In 2008, Sheriff Paul Babeu became the first Republican elected to that office in the 136-year history of Pinal County, Arizona.  At age 42, he is a 20-year veteran of the Army National Guard, retiring with the rank of major, having served in Iraq and as commander in the Yuma Sector of the U.S.-Mexican border.  Babeu was voted the 2011 Sheriff of the Year by the National Sheriffs’ Association and has, since this interview was conducted, announced that he will run for Congress this fall.  He is interviewed here by Peter Gemma.

Peter Gemma: Thanks for taking time from what must be a very hectic schedule.  By way of background, you told me that you came to Arizona via Massachusetts and that you were steeped in politics right from the start.

Paul Babeu: Yes, my father was always speaking out for a political cause and was viewed as a political antagonist, which shaped my early views on political activity.  While I was still in high school, I campaigned against a proposed pay raise for the North Adams, Massachusetts, city council.  The council eventually was pressured into reducing their pay hike.  The following year, at the age of 18, I ran for city council, and my entire senior class registered to vote.  I won the election out of a field of 19 candidates.  In 1992, I was elected to a four-year term as the Berkshire County (Massachusetts) commissioner.  I worked on political campaigns and was very active in the community.

What came next?

In 2002, I finished my masters in public administration and graduated summa cum laude from the American International College.  I decided to seek a career in law enforcement, close to where my parents retired in Arizona.

While in college, I enlisted as a private in the Army National Guard and later trained as an Army officer at the Massachusetts Military Academy.  I served a full 20-year career, and it was an amazing time of leadership training and challenges—mobilizations to build a border fence in California, responding to blizzards and tornados, building bridges, deploying to Iraq, and commanding soldiers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Tell me a bit about Pinal County—it looks huge on a map.

Pinal County is in the central part of Arizona, between Phoenix and Tucson.  The county was founded in 1875.  It’s 5,374 square miles in size, which makes it larger than Connecticut.  As of 2010, the population was over 375,000, and it has been named the fastest-growing county in America.

I understand you actually cut the budget when you were elected sheriff.

Immediately upon taking office, I launched a full reorganization.  We reduced our own operating budget by ten percent during this downed economy; I replaced the entire command leadership, implemented high employee standards, improved training, and reduced emergency-response times nearly in half.  My department has aggressively sought and been awarded nearly seven million dollars in private grants and additional funding during each year I’ve been in office.

You have banned photo radar in Pinal County.  Why?

I am against photo speed enforcement completely and promised voters that, if I was elected as the sheriff of Pinal County, it would be gone on the first day I took office.  As promised, the first day I came into office the contract with the photo-safety vendor was terminated.

Photo safety had failed miserably in Pinal County, as evidenced by the increase in total accidents—16 percent after photo safety was launched.  Photo safety does nothing to stop impaired drivers, which was one of the main factors contributing to the fatal and serious-injury collisions that were plaguing our county.  Now we have a full-time traffic unit, and they enforce traffic laws during all hours of the day and night.  Since implementing this approach, we have seen a marked reduction in our total accidents and a 25-percent reduction in our fatal collisions.

You’re on the front lines in the fight against illegal immigration.  What would it really take to stem the tide of illegal aliens?

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 56 percent of the border is not under “operational control.”  In my opinion and in the opinion of most Americans, being 44-percent “secure” is a failing grade.

I think the McCain-Kyl 10-Point Plan for Enhanced Border Security is the answer to protecting our southern border.  I had the opportunity to assist Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl in drafting this plan, which is based on what worked in the Yuma Sector of the U.S.-Mexican border.  During my military service, I served in that area as the commanding officer for Operation Jump Start, in which I commanded over 700 men and women near the U.S. border with Mexico.  We were able to achieve a 94-percent reduction in illegal entries, and the sector has remained at that level ever since.

The main components of the plan are to put 6,000 armed soldiers on the southern border, build a double-barrier fence, and end “catch and release.”  [Provisions of the legislation also include requiring the federal government to reimburse state and local governments fully for the costs of incarcerating criminal aliens; providing hardship duty pay to border-patrol agents assigned to rural, high-trafficked areas; substantially increasing the 25 mobile surveillance systems and the three Predator B Unmanned Aerial Vehicles now operating; and sending additional fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to the Arizona-Mexico Border.]

You’ve been quoted as saying that your department has lost control over parts of Pinal County to Mexican drug cartels.  Were you serious?

Pinal County is the number-one pass-through county in the country for drug and human smuggling.  It is ground zero in the fallout over America’s unsecured southern border.  The terrain and roadways funnel all of the cartels’ activities right through my county.  Pinal County contains an estimated 75 to 100 drug-cartel listening and observation posts, used to facilitate the illegal transportation of people and narcotics into the United States.  There have been cartel murders on residential streets, cold-blooded executions, and direct attacks on law-enforcement officers.

How many illegal aliens are crossing the border into Pinal County?

Pinal County is roughly 70 miles north of the border.  In 2010, the U.S. Border Patrol reported 212,202 illegal aliens were caught in the Tucson sector alone.  The Border Patrol admits that, for every one captured, another 2.7 make it into the United States undetected.  Of the individuals who are apprehended, as many as 30 percent already have a criminal record in the United States.

