At most national parks and monuments, U.S. park rangers are on-hand to offer historical tidbits and directions to the nearest restroom. But with conditions along the U.S.-Mexico border growing precarious as armed drug cartels and undocumented aliens cross over into the Arizona desert, park rangers at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument are now charged with lecturing visiting tourists in mandatory safety briefings and protecting them with M14 rifles.
Thanks to our porous southern border, this is no longer your average family vacation destination:
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a 330,000-acre, surprisingly green stretch of Sonoran desert populated by barrel, saguaro and organ pipe cacti, spans 30 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. The park became a corridor for drug runners in the 1990s after border security tightened at major ports of entry and in urban areas, driving human and drug traffickers to rural crossings. Alan Bersin, the Customs and Border Protection commissioner until last year, admitted that the Tucson sector of the border was "out of control" until recently. In 2010, half of all border apprehensions and drug seizures occurred in the Tucson sector, which encompasses much of Organ Pipe.
Drug runners would cut across Mexican Highway 2 through Organ Pipe's dirt roads in a car and then quickly hop onto U.S. Highway 85, which shoots up to Phoenix or Tucson. The vehicles blazed more than 200 miles of unauthorized roads through the park, and rangers found themselves in dangerous, high-speed chases nearly every day. An $18 million, 23-mile vehicle fence put up after Eggle's murder by the Department of the Interior cut down on this vehicle traffic. Now, cartels have had to get smarter, sometimes cutting into the fence, removing it, driving through, and then putting it back together again. Drug runners also started coming more on foot, dropping their packages in designated spots on the highway for someone else to pick up. ...
"They're very adaptive, more so than us," said Organ Pipe park superintendent Lee Baiza wearily, during an interview with Yahoo News last week.
Baiza said he spends about 80 percent of his time working with Homeland Security and handling border concerns. "There's nothing normal about Organ Pipe," he added.
h/t Katie Pavlich