Cochise County taking steps on border security, as border wall battle rages on in DC

COCHISE COUNTY, Ariz. (FOX 10) -- There's no real end in sight for the border debate raging in the U.S., but that doesn't mean one Arizona county is going to sit back in the meantime.

In Cochise County, which is one of four Arizona counties to border Mexico, law enforcement officials say cooperation and technology is helping keep drugs out of the backyards of residents. The area has often been cited as a hotbed for illegal crossings into the country, especially drug activity, but law enforcement says the tide is turning.

"You look at what's going on west of us, east of us, Texas, Yuma, California, it's not going on here," said Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels. "They don't want to come through here."

Sheriff Dannels says it's been a coordinated effort between his department and Federal agencies to crack down on crime in the county, along with help from private donations for equipment

"Collectively, we're working together," said Sheriff Dennels. "There's consequences if you smuggle drugs in the country. We will charge you."

Several years ago, the Cochise County Sheriff's Office started working with the Border Patrol and the military. They set up a system of mobile cameras in rural areas throughout the county, near known smuggling trails. They're able to pick up images of drug smugglers, or mules, and that's when the agencies move. If they find narcotics on them, that's when prosecution begins, instead of deportation.

"We used to be on the map," said Sheriff Dennels. "We used to be called 'Cocaine Alley' from the Federal government. You don't see that no more, mainly because there's consequences built in."

Detective Jake Kartchner is part of the task force, operating a mobile command vehicle used to track activity in the vast openness of Southeastern Arizona.

"Tonight, what we did was we came out here with a thermal camera to attempt to detect and apprehend seven peoeple seen in the area and on camera," said Kartchner.

The non-descript vehicle has a high-tech camera that can sense heat signatures moving across the terrain. It can pick up something as small as a rabbit. The SABRE (Southeastern Arizona Border Regional Enforcement) team suspected the group was trying to head to a pickup point at a nearby rest area. Katchner says their enforcement message is getting out, remembering a suspect they caught in the county.

"He was looking around with kind of a smirk on his face and asked when the bus coming to pick him up," Kartchner. "We said no. We said you're at the Sheriff's Office. You know what that means, right? He got stonefaced cold and he looked at my partner and he said, 'Yea, that means two years for me right?' It's kind of a good feeling to know that our point is getting across that you can't smuggle drugs in our county."

On one particular night, the group couldn't be found, possibly already getting away or retreating into New Mexico. Dannels says they will continue to try and expand operations, while the border debate rages on in D.C.

"We did it," said Sheriff Dennels. "We showed we could do it here in the county without a physical barrier. Now, I'm not against physical barriers. They do reduce crime, but you have to support it with staffing, manpower, virtual technology."

U.S. Customs and Border Protection data shows that there were almost 39,000 apprehensions along the southern border in the Tucson sector in 2017, a historic low and down more than 26,000 from the year before.