Robert W. Gilbert became the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector chief March 29. The son of a Border Patrol agent, Gilbert began his Border Patrol work in 1985 in San Diego. He came to the Tucson Sector after serving as El Paso Sector chief since November 2005.
Gilbert talked with the Star's editorial board on Tuesday. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
GILBERT: I've been onboard for about six weeks and I'm excited to be here. Where the Tucson Sector goes, that's where the Border Patrol goes. If you look at what's happening here in our region of Arizona, it's clear that this is ground zero for the Border Patrol.
STAR: Some of our readers are confused about what the role of the Border Patrol is.
GILBERT: Basically, the mission of the United States Border Patrol is operational control of the border. That is our mission. It's that simple. It's not a simple task.
A lot of it is boots on the ground — Border Patrol agents. That's one piece to it. Utilizing modern technology is another piece. Creating our tactical infrastructure — lights, roads and fences — is another phase to it.
We cannot achieve our mission or our goals alone. We have to work with the local and the state authorities, the other federal authorities, utilizing defense in depth through our checkpoints, which has been a big issue here in Southern Arizona — the lack of checkpoints in Southern Arizona.
STAR: When you talk about where the Tucson Sector goes, so goes the Border Patrol, and that the Tucson Sector is ground zero, why is that?
GILBERT: We have roughly 2,000 miles of border that we share with Mexico and 4,000 miles of border that we share with Canada. Tucson accounts for over 40 percent of all alien apprehensions nationwide and it accounts for over 40 percent of all the narcotics seized nationwide. It's one area of 262 miles of border that's accounting for over 40 percent. That's why our national focus is right here.
STAR: The Interstate 19 checkpoint has been a source of contention. Some people think that checkpoint is necessary; others think it doesn't do any good. What do you think about the I-19 checkpoint? And further, why make it a permanent checkpoint rather than a roving checkpoint?
GILBERT: We are trying to compress our operations closer to the border. In a perfect world, we would be able to stop anybody or anything trying to enter our country at the border. That's not the environment we're working in.
People challenge us and say, "Why aren't you on the border?" We are. But you have to realize, and being from the area you guys may, the border's very rugged, it's very remote, accessibility is difficult. So if there's no roads, we can't get into the border. We build roads. We're working with the National Guard constantly and improving our road network on the border. That's a slow process.
So we have to work in areas where traffic funnels. And if we don't have a checkpoint on I-19, they're going to funnel right into I-19 and come into Tucson and then go throughout the United States.
The reason we need a permanent checkpoint is because on a mobile checkpoint you can't bring the technology that makes a checkpoint successful.
You don't have the element of surprise. With modern technology and cell phones, it's not a surprise if a checkpoint is up or down. The smugglers know. They use their phones.
If we build a permanent checkpoint, we can build a permanent camera system that feeds into that checkpoint. We can have a control room where we can monitor miles of the border around the flanks of the checkpoint. We can bring the resources to bear because we have a facility to house them in.
Everybody knows we don't have permanent checkpoints here, so the traffickers, whether they're human traffickers or drug traffickers, exploit that. We don't have a foundation on which to set our defense in depth and patrol the flanks. We know they're not all going to drive right up to our checkpoint, but you'd be amazed how often that happens.
Whatever technology is available, we can bring in to a permanent platform that we can't bring in to a mobile platform.
STAR: People are worried about what happens with the checkpoint, with smugglers going out into the surrounding community.
GILBERT: Well, it's already happening. That will be mitigated as we gain control — and we've seen this all up and down the border. As we gain control of an area, the traffic goes to other areas. And we haven't been able to gain control of this area because we don't have the resources in place.
STAR: Is the Border Patrol looking to build permanent checkpoints coming up from Douglas?
GILBERT: Right now we're focusing on I-19 because that's our most trafficked corridor.
STAR: Why put the checkpoint close to the Tubac area rather than farther south?
GILBERT: It's the way the terrain funnels traffic — mountain ranges, valleys, hills, road networks that are already in place. If you look where all the roads that come away from the border go to, everything kind of feeds into I-19 at about that area.
