Bandits In America's Backyard

Armen Keteyian is Chief Investigative Correspondent for CBS News.
The sun had long since set as we scanned the desert with night vision lenses, a green phosphorescent glow visible in the distance, specks of bright white light dancing before my eyes. Off to my right stood Sgt. Jim Murphy, head of the Pima County Border Crimes Unit. On this night a small army of men was searching for so-called bajadores, modern-day desert bandits that, increasingly, are bringing violence along the Mexican border into America's backyard.

Tall and square-jawed Murphy is an ex-military operative who drives a SUV like Jeff Gordon and speaks with the quiet, confident air of an NFL quarterback in a linebacker's body. He's got a tough job, no two ways about it. For a little over a year now rival gangs of bajadores have been in the midst of a what authorities here call an "all out war" just beyond the back nine of some of the state's nicest retirement communities in Green Valley, Arizona – jacking valuable loads of drugs and human cargo coming from Mexico. The drugs resold on the street, the illegals often held hostage until family members across the border pay thousands of dollars in ransom.

A little over a year ago Murphy took charge of a special squad of seven deputies devoted to cracking down on the escalating violence – more than a dozen deaths already this year. Just seven men covering some 9,000 square miles of mostly rugged terrain in Pima County. Cat and mouse, for sure.

On this night we stood in the cool desert air for several hours. A team from CBS News, including Senior Producer Keith Summa and Producer Michael Rey getting a first-hand look at the cat-and-mouse game Murphy's unit plays five nights a week with the bajadores. We were tucked back along a ridge a few miles northeast of Arivaca, a former mining and cattle town, waiting and waiting while Murphy's men and officers from two other agencies spread out across the valley floor setting a trap.

Every few minutes a police radio emitted a burst of sound. It came quick and quiet because as Murphy explained the bajadores are more sophisticated and more armed and dangerous than ever -- using sensitive equipment to make and monitor calls while carrying high-powered automatic weapons.

"Catch the lights?" came a disembodied voice from down below.

Murphy grabbed a pair of binoculars and peered into the night, searching some of the smuggling routes that snake their way through much of the county. Experience told him the odds were these were not desert bandits who routinely drove without lights, in trucks with black-out windows. But he couldn't be sure.

In the end we came up empty, no arrests on this night. But I left with a clearer idea, a greater understanding of what Murphy and his men are up against every day. It was much the same feeling walking an old smuggling route in broad daylight with Detective Juan Carlos Navarro, lead investigator in the case involving the murder of two illegal immigrants guilty of nothing more than being in a truck packed with 25 people two bandits thought was full of drugs.

Even driving out to the crime scene, at 10 AM on a Wednesday and just fifteen minutes off of I-19 is dangerous these days. He explained why we were joined on our trip by two heavily armed Sheriff's deputies. "There's no way we come here without our body armor and long rifles. You never know, you could get ambushed. We come here knowing that something could happen at any time," he told me.

A little more insight came courtesy of Lt. Sean Stewart in Pima County Jail. A lot of the intelligence about human trafficking and drug smuggling used by the Border Crimes Unit to catch bajadores comes from inmates inside the jail, the bi-product of monitored phone calls, letters and other means of surveillance. According to Lt. Stewart, rival gangs of smugglers have realized there's a lot of money to be made in ripping each other off; that's it's a helluva lot cheaper to steal somebody else's drugs than to pay to import your own; a lot more lucrative to charge up to $5,000 a head for hostages than to take the risk to sneak them into the United States.

And more and more, sources say, the brains behind the bajadores are centered not in Mexico but right here in Arizona, in cities like Tucson and Phoenix, which have become major staging grounds for all kinds of narco-trafficking. Which poses some very serious risks for those who come here to retire, to make a few birdies, and not worry about dead bodies showing up just beyond their backyard.