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The Law Loses Out at U.S. Parks

Rangers say they aren't equipped to cope with illegal immigrants, armed smugglers.

January 23, 2003|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

ORGAN PIPE CACTUS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Ariz. — When two gunmen affiliated with a drug cartel fled into this border park from Mexico in August, ranger Kris Eggle grabbed his shotgun and raced to confront them. As Eggle searched a dry wash in the 104-degree heat, one of the men hidden in the desert scrub opened fire with an AK-47, delivering a fatal wound under the ranger's bulletproof vest.

The killing came after years of complaints by rangers that they were badly outmanned and poorly organized for the increasingly hazardous mission of patrolling national parks. Organ Pipe is widely regarded as the most dangerous, used daily by illegal immigrants and heavily armed drug smugglers who have cut hundreds of paths and roads in the remote back country and have left behind tons of litter.

Although the conditions here are extreme, they reflect a much broader law enforcement problem at the string of national parks, wildlife sanctuaries and Indian reservations abutting Mexico from California to Texas that is straining the rangers' dual responsibility of protecting both the facilities' environment and their visitors.

The Interior Department has primary responsibility for law enforcement in these areas, which make up 36% of the nation's southern border, but it is poorly prepared for the job, critics say.

The park rangers "are not trained, they are not staffed, they are not equipped for the mission," said Doug Scott, the agency's assistant inspector general. "There are carjackings, robberies, sexual assaults, confrontations with drug runners."

Scott warned early last year in an investigative report that the department's law enforcement operations were devoid of leadership and poorly coordinated. Then, after Eggle's killing, the pressure began to mount. The Senate Finance Committee has launched an investigation into the problems and plans to hold hearings later this year.

Historically, officials at the Interior Department and within the agency's National Park Service have downplayed crime -- part of an effort to keep up a wholesome image, said aides to committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa).

As a result, the Park Service has given short shrift to law enforcement at its 388 parks, monuments and other sites, particularly along the southwestern border, say critics, who include members of Congress, law enforcement associations and the rangers themselves.

The rangers receive law enforcement training and carry weapons, but they are managed by park superintendents who typically have no such training.

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton is trying -- with limited success -- to reform the park system. Last year, she appointed the department's first law enforcement chief in Washington. But critics such as Grassley so far are not satisfied.

"The slow pace of law enforcement reform is putting park rangers, Interior police and park visitors at risk," the senator said.

Crime has exploded at parks along the southern U.S. border, where rangers have little time for ecological tours and singing to tourists around campfires.

In 2001, rangers at Organ Pipe seized 14,000 pounds of marijuana -- up 37% from a year earlier -- and they engaged in more than 30 car chases as they pursued suspected smugglers. As many as 1,000 illegal immigrants pour through the cactus preserve each day, said Dan Wirth, a Park Service special agent and president of the rangers' chapter of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Assn.

Similar problems exist at all the Interior Department's law enforcement operations along the border -- including the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management.

In 2001, 357,000 pounds of marijuana were seized on Interior lands along the Mexican border, a fourfold increase in just two years, Wirth said. More than a quarter of it was seized on refuges operated by the Fish and Wildlife Service and more than half in areas controlled by the Bureau of Land Management.

The problems are only growing worse, Wirth said. In recent weeks, rangers seized 9,000 pounds of marijuana at Big Bend National Park in Texas. With the Mexican marijuana crop ready for harvest in coming months, busts are expected to accelerate.

Numerous ambushes, carjackings and robberies also have been reported. At Coronado National Memorial in Arizona, a tourist two years ago was taken at knifepoint from her car, tied up and pushed down a hill when her car was stolen, Wirth said.

Standing against the crime wave at Organ Pipe are three rangers, who engage in risky missions unimagined by most visitors. Drug smugglers move through the park with 50-pound packs of marijuana, Wirth said. Rangers track their footprints, hiking up to 20 miles through the back country with M-16 carbines slung across their shoulders.

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