So to put it farther south or too much farther south, then we're going to have to use additional resources to continue to work the roadways that are north of us.
As I said, in a perfect world, we'll get everything compressed down to the border and that's where we'd like to do our business. We're not there yet.
STAR: Talk about the border itself. What's happening there now? Is more fencing going up? What kind of projects are taking place?
GILBERT: Our border here in this region is an active border. We have a lot of projects under way. Our tactical infrastructure teams are out there. We're working closely with the National Guard as part of Operation Jump Start. And they're doing great work, pushing forward with . . . lights, roads and fences. They're building roads or maintaining existing roads that have washed out through the monsoons and with time. And then we're also putting up a lot of fencing.
I think it's also important to talk about the fencing. People think of fencing as a brick-and-mortar structure, like the Great Wall of China. But that's not how we look at fencing. It's nothing more than a tool. And in areas of high population, we need pedestrian-style fencing. In the more remote areas, we need the bollards (short vertical posts) so vehicles can't drive in.
And in extremely remote areas, we need technology. Something as simple as an infrared eye that shoots to another eye; anything that breaks the beam sets off a sensor. They have it on the highways in the Midwest to warn about deer.
People say that if we build a 20-foot fence, someone is going to sell a lot of 21-foot ladders. Well, fencing's not designed to stop the flow of traffic. It's designed to control it. Where someone buys a 21-foot ladder, one or two people are going to come over at a time. The agents can be there, make the arrest, as opposed to 100 people rushing you at a time.
STAR: Talk a little bit about the Border Patrol's relationship with two groups on the border: the National Guard and the Minutemen. How's that going?
GILBERT: Well, I'd like to separate them completely, if I may.
The National Guard is a partner to the Border Patrol and has been for 20 years. Never — since the deployment under Operation Jump Start — has it been this large, but we've worked side by side with the Guard for two decades now.
What they bring to our mission is that key piece. We are not engineers. We're law enforcement officers. We don't have, you know, the equipment that they can bring to bear. We don't have the expertise that they can bring to bear to build our lights, roads and fences.
They also provide a great asset. Our military's well-trained; they're well-equipped. And they also can bring to our mission somebody to help us as early identification teams. They can sit there and they can spot and then radio to Border Patrol agents, who then respond.
STAR: So tell us about the Minutemen.
GILBERT: The border can be a hazardous place. I think that law enforcement should be left up to law-enforcement professionals, and that's what our job is.
However, I respect, their right to meet, their right to get together. That's their right. We do work with them. We'll make sure that we know what they're doing so that we don't have an incident, so that we don't bump into each other in the middle of the night and have some sort of an altercation. We make sure we stay on top of that.
But we always go back to what I said originally: Law enforcement should be left to the professionals.
STAR: About the funding for your mission, where do you see it going in the next five years?
GILBERT: We've never been better staffed or better funded at any time in the history of the Border Patrol than we are right now. Our concern is managing our growth. The president has mandated that we grow by 6,000 agents.
Our challenge is to manage that growth. It means hiring the right people with the right mind-sets and personalities for law-enforcement work. Not everybody in society is made up of what it takes to be in law enforcement. So our bigger challenge as opposed to the budgeting is managing the resources.
STAR: As technology becomes more and more important to that mission — technology costs a lot, too — is there a point where you really look to the technology to make your mission more efficient?
GILBERT: I think initially to stem the tide, if you will, it's going to require more of the hard resources. It's going to require the boots on the ground and the tactical infrastructure I talked about. As we get more and more control of the border, technology's going to come in behind that and play a bigger and bigger piece.
It takes agents and more resources to gain control than it does to maintain control. And this is something we've learned, as I said, on the 2,000-mile border we share with Mexico.
STAR: Is technology then to maintain and not to gain control?
GILBERT: It's both.Technology's role in the future, I think, is going to grow. Today you still need the hard pieces of the puzzle. You still need lights, roads and fences. We can't focus only on technology. We need all three pieces: the boots on the ground, tactical infrastructure and technology. Nothing succeeds without the other.
