Ducey touts 3 drug busts by Border Strike Force. All happened in routine traffic stops, far from the border

Richard Ruelas
Arizona Republic

Ahead of his visit to the border, intended to draw attention to what he has called a security problem of increasing immigration, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey's office issued a news release Thursday touting drug busts supposedly made by its Border Strike Force.

However, each of the highlighted seizures appeared to have been made through the solid, and routine, work of troopers patrolling the state's highways. And none took place near the border.

One of the highlighted busts occurred in Phoenix. Another near Tucson. And the third occurred near Littlefield, a small community northwest of the Grand Canyon. It is so isolated that one would have to leave the state and circle back to reach it.

When the DPS issued contemporaneous news releases about the three seizures Ducey highlighted, which took place as far back as January 2020, it did not credit the Border Strike Force.

The governor's office did not immediately respond to an emailed question about how the three stops constituted Border Strike Force activities.

The news release, coming one day before Ducey's scheduled tour of the Arizona-Mexico border on Friday, credited the seizures to a "highly-trained group of state troopers," a phrase that could apply to the highway patrol as well as the criminal investigations unit that officially houses the strike force.

The release quoted Ducey crediting the seizures to the "hard work and vigilance" of the Border Strike Force.

"Every Arizonan — every American — should applaud their success," the release read, quoting Ducey.

The highlighted busts in the news release follow a pattern: The Border Strike Force has produced eye-popping statistics about drug seizures. But that is because, records show, drug seizures made by state troopers as part of traffic stops all across Arizona are chalked up to the Strike Force. 

Ducey created the Border Strike Force in 2015, seemingly making good on an election promise to do what he could to secure the border.

The strike force became a major talking point of his 2018 re-election bid. Campaign commercials and official news releases trumpeted the force as one that would stop drug smuggling in what was described as the wide-open Arizona desert.

A Republic investigation, however, showed that the impressive drug seizure numbers attributed to the Strike Force were, in large measure, the result of the solid, but routine, work of state troopers patrolling Arizona's highways.

Investigation: Ducey's Arizona Border Strike Force

A list of Strike Force cases provided by the Department of Public Safety showed that, through 2018, most of the task force activity took place away from Arizona’s four border counties.

Drug seizures, according to the list of cases, mainly involved minuscule amounts not typically indicative of trafficking operations. Only 18% of cases were classified by the DPS as involving drug smuggling or organized crime, the supposed reason for the creation of the Strike Force.

The Republic asked for an updated list of Strike Force cases in September 2019. The DPS has not fulfilled that request.

The news release sent out Thursday released a set of impressive drug seizure statistics Ducey's office said had been racked up in the last two months of 2020. Those included 430 pounds of marijuana, 10 pounds of heroin and 55 pounds of methamphetamine.

In 2018, Ducey's office would regularly receive a set of seizure statistics, produced in a pleasing graphic format.  But, according to his office, those stopped in September 2018, two months before his re-election.

Ducey's office did not immediately respond to a request disclosing how and when Ducey received the update covering the last two months of 2020. Or why that time frame was picked.

The Border Strike Force has received more than $90 million in funding since its inception, state budget documents show.

Richard Ruelas writes about people and places in Arizona. Reach him at richard.ruelas@arizonarepublic.com or at @ruelaswritings on Twitter. 

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