Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb removes his AR-15 from the safety guard in his white Silverado pick-up and heads into the brush off a lonely stretch of freeway in search of bad guys — human traffickers and drug smugglers who have made the area around this small desert city a dangerous criminal hub.
Lamb, 46, is a towering Mormon lawman, who wears cowboy boots and Wrangler blue jeans, cinched with a leather belt engraved with the word “Sheriff.” His cell phone ring-tone is the theme song from “G.I. Joe” — who “never gives up. He’s always there, fighting for freedom over land and air.”
Lamb, elected to his post in 2017, is a real-life action figure. He refuses to spend most of his time behind a desk, and volunteers to do two patrols a week. He battles Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel on the ground, along with his 210 deputies, scouring an area of more than 5,500 square miles north of the Mexican border. Once headed by convicted drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the cartel is still among the most powerful in Mexico.
Lamb’s district includes the Tohono O’odham reservation, which straddles 62 miles of border with Mexico. It is a sovereign nation off-limits to local law enforcement, who say that drug smugglers are easily crossing the tribal border with Mexico, which is little more than a barbed wire fence. In other places, there is no barrier.
Lamb said the traffickers, who smuggle marijuana and methamphetamines as well as hundreds of migrants, know that they can’t be charged when they are on tribal land, and take advantage of the porous frontier.
“We are the last line of defense in Pinal County before the drugs head to California and other parts of the country,” said Lamb, adding that he has set up a special smuggling task force made up of local law enforcement along with representatives from Customs and Border Protection agents to find ways to crack down on the drug trade.
The traffickers often force migrants, who have paid thousands of dollars to help them cross the border, to work as drug mules. Lamb said he has apprehended dozens of migrants loaded down with as much as 30 pounds of marijuana in backpacks that they carry over miles of scorching terrain in the sprawling Sonoran desert.
“Forty percent of all drugs coming in to the US, come through our borders, right here,” said Lamb as he led a Post photographer and reporter through a dense patch of scrub where he pointed out surveillance cameras that his team had installed in the tall saguaro cacti that stand like sentinels in the desert.
“And while we’re bickering about a $5 billion border wall, the cartels are making as much on smuggling bodies as they are on drugs,” he said, adding that legislators have converted the border crisis into political talking points rather than coming up with any “real answers.”
The Democratic-led Congress has been so reluctant to fund billions in humanitarian aid that they helped create the dangerously overcrowded Border Protection facilities along the southern border, where Border Patrol are overwhelmed with thousands of migrants crossing on a daily basis, he told The Post. Last week, Congress passed a $4.5 billion border aid package.
The political deadlock has allowed traffickers to flourish, said Lamb. Traffickers employ scouts to surveil the area from mountain tops with high powered binoculars. The scouts send out signals to traffickers and their mules to arrange pick-ups along the highway, Lamb told The Post, adding that his team makes up to three drug busts a week.
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He also pointed out the detritus that a group of smugglers recently left behind a day earlier. There were “carpet shoes” — cloth slippers with woolly soles — that traffickers and their charges wear to stifle noise and footprints as they trudge through the desert. Cast-off black water jugs and clear bottles wrapped in old socks that are used to prevent reflection from the hot sun also lay abandoned in a dry gully along with several discarded sleeping bags, T-shirts and camouflage backpacks.
“If you’re wearing camo and carpet shoes, you’re not here for a good reason,” said Lamb, who has won numerous awards for his work and speaks fluent Spanish after growing up in Panama and the Philippines, and doing his Mormon mission work in Argentina.
Lamb said his international experience has given him a unique perspective on the border crisis. He wants “common sense” solutions — more federal funding for local sheriffs to patrol the border and a system that would allow migrants who are arriving in the US in search of work to obtain short-term visas and enter legally, rather than having to sneak across the border and risk their lives, paying thousands to traffickers.
“We’re seeing something we’ve never seen in America before,” he said. “The traffickers have taken advantage of the immigration crisis to flood the country with drugs. Both sides have paralyzed the debate on immigration, and now we need to get serious. We need common sense solutions to end it.”