Over the past ten days, more than eight vehicle drug loads have made it
around the new vehicle barrier installed on the border with Mexico and
onto park roads. Once in the park, the smugglers were able to mix into
traffic and avoid being apprehended. These vehicles typically carry
from $1 million to $1.5 million in drugs and are therefore more closely
guarded. The smugglers are also instructed to employ violence if
necessary to prevent the loss of their loads.
That message will definitely catch your eye if you're thinking of visiting a National Park Service site. It was written recently by the acting chief ranger at Coronado National Memorial, a nearly 5,000-acre site on Arizona's southern border that commemorates "the explorations of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado" and which also is intended to bolster relations between the U.S. and Mexico.
Sadly, such warnings are no longer isolated events. At Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument park officials have dedicated an entire page on their web site to addressing safety concerns related to drug runners and illegal immigrants, and similar warnings are dispatched at Big Bend National Park in Texas.
While some Mexican roads lead to Organ Pipe and Big Bend and thus help explain some of the trafficking problems those parks have, at Coronado National Memorial no good roads front the park on the Mexican side of the border.
Still, that doesn't deter the drug trade, with most of the drug runners that aim for Coronado National Memorial traveling cross-country in rigs that manage, once they hop the border, to meld in with traffic in the memorial.
Matt Stoffolano, the memorial's acting chief ranger, told me that most of the border-crossings are conducted during daylight hours as the drug runners drive their rigs around a vehicle barrier that, when initially installed a few years ago, utilized topography that officials thought would act as a natural barrier.
"Now what we're seeing is indeed they can get a vehicle across that," says Stoffolano.
A temporary fix has been installed to close the gap, and the Park Service is going through the process to extend the barrier.
The drug-running is a lucrative business. The vehicles carry an estimated 1,000-1,500 pounds of marijuana each, which carries a street value of $1 million to $1.5 million, Stoffolano says. So far there haven't been any incidents within the memorial, and he is confident that once the existing vehicle barrier is extended that should solve the problem.
"The vehicle barrier is the most effective means to do this (stop the trafficking), and that is our primary goal," he told me. "Could we flood the area, theoretically, with a large group of rangers? We could, and we may. But the bottom line is, when those folks leave, if there is a route that route is still going to exist.
"The only way to effectively change the situation is to deny that route. And the vehicle barrier is the most effective way to do that."
Still, that doesn't mean illegal foot traffic won't continue in the memorial.
Meanwhile, crossings on foot by illegal aliens are also returning to levels seen before the barrier was erected. It’s believed that several circumstances have combined to cause the return of high levels of criminal activity in the park, including changes in criminal organizations, restoration of infrastructure damaged by floods in both the U.S. and Mexico, and the staffing levels of area law enforcement agencies, Stoffolano wrote in a notice published in the Park Service's Morning Report.
Despite the sounds of things, Stoffolano doesn't want visitors to think the memorial is turning into a hotbed of criminal activity.
"We don't want to be alarmist," he told me. "We're not talking about anything that hasn't existed. It was going on before."
Just the same, Stoffolano says the bottom line is "to make it as safe as possible for everybody."
To help Stoffolano and other park rangers throughout the national park system attain that bottom line, the administration and Congress need to come through with some help, both monetarily and in terms of additional personnel. Since 9/11 the Park Service has been relied on to assume -- financially and in terms of manpower -- duties that rightfully belong with the Department of Homeland Security.
Indeed, former Park Service Director Fran Mainella testified to a congressional committee in May 2005 that her agency's unfunded homeland security costs had surpassed $40 million a year. That's $40 million that Park Service officials have to find from somewhere else in their budget, which already is insufficient.