Interview with Sheriff Paul Babeu of Pinal County, Arizona

INTRO: In 2008, Sheriff Paul Babeu became the first Republican elected to that office in the 136 year history of Pinal County Arizona. He is a 20 year veteran of the Army National Guard, retiring with the rank of Major, having served in Iraq and as commander of American military forces in the Yuma Sector of the U.S.-Mexican border. Paul Babeu was voted by the National Sheriff’s Association as the 2011 “Sheriff of the Year.”

Peter Gemma: Thanks for taking time from what must be a very hectic schedule. By way of background, you told me that you came to Arizona via Massachusetts and that you were steeped in politics right from the start.

Paul Babeu: Yes, my father was always speaking out for a political cause and was viewed as a political antagonist, which shaped my early views on political activity. While I was still in high school, I campaigned against a proposed pay raise for the North Adams, Massachusetts city council. The council eventually was pressured into reducing their pay hike. The following year, at the age of 18, I ran for city council and my entire senior class registered to vote. Nineteen candidates sought election and I was elected to the city council with more votes than any candidate. In 1992, I was elected to a four year term as the Berkshire County (Massachusetts) Commissioner. I worked on political campaigns and was very active in the community.

PG: What came next?

PB: In 2002, I finished my Masters in Public Administration and graduated summa cum laude from the American International College. I decided to seek a career in law enforcement, close to where my parents retired in Arizona.

While in college, I enlisted as a private in the Army National Guard and later trained as an Army officer at the Massachusetts Military Academy. I served a full 20 year career and it was an amazing time of leadership training and challenges—mobilizations to build a border fence in California, responding to blizzards and tornados, building bridges, deploying to Iraq, and commanding soldiers at the U.S.-Mexican border.

PG: Tell me a bit about Pinal County—it looks huge on a map.

PB: Pinal County is in the central part of Arizona between Phoenix and Tucson. The county was founded in 1875. It’s 5,374 square miles in size which makes it larger than Connecticut. As of 2010, the population was over 375,000 and it has been named the fastest growing county in America.

PG: I understand you actually cut the budget when you were elected sheriff.

PB: Immediately upon taking office, I launched a full reorganization. We reduced our own operating budget by 10% during this downed economy, I replaced the entire command leadership, implemented high employee standards, improved training, and reduced emergency response times nearly in half. My department has aggressively sought and been awarded nearly seven million dollars in private grants and additional funding during each year I’ve been in office.

PG: You have banned photo radar in Pinal County. Why is that?

PB: I am against photo speed enforcement completely and promised voters that if I was elected as the Sheriff of Pinal County it would be gone on the first day I took office. As promised, the first day I came into office the contract with the photo safety vendor was terminated.

Photo safety had failed miserably in Pinal County as evidenced by the increase in total accidents—16% after photo safety was launched. Photo safety does nothing to stop impaired drivers which was one of the main contributing factors to the fatal and serious injury collisions that were plaguing our county. Now we have a full time traffic unit who enforce traffic laws during all hours of the day and night. Since implementing this approach, we have seen a marked reduction in our total accidents and a 25% reduction in our fatal collisions.

PG: You’re on the front lines in the fight against illegal immigration. What would it really take to stem the tide of illegal aliens?

PB: According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 56% of the border is not under “operational control.” In my opinion and the opinion of most Americans, being 44% “secure” is a failing grade.

I think the “Senators McCain/Kyl 10-Point Border Security Plan” is the answer to protecting our southern border. I had the opportunity to assist both senators in creating this plan, which is based on what worked in the Yuma Sector of the U.S.-Mexican border. During my military service, I served as the commanding officer for “Operation Jump Start” in that area. I commanded over 700 men and women near the U.S. border with Mexico and we were able to achieve a 94% reduction in illegal entries and the sector has remained at that level ever since.

The main components of the plan are to put 6,000 armed soldiers on the southern border, build a double barrier fence, and end “catch and release.”*

PG: You’ve been quoted as saying that your department has lost control over parts of Pinal County to Mexican drug cartels. Were you serious?

PB: Pinal County is the number one pass through county in the country for drug and human smuggling. It is ground zero in the fallout over America’s unsecured southern border. This is because of the terrain and roadways funnel all of the cartels activities right through my county. Pinal County contains an estimated 75-100 drug cartel listening and observation posts, used to facilitate the illegal transportation of people and narcotics into the United States. There have been cartel murders on residential streets, cold blooded executions, and direct attacks on law enforcement officers.

PG: On the average, how many illegal aliens are crossing the border into Pinal County?

PB: Pinal County is roughly 70 miles north of the border. In 2010, the U.S. Border Patrol reported 212,202 illegal aliens were caught in the Tucson sector alone. The Border Patrol admits for everyone captured, another 2.7 make it into the United States undetected. Of the individuals who are apprehended, as many as 30% of them already have a criminal record in the United States.

PG: I just read of a report that illegal aliens were responsible for more than one-third of human-ignited wildfires in Arizona. What other sorts of crimes are attributable to illegal aliens?

