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Toned-down signs replace border smuggler warnings

Law enforcement officers from different agencies gathered in April to coordinate the search for the shooter of a Pinal County sheriff's deputy southwest of Stanfield.

Warning signs on public land northwest of Tucson alerting visitors to border smugglers and armed criminals have been replaced by the Bureau of Land Management with toned-down notices.

In June, the BLM put up 12 signs on the Sonoran Desert National Monument warning visitors that the area was an active human and drug smuggling and that visitors may encounter "armed criminals and smuggling vehicles."

The intent was to inform visitors about the severity of the smuggling activity in the area, including a shooting involving a Pinal County sheriff's deputy and the discovery of two bodies found slain, said BLM state spokesman Dennis Godfrey. The signs did not mean BLM had lost control of the lands, he said.

The signs quickly became political fodder in the 2010 election - a symbol to some that the United States had ceded territory to smugglers.

Standing in front of one of the signs, Gov. Jan Brewer filmed a summer campaign advertisement questioning the Democratic administration's actions to secure the border.

"I'm 80 miles away from the border and only 30 miles away from Arizona's capital. This is an outrage. Washington says our border is as safe as it's ever been. Does this look safe to you?" she asked.

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu blasted the federal government during an Oct. 10 tea-party rally in Tucson for putting up the signs in English "instead of in Spanish, facing south, saying, 'Stay out.' "

"Not that that would have worked," Babeu told the crowd. "But at least that would have been better. It wouldn't have insulted the American people."

A decrease in smuggling activity - and not the use of the signs as political props - prompted the BLM to make the change, said Godfrey. He acknowledged, however, that the agency wasn't pleased with the way some people interpreted the earlier signage.

"We were not happy that it became a political football, that people interpreted them the way that some did," Godfrey said. "That was not our intention."

"We have not ceded anything to anyone," he said. "We are out to keep the area safe and allow citizens to go there."

The new signs say "Visitor information update" in bold upper case and have three bullet points:

• Active federal law enforcement patrol area

• Clean-up restoration crews at work

• Contact BLM Rangers for current area status

"The situation is not perfect, and there is still smuggling activity, but the intensity has lessened to the point where we can remove the more severe warning signs," Godfrey said.

Officials have put up four of these signs in the Ironwood Forest National Monument west of Tucson as well.

Babeu's spokesman, Tim Gaffney, called it a political move to switch the signs so close to the Nov. 2 election. The BLM is trying to make it look like the problems have ceased in the area when that's not true.

The drug smuggling through the area continues, Gaffney said. On Sunday, Pinal County Sheriffs deputies found more than 1,900 pounds of marijuana in an SUV near Interstate 8 between Casa Grande and Gila Bend.

The sign switch comes amid the launch of a three-prong effort by BLM to combat cross-border smuggling through land northwest of Tucson.

The initiative began in September. It includes beefed-up law enforcement patrols in the Sonoran Desert National Monument and Ironwood Forest National Monument, Godfrey said. The agency is saturating the hot spots with joint patrols working with the Border Patrol, sheriff's offices and the Tohono O'odham Nation.

The second prong consists of construction of 1.3 miles of vehicle barriers on the southeastern border of the Table Top Wilderness Area, located south of Interstate 8. The area was chosen to seal off a road that has been created by smugglers in that area.

The Normandy-style barriers are waist- to chest-high and made of criss-crossed railroad ties, designed to stop vehicles, but not people, wildlife or water flows. The materials for the vehicle barriers came from the excess supplies of the Border Patrol and Army Corps of Engineers. Hundred of miles of vehicle barriers were uprooted in the past three years during Homeland Security's fence construction boom.

It is expected to cost the BLM $348,000 to assemble, weld together and put into place the barriers, Godfrey said. More barriers could be placed on other BLM lands in the future, including the Ironwood Forest National Monument, he said. The bureau received $200,000 from the Department of Interior to help pay for more law enforcement operations.

The third prong is the pickup of trash left behind by illegal immigrants and drug runners. Since September, the BLM has removed 11 tons of trash from public lands, including tires and bicycles.

While critical of the sign switch, the Pinal County Sheriff's Office is appreciative of the efforts in their county.

"We want the area cleaned up," Gaffney said. "We want the area open so our citizens can enjoy the land."

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs@azstarnet.com.


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