Border Patrol operation targets cartel look-outs who use sophisticated technology

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TUCSON, Arizona — The U.S. Border Patrol is targeting Mexican cartel scouts who get paid to live in the desert for days and help smugglers stay clear of law enforcement with the use of sophisticated technology.

A seven-month operation has so far netted 24 suspected "scouts," or look-outs, who live in the Sonoran Desert, with its blistering daytime temperatures and cold nights, for days, sometimes weeks.

The scouts use solar panels, encrypted radios and cellphones to warn smugglers when police or agents get close. They live in canyons and other remote areas, keeping a large supply of food, water and weapons on-hand. Many of look-outs are young men in their 20s and 30s, and most of their supplies come from the United States.

"The reality is what these scouts are doing — being up on the mountaintops, watching us and watching law enforcement activity — is that their job is vitally important to the cartels," Border Patrol spokesman Pete Bidegain said. "So by targeting these guys and their operations we can make a significant impact on cartel activity in southern Arizona."

Agents in most cases must use a Blackhawk helicopter to get to the scouts because they are in treacherous areas and because they are trained to evade authorities quickly. The agents descend from the helicopter using a fast rope.

The operation is similar to one earlier this year by the Pinal County Sheriff's Department that also targeted scouts.

That operation began in February after sheriff's deputies pulled over a 22-year-old man in Eloy, between Phoenix and Tucson. The man was driving a van carrying 600 pounds of food and other supplies. He told deputies he was being paid $4,000 to pick up the van in a Phoenix suburb and drop it off in the desert.

A month later, deputies and border agents arrested seven suspected scouts at a lookout post near Stanfield, about 33 miles west of Eloy off Interstate 8. Although some suspects ran and hid in a cave and behind rocks, all were apprehended.

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