I just read of a report stating that illegal aliens were responsible for more than one third of human-ignited wildfires in Arizona.  What other sorts of crimes are attributable to illegal aliens?

Pinal County has followed the trend of the majority of counties across the United States, so we have seen most of our major crime statistics drop during the past few years.  The one area we have not seen drop—which has seen dramatic increases, in fact—is crimes tied to illegal immigration.  Our high-speed vehicle pursuits have rapidly increased each year from 142 in 2007 to 340 in 2010.  Marijuana seizures have spiked from a low in 2008 of about 19,600 pounds to over 45,500 pounds in 2010.  I know 2011 will far surpass last year’s totals.  My deputies are telling me more and more that they are apprehending guns and high-tech communication equipment from cartel operatives.

It seems to me that the Mexican drug cartels are now more powerful and sophisticated in their tactics than ever before—and certainly more violent.  Can you cite some examples of new threats posed by illegal-alien gangs and drug lords?

The Mexican drug cartels have almost toppled the Mexican government, and they are crossing into Arizona at will.  In Mexico, over 42,000 lives have been lost to their wars, and that number is rising by the hour.  Their illegal drug trade is a $40 billion per year industry.  The stakes are so high and the competition so fierce that Mexican warlords are sparing no expense.  Pinal County has seen mass murders, execution-style slayings, sexual assaults, kidnappings, shootings, armed robberies, burglaries, and more—all tied to illegal immigration.

The Department of Justice devised a scheme to demonstrate how easily weapons fall into the hands of criminals crossing the Mexican border.  Illegal firearms were sold to criminal arms dealers, but the DOJ then lost track of its distribution network.  Guns from “Operation Fast and Furious” eventually turned up at a shoot-out in Arizona where a Customs and Border Protection Agent was killed.  Can you give us the details of that tragic incident?

On December 14, 2010, Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was patrolling with three other members of his tactical team in Peck Canyon, which is a notorious drug-smuggling corridor.  At the same time five illegal aliens, all of whom were armed, were also patrolling in the same canyon.  According to one of them, who was later arrested, at least two of the illegal aliens carried their assault rifles “at the ready position.”  After the Border Patrol agents identified themselves in Spanish as police officers, one of the illegal aliens opened fire, striking Brian Terry in the back.  The bullet pierced his aorta, and he began to bleed profusely.  He died at the scene.  At the time of the shooting, Brian Terry was armed with a “less lethal” beanbag shotgun [designed to deliver a blow that will render a violent suspect briefly immobile].  Two of the AK-47s recovered at the scene came from the failed Fast and Furious operation.

The U.S. attorney for Arizona, Dennis Burke, resigned over the scandal, but you and other Arizona sheriffs are calling for the resignation of Attorney General Eric Holder.  Why do you think the chain of command in this fiasco goes directly to his office?

Ever since Eric Holder testified before Congress regarding Fast and Furious, it has been obvious he intentionally misled them about what and when he knew about this operation.  The sheriffs of Arizona believe that those responsible should be held criminally accountable for allowing 2,000 guns, including assault weapons and .50 caliber rifles, to be purchased on U.S. soil and then turned over to the drug cartels of Mexico.  As a result of the reckless facilitation and distribution of these weapons, our deputies and American citizens may now face the barrel of a gun that was placed in the hands of criminals by the BATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.  Citizens of the United States and Mexico have already been murdered by cartel members who now possess these weapons.  There is no doubt that more bloodshed will occur on both sides of the border, since over 1,500 weapons remain unaccounted for.

Many states—and Arizona leads the way—are tackling problems stemming from illegal immigration such as crime, housing standards, tuition, and other social-welfare benefits, at the state and local level.  Does that make your job easier?

All of these methods help but will never solve the issue plaguing our county.  The effects of an unsecured border will continue until we implement the McCain-Kyl 10-Point Plan for Enhanced Border Security.  If the majority of those who attempt to cross the border illegally can make it through the border, what are the chances we can stop terrorists from making it safely to their destination?  Why do we have 28,000 troops in Korea securing their border, yet we can’t have 6,000 here to protect ours?

I know there aren’t any quick-fix solutions, but what specifically can we do to deal with the 14 to 20 million illegals here already?

Discussing this issue before achieving border security is an open invitation for people to get here while the getting is good.  But amnesty should be completely off the table.

One more thing: There will be an additional congressional seat in Arizona after re-districting.  Are you tempted to be the new sheriff on Capitol Hill?

I absolutely love being the sheriff of Pinal County, but many things have happened that make me feel as though the fights most important to us here at home are being waged in Washington.  Citizens across the United States are tired of feeling the impact of an unsecured border.  Arizona is ground zero, and I can speak with credibility and experience as an Army officer who has commanded soldiers on the U.S.-Mexico border, and as a sheriff who has led historic drug-smuggling busts against the violent Mexican drug cartels.  These are the issues that I am known for, along with my fiscally conservative approach to government.  If I run, I will help fix our broken economy by stopping the excessive spending and borrowing, which has further dampened our economy and job growth.  Putting our nation deeper into debt has not created jobs or stimulated the economy; it has the exact opposite impact.  We need to create an environment where the private sector invests in job creation.

Thanks so much, Sheriff Babeu—this is a report from the front lines that I’m sure our readers will appreciate.