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Danger in the Desert: KFOX14 joins Dona Ana County sheriffs on patrol

By: Genevieve Curtis

Las Cruces, N.M.-- The Dona Ana County Sheriff Todd Garrison and his office opposes a bill to make the Organ Mountains and Desert Peaks a national monument because of safety and security concerns.

KFOX14 went along with two members of the office as they patrolled the remote areas of the New Mexican desert.

Capt. Manion Long and Lt. Jon Day specialize in border security; theyre focused on things like drug smuggling and human trafficking.  

We are concerned about criminal activity taking place in Dona Ana County, said Long.  

Among their chief concerns, -- around 340 square miles of wide open wilderness, stretching from the U.S. Mexican border, to Interstate 10 and beyond.   Its land where smugglers and criminals have carved out paths to cross.

 A lot of these routes, these smuggling routes, are historical in nature. Fathers have taught son, grandfathers have taught fathers. It's a family enterprise, said Long.  

But its also land that could soon become a national monument.  

New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich introduced legislation called the Organ Mountains- Desert Peaks Conservation Act to add a level of federal protection, preservation and distinction to the region.  

While beautiful, there can be danger in the desert.  

This is an open area. The fact of the matter is we dont have a secure southern border. It is a national security issue, said Long.  

While on patrol, Long explained what he looks for.  

Markers, Im looking for tracks in the roadway, Im looking for movement, dust, which could indicate movement, anything  man-made, he said.  

Empty soda cans perched into the mesquite can be used to guide people through the tough terrain. The cans reflect light and serve as guide post markers. 

Long and his team have also found stones stacked in the desert. Typically, a few large stones will be stacked on top of each other, creating pillars.  

The stones dont stack themselves, said Long.  

While on patrol, Day and Long returned to a location where they found carpet shoes buried in the sand just a few days before.  

We found carpet shoes typically associated with smugglers in an effort to conceal their footprints in the soft sand, said Long.

After  re-canvassing the area, they found several more sets of carpet shoes.   Our group is getting bigger, said Long.  

Water bottles, bottles of Electrolyte, bread and a can of sardines were also found near the shoes. All of the wrappers bore Spanish print.

Next to the debris, a womans blouse had been left behind.  

I think they probably came up here, and you can actually see the trail right there, said Long, pointing to a path seemingly carved out in the wilderness.

Within the last year Long said a rancher also found abandoned bundles of marijuana near the area.  

If the land becomes a national monument, Long is worried federal protection wont mean increased security.

We dont know how many were never caught or were caught after they were in this area, said Long. The fact of the matter is things that take place here can affect people in other cities, tomorrow.  

Long said the group of at least five who wore the carpet shoes were not apprehended.  

However, Heinrich and Udall said local law enforcement will still have access to the area.  

According to the senators offices's, nothing in the Udall-Heinrich legislation changes existing jurisdiction and authority, and nothing prohibits the Dept. of the Interior from developing agreements with the Sheriffs office to help enforce laws in the national monument if additional cooperation would be beneficial.

The sheriff is not convinced that even if language is written into the bill that we will still have access to that, said Long

Border Patrol believes the bill will actually help enhance their work along the border and have sent a letter of support to the senators to that end.  

But there remain miles and miles of public land in Dona Ana County where the Sheriffs Office said criminals cross, which is why they want to keep careful watch.  

We like to think that just by virtue of us being out there that that has provided some level of security, said Long.

The Sheriffs Office supports designating some of the land in the proposal as a national monument, just not all of it.

Its public land, its our land, it should be enjoyed, said Long.

The senators sent KFOX14 a joint statement regarding local law enforcements involvement and the potential criminal activity in parts of the land.

"We introduced this legislation because of the overwhelming support from the community to preserve some of New Mexicos most special places and experiences for us now and for generations to come, while promoting tourism and economic development in the region

"This proposal has been in development for many years and is responsive to the needs of each of the community stakeholders, including the Doa Ana Sheriff's Department. The bill is stronger for their input. The monument would continue to be managed by the BLM, and there will be no change in law enforcement jurisdiction. Furthermore, Border Patrol has assured us that the bill gives them more flexibility to patrol the border, and we are confident that the bill will improve the ability of both Border Patrol and local law enforcement to keep our communities safe."

The land is already has federal protection as a Wilderness Study Area.



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