Alphabet Soup
(work in progress)

Alphabet Soup is the working title of a photo essay that I’m developing that chronicles State & Federal law enforcement’s procedures to impede criminal activity in Pima County Arizona, along the borderland with Mexico’s Sonora State.

The border’s tensions have never been higher in the public’s consciousness, with attention centred on the border’s migratory pressures, narcotics supply, and human trafficking that flow through the Sonoran Desert’s unforgiving topography like engorged blood veins.

Subjects and themes I witnessed and photographed include narcotics seizures, intelligence led raids, body recoveries, intelligence operations, a monthly inter-agency regional intelligence briefing, aerial surveillance (night & day) and documenting Border Interdiction Unit (BIU) operations, including a whisper stop.

Because of Pima County’s vast tracts of remote terrain and near impenetrable topography so close to the border, the Pima County Sheriff’s Department has the additional challenge of responding effectively to the fallout and pressures of border crime - in addition to regular law enforcement duties like traffic violations, house burglaries, domestic violence, drug use, public safety, and implementing arrest warrants.

Working across the County, from documenting urban pressures in Tucson, to searching through laser guided ordnance strewn across the secure bombing ranges of the Growler Valley, I was struck by the repetition that accompanies each agency’s work whilst sifting through the detritus left by drug and human trafficking, which easily reinforces the perceived ‘normality’ and allows for labyrinthine geopolitics to play out as a very real drama in the desert.

“FBI, CIA, ONI - we're all in the same alphabet soup”.

North by Northwest.

This page offers a small preview of photographs and 8 accompanying descriptions pulled from a image library detailing the intricate blend of surveillance and investigative assets deployed to disrupt transgressors’ trafficking corridors and enterprise.

State & Federal agencies I have engaged with so far: Pima County Sheriff’s Department (PCSD), Border Patrol (USBP), Arizona Department of Public Safety (AZDPS), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats (ACTT), U.S Customs & Border Protection (CBP), US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), National Park Service (NPS), Barry Goldwater Military Police Range Security and the Pima County Office of Medical Examiner.

"I'm fucked and my family's fucked..."

This scene depicts the closing moments of a 14 hour Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) intelligence-led interagency operation tracking a Cártel de Sinaloa drug mule who drove in from Mexico that morning.

The resulting whisper stop with Pima County Sheriff's Department's Border Interdiction Unit (BIU) in the City of Tucson was conducted beside a car wash being renovated and parking lot water and ice vending machine. Upon the surprise arrest, the following words were spoken by the assailant (whilst crying). He had only been released from prison in the USA 2 weeks earlier.

Around 15 minutes into the arrest, a cartel scout drove into the parking lot to see why the shipment hadn't arrived at its destination.

Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte is the drug lords' patron saint.

With a strong, searing dusk breeze and the sound of unseen whining coyotes as my only company, I wait for the wind sock's light to bleed into the desert sundown. Just metres behind me sits an unmanned airfield that hosted a Cártel de Sinaloa punishment execution of an undercover informant.

Near Halloween, the informant thought he was going into the USA for a rewarding party weekend. Upon disembarking the aircraft, he was taken aside and asked to put his arm out straight. The plane's propellor was restarted and his arm was fed into the whirling blades from finger tips to shoulder. With his punishment over, he was then shot and left for dead and the plane took off and re-entered Mexico.

The informant survived against all odds and was flown for emergency surgery in Phoenix, AZ. Trauma surgeons said that the injuries matched that of a speedboat propeller...

‘Male skull with sharp force injury.’

Taking 2.5 hours to arrive a remote location on the Pima / Yuma Country line, where a suspected Undocumented Border Crosser (UBC) had been discovered by US Fish & Wildlife Service on routine patrol only 15 meters from the international boundary line vehicle barrier.

Though the presence of a skull may infer that a body has been deceased for a long time, quite opposite is true with decay in extreme heat and animals devouring the body's remains often accelerating decomposition to mere weeks. Treated as a scene of crime first, jurisdiction sits with Pima County Sheriff's Department, who gather evidence and transport the remains back to the Office of Medical Examiner, in the City of Tucson for further inspection and hopeful identification.

"Heroin brown crumbles, Black heroin sticky and smells like vinegar."

Sunday afternoon sees a four-mile traffic queue backed up into Mexico at the border with the US at Lukeville, AZ, as weekend party goers return from their fun at Puerto Peñasco on the shoreline of the Gulf of California.

With beaches just 65 miles south, the lure of 24hr Mexican fun allows residents of the USA let off steam. Some are tempted into smuggling desperation loads of narcotics, with the promise of paying off large debts like their mortgages. Worth the risk is the common judgement.

One such desperation load, with a street value totalling $200k, was contained in a family SUV in this particular queue while I was photograhing from the overhead gantry. Pulled over by a CPB agent, based on no more than an obersational hunch, gained from 20 years worth of experience, the family were detained whilst was their SUV was unceremoniously pulled apart.

The all time desperation load record at Lukeville stands at 1800 lbs of cocaine concealed in a boat on a trailer.

“They all take their clothes off.”

Code 900. Border Patrol (BP) discovered the UBC around 10 miles southeast of Boundary Camp after a tip off from the person's brother who had been detained as part of group found struggling in 115°F heat. The brother wasn't feeling well and dropped back. The group had covered only 2 miles in 6 days and had run out of water (often requiring 3 gallons per person per day in the summer months).

BP mounted a search operation and found him, though he had passed away 28 hours earlier. Due to the location being in a remote part of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (a UNESCO biosphere reserve) alternates years are destined vehicle free, which is strictly enforced rule. To access the location, helicopter assistance was brought in from Arizona Dept of Public Safety.

The Pima Country Sheriff's Department Deputy present noted that “unusually his eyes were still intact”.

“The wall is a medieval solution to a modern problem...”

Carved out of the scorched Sonoran Desert, covering 9,200 sq miles and encompassing the City of Tucson north of Nogales, Pima County's relationship with Mexico is labyrinthine.

Aside from its two secure ports of entry, Lukeville & Sasabe, the rest of the borderline is mostly a porous boundary, exploited by transnational crime organisations engaging in narcotics, human trafficking and sex trafficking. Because of the vast tracts of faraway terrain and near impenetrable topography so close to the border, Pima County Sheriff's Department have the additional challenge of responding effectively to the fallout and pressures of border crime, alongside regular duties associated with law enforcement like traffic violations, house burglary, domestic violence, drug use, public safety and implementing arrest warrants.

+45ºC to -25ºC. Overloaded cold storage facilities act as a sober reminder of desert hostilities.

“Watch out for Gila monsters”.

A dusk storm's aftermath descends across the border at Sasabe, one of the USA's smallest Ports of Entry with Mexico. Port code 2606. Sasabe is small settlement for (population less than 100) frozen by an eerie silence at the dustiest end of the Altar Valley.

Flanked by the Quinlan & Baboquivari mountains, the area is prone to some colossal storms after a day's intense Sonoran heat. The brightest lights in this frame illuminate the Port of Entry, which is only open during daylight hours. Nearby Baboquivari Peak is the most sacred place to the Tohono O'odham people. It is the centre of the Tohono O'odham cosmology and the home of the creator, I'itoi. According to tribal legend, he resides in a cave below the base of the mountain.