STAR: What do you think of the STRIVE Act (Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act of 2007, HR 1645)? What do you see in the STRIVE Act that would benefit your mission?
GILBERT: I have the luxury of being a law enforcement officer and kind of apolitical. I don't get involved in politics. My job's to secure the border.
As a chief of the sector, I work for the people of the United States. And if they pass a law, we'll enforce it to the best of our abilities.
We went through the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, and it didn't work. I was a Border Patrol agent in San Diego at the time. I think one thing that we should never do is reward somebody for breaking the law.
There are a lot of different thoughts on this whole immigration reform. The one thing I believe is that someone who has broken the law and not been apprehended should not be rewarded. That, to me, is not in the best interest of law enforcement. It's not in the best interest of our country. And we are a country of law.
STAR: You said managing growth is going to be hard, and you referred to the hiring push and trying to get 6,000 new agents. What are some of your worries about bringing that many agents onboard, and what's being done to make sure that they are trained properly and able to do the job that you want them to?
GILBERT: Our training program is first-rate. Our academy is top-notch. The instructors there and the curriculum are exactly what we need. It's more the assimilation, because we're talking about bringing them into our communities, bringing them into our environment. That's the bigger issue.
As our stations grow, we have facility issues, things like that. We have to properly house our Border Patrol agents as our work flow increases. As we seize more marijuana, where do we put it? We've partnered with the Drug Enforcement Administration on the storage and disposal. As our fleet grows, our garages have to grow. As we're growing, our partners, the U.S. Attorney's Office, also have to grow because our prosecutions grow.
STAR: Where do you recruit? Where are you going to find these people?
GILBERT: We look everywhere. We have a national recruiting program. We're very active recruiting exiting military personnel. We're very active in colleges. Those are the main two areas we hit — colleges and exiting military.
Normally, the maximum age you can join the Border Patrol is 37. Right now we have a window of opportunity while we try to meet our hiring numbers that takes it up to 40. And then that targets your exiting military: They go in at 18 years old, do 20 years — they're 38. Why wouldn't we want to grab that resource that the American people have already paid to train and just continue with the new line of training. A lot of the skill sets are similar, but now it's enforcement, not military.
STAR: Given what's going on in Sonora and really all along the Mexican side of the border these days with the drug cartels, there seems to be another group out there that wants operational control of the border. How does this affect your activities out there and does it raise the threat levels to your agents in any way?
GILBERT: Well, you talk about escalating violence on the border. Yes, we have seen that. We've seized about three times the number of weapons so far this year as compared to last year. The types of weapons we're seizing are a threat to law enforcement; they're a threat to the communities. You know, we're seizing the AK-47s, the assault rifles, the high-capacity semiautomatic pistols. And we are having more and more altercations.
What's happening, and this is information we're getting from our law-enforcement partners in Mexico, is as we are compressing our enforcement zone on the border, it's harder and harder for people to get across. As we've seen up and down the border, there's been an escalation of violence.
(Smugglers) have had 10 years to build their infrastructure in Mexico. And they have a lot invested monetarily, the different organizations, whether in alien traffic or drug traffic organizations. They're not going to give it up easily. We know that. And we're in this for the long haul. We aren't going anywhere.
We're at about 600,000 pounds of seized marijuana year-to-date. That's for our fiscal year, since Oct. 1. All of last year, we did just over 600,000 pounds. We are seeing more and more narcotics coming through here.
STAR: What do you attribute that to? For the third straight year you're going to set a record for seizures.
GILBERT: As our enforcement posture grows all up and down the border, we're reducing the areas (smugglers) can come into. We lack that defense in depth here in Tucson. That's one of the reasons. Also, the proximity of larger cities. You have Phoenix and Tucson, large metropolitan hubs to distribute throughout the United States. But I think we should also focus on the demand. If there was no demand for the narcotics, nobody would be smuggling it in.
For a more in-depth version of this interview, go to azstarnet.com/opinion
". . . operational control of the border. That is our mission. It's that simple. It's not a simple task."