase as a result, he said.
The state House has already approved Babeu's request for $5 million to buy equipment for an anti-smuggling effort. The state Senate may take up the request this week.
If the bill funding his border-security effort becomes law, Babeu plans to spend the money on a helicopter, AR-15 and M4 rifles, ground-based radar for detecting people crossing the desert illegally and Ghurka armored vehicles, which are like Humvees but better for desert driving.
Pinal County has been excluded from other border security funds. Last year, Gov. Jan Brewer's Office of Economic Recovery distributed nearly $10 million in federal stimulus money to cities and counties near the border. Cochise County received $1.55 million, Santa Cruz County received $1.3 million and Pima County received $1.1 million.
Babeu asked to be included in the funding but was only able to get a later $200,000 award from the governor.
"We find ourselves smack dab in the middle of this fight and we are saying, 'Give us the tools, the resources, the weapons to bring this fight to the cartels,' " Babeu said.
"This $5 million investment will go a long way to enforcing the law, to send a message to the cartels and to send a symbolic message from Arizona to Washington to get off the dime and do their job."
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org Reporter Tim Steller contributed to this story.