By DANIEL NEWHAUSER
Cronkite News Service
PHOENIX (Monday, Feb. 23) _ Pima and Cochise counties are seeing more and more â€œrape trees,â€ places where Mexican drug cartel members rape female border crossers and hang their clothes, as signs mount that border violence is increasingly Arizonaâ€™s problem, a state lawmaker said Monday.
Sen. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson, invited law enforcement officials to describe the problems to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs. With seized weapons on display, the officials described how border violence plays out in human smuggling, home invasions, rapes, auto thefts, kidnappings and danger to law enforcement.
Sen. Jonathan Paton, R-Tucson, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, gestures Monday, Feb. 23, 2009, toward a high-powered rifle confiscated from Mexican drug traffickers. Paton invited law enforcement officials to discuss how border violence is increasingly Arizonaâ€™s problem.
(Source: Cronkite News Service Photo/Daniel Newhauser)
Paton said violence along the border has escalated dramatically in the past year, spilling into Arizona.
â€œWe want to go after these crimes,â€ he said before the hearing. â€œItâ€™s an unbelievable situation, and we canâ€™t allow that to go on in this country.â€
Attorney General Terry Goddard pointed to a .50-caliber rifle with a tripod mount as he described some of the weaponry law officers face as the deal with the fallout of drug violence.
â€œThose bullets pierce armor,â€ he said. â€œThey will go through armor, and they will go through tanks.â€
Calling the fight against drug cartels the organized crime issue of this century, Goddard described operations related to drug smuggling. One last year, dubbed Operation Tumbleweed, led to 59 arrests and broke up a ring believed to have smuggled 400,000 pounds of marijuana into the U.S. annually for several years.
â€œTo be effective against this threat, law enforcement must be coordinated on the state, local and federal level,â€ he said.
Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall said the problem is immense.
â€œWhat we see here is an international and national issue that far exceeds the capacity of the state Legislature to handle in any meaningful way,â€ she said.
Paton is sponsoring SB 1280, which would make knowingly harboring an illegal immigrant a felony, and SB 1282, under which those who facilitate transportation, money transfers or communication for smugglers would be prosecuted along with them.
SB 1281, also sponsored by Paton, would include in the definition of sex trafficking coercing someone into stripping or other commercial sex acts.
None of Patonâ€™s bills has been heard in committee as the Senate focuses on the budget. Paton said he would travel to Mexico next month to discuss the problem.
â€œIt makes a lot of sense for us to cooperate with Mexico,â€ he said.