Astrid Galvan, Yahoo! News, March 12, 2015
For over a decade, armed drug traffickers were so prevalent in this vast desert monument that visitors were barred from entering more than half of it.
One law enforcement group dubbed it America’s most dangerous park for two years straight after drug smugglers gunned down a ranger.
But a series of crackdowns and decreased traffic on Arizona’s border with Mexico have turned things around at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. For the first time since 2003, visitors can access all 516 square miles of the park named for a unique cactus breed that resembles a pipe organ with its long, narrow arms and short trunk.
The picturesque monument epitomizes the challenge of protecting visitors and government workers from the dangers of smuggling in southern Arizona, where large swaths of the border with Mexico are public land. Along the border and very near to it are four wildlife refuges, three national parks, two state parks and two wildlife conservation areas.
The 2003 closure of nearly 70 percent of Organ Pipe marked the first time in recent history that a national monument was largely closed because of threats posed by humans. It followed several incidents involving drug and human smugglers, including the 2002 death of Kris Eggle, a 28-year-old law enforcement park ranger killed while pursuing a group of smugglers.
For those brave enough to want to hike through the park’s closed areas, rangers armed with long rifles provided security on guided tours.
No crime figures are available just for Organ Pipe, but the Tucson sector–which comprises nearly all the Arizona border with Mexico, including the park–has seen a significant drop in activity in recent years.
The sector made 120,939 arrests in fiscal year 2013. In fiscal year 2014, which ended Sept. 30, that figure was roughly 88,000.
The number of pounds of marijuana seized in the Tucson sector also fell from 1.2 million in fiscal year 2013 to 971,180 in fiscal year 2014. The Border Patrol breaks down sector drug seizures only by pot and cocaine, although cocaine figures are extremely low.
It’s a stark difference from the early 2000s, when the largely remote, rural sector was the busiest and deadliest in the nation. Back then, agents were dealing with many armed traffickers who drove from the Mexican side of the border into the park, their vehicles outfitted in camouflage as they made their way north. Other smugglers carried loads of drugs through the desert on foot.