PB: Pinal County has followed the trend of the majority of counties across the United States, so we have seen most of our major crime statistics drop during the past few years. The one area we have not seen drop—which has seen dramatic increases in fact—is crimes tied to illegal immigration. Our high-speed vehicle pursuits have rapidly increased each year from 142 in 2007 to 340 such incidents in 2010. Marijuana seizures have spiked from a low in 2008 of about 19,600 pounds to over 45,500 pounds in 2010. I know 2011 will far surpass last year’s totals. My deputies are telling me more and more that they are apprehending guns and high tech communication equipment from cartel operatives.

PG: It seems to me that the Mexican drug cartels are now more powerful and sophisticated in their tactics than ever before—and certainly more violent. Can you cite some examples of new threats posed by illegal alien gangs and drug lords?

PB: The Mexican drug cartels have almost toppled the Mexican Government and they are crossing into Arizona at will. In Mexico, over 42,000 lives have been lost to their wars and that number is rising by the hour. Their illegal drug trade is a forty billion dollar a year industry. The stakes are so high and the competition so fierce, that Mexican warlords are sparing no expense. Pinal County has seen mass murders, execution-style slayings, sexual assaults, kidnappings, shootings, armed robberies, burglaries and more—all tied to illegal immigration.

PG: The Department of Justice devised a scheme to demonstrate how easily weapons fall into the hands of criminals crossing the Mexican border. Illegal firearms were sold to criminal arms dealers, but the DOJ then lost track of its distribution network. Guns from “Operation Fast and Furious” eventually turned up at a shootout in Arizona where a Customs and Border Protection Agent was killed. Can you give us the details of that tragic incident?

PB: On December 14th 2010, Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was patrolling with three other members of his tactical team in Peck Canyon which is a notorious drug-smuggling corridor. At the same time five illegal aliens, all of whom were armed with weapons, were also patrolling in the same canyon. According to one of them who was later arrested, at least two of the illegal aliens carried their assault rifles “at the ready position.” After the Border Patrol agents identified themselves in Spanish as police officers, one of the illegal aliens opened fire striking Brian Terry in the back. The bullet pierced his aorta and he began to bleed profusely. He died at the scene. At the time of the shooting, Brian Terry was armed with a “less lethal” beanbag shotgun [the weapon is designed to deliver a blow that will briefly render a violent suspect immobile]. Two of AK-47s recovered at the scene came from the failed Fast and Furious operation.

PG: The U.S. Attorney for Arizona, Dennis Burke, resigned over the scandal, but you—and other Arizona sheriffs—are calling for the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder. Why do you think the chain of command in this fiasco goes directly to his office?

PB: Ever since Eric Holder testified before Congress regarding Fast and Furious, it has been obvious he intentionally misled them about what and when he knew about this operation. The sheriffs of Arizona believe that those responsible should be held criminally accountable for allowing 2,000 guns, including assault weapons and 50 caliber rifles, to be purchased on U.S. soil and then turned over to the drug cartels of Mexico. As a result of the reckless facilitation and distribution of these weapons, our deputies and American citizens may now face the barrel of a gun that was placed in the hands of criminals by the BATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Citizens of the United States and Mexico have already been murdered by cartel members who now possess these weapons. There is no doubt more bloodshed will occur on both sides of the border, since over 1,500 weapons still remain unaccounted for.

PG: Many states—and Arizona leads the way—are tackling problems stemming from illegal immigration such as crime, housing standards, tuition and other social welfare benefits, at the state and local level. Does that make your job easier?

PB: All of these methods help but will never solve the issue plaguing our county. The effects of an unsecured border will continue until we implement the Senator McCain-Kyl 10-Point Border Security Plan. If the majority of illegal border crossers can make it through the border, what are the chances we can stop terrorists from safely making it to their destination. Why do we have 28,000 troops in Korea securing their border yet we can’t have 6,000 here to protect ours?

PG: Now I know there aren’t any quick-fix solutions, but what specifically can we do to deal with the 14-20 million illegals here already?

PB: Discussing this issue before achieving border security is an open invitation for people to get here while the getting is good. But amnesty should be completely off the table. Right now, we have an unsecured border that allows the drug cartels to operate freely in our country, and results in 400,000 illegal crossings into my state every year. The administration transferred 2,000 high powered weapons to the most dangerous criminals in North America, punishing whistleblowers and rewarding those responsible for “Fast and Furious.” Then they sued Arizona for doing the job they won’t do. The American people are sounding a giant 911 call on Washington. And I’m responding.

* Provisions of the legislation also include requiring the federal government to fully reimburse state and local governments for the costs of incarcerating criminal aliens; providing hardship duty pay to border patrol agents assigned to rural, high-trafficked areas; substantially increase the 25 mobile surveillance systems and the three Predator B Unmanned Aerial Vehicles now operating, and send additional fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to the Arizona-Mexico Border.

This interview first appeared in the March 2012 issue of Chronicles magazine

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