Sunday, March 18, 2012



Note: we are getting reports of large, significant increases in drug
and human smuggling along border between Nogales and Yuma.
Apprehensions still low? For the OP, have heard, but not confirmed
that the escorts have M14's? Would be unusual.

Smugglers make parts of monument akin to a 'bad neighborhood'
Armed guards ensuring safety of Organ Pipe tours
Doug Kreutz Arizona Daily Star
| Posted: Sunday, March 18, 2012 12:00 am | Comments

Park service volunteers, foreground left and right, close ranks as
hikers head back toward vans during a supervised tour of Quitobaquito
Spring at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
Photos: Armed guards accompany Organ Pipe NM tour
(19) Photos

QUITOBAQUITO - It was a tour of public lands with splendid scenery, a
glib guide - and lethal firepower on hand just in case.
The tour last week - to Quitobaquito Spring at Organ Pipe Cactus
National Monument south of Ajo - was guarded by federal officers
armed with assault rifles and other weapons.
"It's because of the perception that exposure to human and narcotics
smugglers is a bad thing for the visiting public," said Matthew
Vandzura, chief ranger at the monument on the Mexican border.
Sardius Stalker, a seasonal park ranger who led last week's tour, put
it another way: "It's like going into a bad neighborhood" where
protection by "armed escorts" is essential.
A quick glance back in time can help explain the need for armed
protection on a public park tour.
The Quitobaquito site - a natural oasis in the desert fed by a
gushing spring - and many other parts of the 330,689-acre monument
have been closed to the public without escorts for much of the past
Smuggling of people and drugs across monument lands had been
increasing for years when a single event slammed home the hard fact
of deadly danger in the area.
Park ranger Kris Eggle was slain while pursuing suspected smugglers
on Aug. 9, 2002.
"Now, 33.32 percent (of the monument) is open to the public without
escort - for daytime use only," Vandzura said.
The remaining two-thirds of the preserve is closed to the public
without an escort - mainly because of the danger of encounters with
The escorted tours to Quitobaquito, which began several years ago,
amount to an effort to reclaim turf from smugglers while protecting
tour participants from excessive risk.
So far, Vandzura said, no tour groups have encountered smugglers. But
he said some tours have been canceled before getting under way
because rangers got information that smugglers might be in the area.
Ranger and tour guide Stalker boarded 14 participants into two vans
for a bumpy, 15-mile journey along unpaved Puerto Blanco Drive to
The road mostly parallels the border, which is lined on the U.S. side
with vehicle barriers designed to thwart smugglers. Passengers in the
vans could see traffic whizzing by just across the international line
on Mexican Highway 2.
Just ahead of the vans was a park service vehicle with some of the
escorts, who are park service law enforcement specialists.
Stalker, an animated guide serving up a wealth of nature and history
lore during the drive, said people taking part in a hike around the
spring site probably wouldn't even see the armed guards.
They "kind of lurk in the bushes" out of sight while keeping a close
watch on the touring party, he said. "They try to be inconspicuous,
but they're close - within earshot."
Indeed, the guards remained mostly out of sight as tourists - flanked
by Stalker and monument volunteers - walked around the Quitobaquito
lagoon and learned about plants and wildlife in the area.
Sue Walter, the monument's chief of interpretation who accompanied
the tour, provided some specifics on the guard detail, which rangers
prefer to refer to as escorts.
"Four of them are out here," Walter said. "They sweep the area ahead
of time" and then observe the tour group from watching posts on
hillsides and in the brush.
"It's an insurance policy," she said. "You don't expect anything to
happen - but just in case."
Patrick O'Driscoll, a public affairs officer for the National Park
Service, said the guards are in place "because it's a closed area,
and we have to take basic precautions when we go in. It's maybe a
little like a detail protecting the president."
Near the end of the tour, a reporter spoke briefly with one of the
"The goal for us is to maintain visitor safety and stay out of
sight," he said.
Participants in last week's tour were asked for their reaction to the
presence of armed guards. Here are some of their responses.
• Carl Schorzman, a visitor from Idaho: "It's OK. But it's sad."
•Yvette Magee from British Columbia in Canada: "The guards? They
don't bother me."
• Rolf Doebbelin, a native of Germany who lives in Egypt: "It's great
to see this place has been reopened (for escorted tours). But it's a
bit of a challenge because of the border situation. They (the guards)
are in hiding, so we don't see them."
• Brad Schrotenboer of Chicago: "I don't even notice it. I feel
completely safe, and it's great to get to come to an area that's not
usually open."
• Marilyn Wall of Idaho: "I like being out here in the desert, so I
can live with it. But it's just sad that it's needed."
Officials say they are re-evaluating closed areas in hopes of opening
more of the monument to the public without mandatory escorts.
"We're looking at the possibility of opening up 10 percent more of
the monument to the public," said chief ranger Vandzura. "My gut
feeling is that (smuggling) traffic is consistent or maybe at a
slight downward angle."
Vandzura said park rangers, working closely with agents from the U.S.
Border Patrol, might identify some areas that could be reopened.
He emphasized that no decisions have been made on the matter.
On StarNet: See more photos related to this story at azstar
if you go
• Escorted tours to Quitobaquito Spring at Organ Pipe Cactus National
Monument are scheduled for March 27 and March 28.
• Call 1-520-387-6849 for tour availability and directions.
• The tours are free, but visitors to the monument pay an $8 per
vehicle entrance fee.
did you know?
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, set aside as a federal preserve
in 1937, is home to 28 cactus species and a diverse population of
other desert plants and animals.
"We're looking at the possibility of opening up 10 percent more of
the monument to the public. My gut feeling is that (smuggling)
traffic is consistent or maybe at a slight downward angle."
Matthew Vandzura, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument chief ranger

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