BELLE FOURCHE –– Butte County Sheriff Fred Lamphere has made four trips down to the country’s southern border so far this year and seeks to share his insight about what he considers America’s biggest vulnerability – one that led to the creation of a lethal pipeline of drugs which flows into every community across the country.  

“It’s really made me respect and want to protect what we have here so much more,” Lamphere told the Pioneer Tuesday. “But I couldn’t do it in clear conscious if I wasn’t able to inform people of what I’ve seen and what I feel is a problem.”

Between April and June, Lamphere attended conferences in El Paso, Texas; and three Arizona communities - Bisbee, Yuma, and Phoenix.

The trips were funded by the Western States Sheriff’s Association with the intention to show support for sheriffs in the communities who are immersed in the consequences and the plight of the ongoing struggle to secure the nation’s 1,954 miles worth of southern border from illegal border crossings.

A changing landscape

Lamphere said he made his first trip to the U.S./Mexico border in 2014 or 2015, launching him into a journey through which his eyes were opened to the impact illegal immigration and drug trafficking.

“I was president of the South Dakota Sheriff’s Association, and I was elected as representative for South Dakota for the Western States (Sheriff’s Association),” he said, explaining that numerous sheriffs’ associations, including a handful of border state associations, attended a combined conference regarding border concerns.

The Western States Sheriffs’ Association is comprised of sheriffs and their command staff from 17 Western States that include Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah,

Washington, and Wyoming.

During the 2014-2015 timeframe, when former President Barack Obama was in office, Lamphere said that border issues were concerning, but on a different level than those currently facing border states.

“… It was kind of a pinch point at that time,” he said. “Things have changed a lot (since then).”

Lamphere recounted some of the struggles border area ranchers expressed in a forum during his first border trip.

“It was really an eye-opener for me,” he said. “Because these ranchers are just like ranchers in South Dakota … they’ve been there for generations, and they’ve learned to adapt to the changing things in their world just with the ranching industry.”

He shared anecdotal information he learned from the ranchers during the forum. For decades, Lamphere said that people immigrating during that time were often discovered by the ranchers who were carrying out their routine ranching duties.

“Fifteen (to) 20 years before that, when people (were) coming across the border, they were really humble people,” he said. “They were there to look for work, and because their nation’s poverty level was pretty high …. “Overall, they were respectful, they were embarrassed by being caught by the rancher or on their property. If you gave them any assistance, they were very grateful. They understood your responsibility was to contact border patrol and accepted that those were the consequences.”

America’s ever-increasing appetite for drugs opened up the market to make a profit by trafficking illegal substances into the country, Lamphere said.

The type of person attempting to illegally cross the border has changed, Lamphere said, “So, now the cartels run most of those routes, and there’s been ranchers killed when they’ve ridden up on groups of people packing drugs.”

Prior to the current atmosphere and risk associated with those traveling through ranch lands across the border, Lamphere said that ranchers would commonly keep dogs chained up outside their homes which would alert to the presence of tresspassers on the property.

“Now they’re just killing the dogs,” he said, referring to the people traveling through trying to remain undetected. “It’s a different mentality – it’s a takeaway. So, people have had to adapt to that kind of lifestyle.”

As a result, Lamphere said that ranchers, even those from ranching families with deep roots in the area, are considering different occupations which may offer fewer hazards.

“It’s just tough to pass on your ranching traditions, and it’s dangerous down there now,” he said. “Especially in that rough country where they utilize the terrain to transport drugs.”

“The drugs that are coming across … if people really understand those numbers (drug overdoses),” Lamphere said. “Start adding that up. Talk about wars, talk about prior administrations, talk about anything, but this is internal. It’s coming here, and it’s killing our citizens.”

And with technological advances over the years, Lamphere said that illegal operations have adopted new techniques to evade authorities, upping both the ante and danger.

“The bottom line is, there’s a lot of people that come through there,” he said, adding that the focus was changed during former President Donald Trump’s administration, concentrating more on securing the border.

“This year alone, since January, the numbers are just staggering what’s came through,” Lamphere said of illegal border crossings since President Joe Biden took office, claiming 800,000 have been caught and detained since January.

“But there’s also been documented over 200,000 people that have came in here and gotten away,” Lamphere said, explaining that is according to information he learned at his recent sheriff conferences. “And the only documentation that they have is that they’ve been caught on camera. The local authorities were so consumed with the big masses (of people) that the other ones get through.”

According to information from U.S. Customs and Border Protection, from January to May, there have been 711,784 enforcement encounters at the southwest land border. In comparison, according to the same report, throughout the 2020 fiscal year, there were 458,088 enforcement encounters in total.

“And then once they’re into these (areas), especially in a populated area, they just blend in and spread out,” he added.

Lamphere clarified that he does not lack empathy for those who wish to immigrate here legally.

“Personally, as an American citizen, I’ve got no problem with immigration,” he said. “I think there’s room for more people in America. But, if you come here for the right reasons, do it the right way.”

On the flip side, Lamphere has concerns about those willing to break the law to live in our country.

“If they come here illegally, they’re probably not going to live their life legal,” he said.

Lamphere said that decades ago, the demographics representing immigration from our southern border were different than today.

“It used to be 18-to-35-year-old Mexican males, Central American males that were coming to America illegally to look for work,” he said. “That consumed probably a good 80% of the illegal immigration captures for the past close to 20-25 years.”

Now, that has changed dramatically within the last year, Lamphere said.

“You’re getting family units, unaccompanied minors, …” he said.

According to Lamphere, he said other demographics have changed, as well. Instead of capturing and detaining people of primarily Mexican and Central American descent, in this year alone, he said, border patrol troops have captured people from more than 150 countries.

“Those are the concerning things,” Lamphere said. “Because probably not every country likes America. … It’s a national security issue as much as it’s a humanitarian issue or anything like that.”

Some legal loopholes in the country’s immigration policies are being exploited, further complicating the already overburdened system, he said. One such example, according to Lamphere, is unaccompanied minors being sent across the border. When that happens, he said that it is legal for the child’s parents to come to the country to procure their child or children, which some might view as welcoming illegal immigration.

“There’s a few things that a lot of people don’t understand,” he said. “Once they’re here, and they’re being detained, then they get some of our rights. But it’s at our (taxpaying Americans’) expense.”

Additionally, Lamphere said that cartels are trafficking more than drugs over the southern border – they’re trafficking people trying to get across.

“So, the cartels are looking at, ‘Hey, this is a money maker for us,’” he said. “They’re (hopeful immigrants are) paying the cartels between $5,000-$12,000 a person … to get them to the Mexican/U.S. border.”

And those people hoping to get across, fueled by potential opportunities in the U.S., are often not safely brought to the country’s doorstep, Lamphere said. Instead, they are often further exploited and victimized.  

“The sad part is, a lot of it is females being abused,” he said. “Throughout Cochise County (located in southeastern Arizona) and even Yuma, there’s areas out there in the desert that they call them ‘rape trees.’ And it’s their little monument where they put a woman’s underwear or bra … that that’s the mule that got them across. And that’s what these people are sacrificing to come here.”

How does this impact us locally?

Although many might think that the issue primarily affects the states, cities, and communities which are located to the south, Lamphere said that is not true.

“When these people are coming in, they don’t stop at the border, they aren’t in the border towns; they aren’t just hanging out there,” he said. “They pass through, they’re the first people and the first communities that are impacted, but they’re coming here. They’re coming all over the United States. That’s just the easiest access point.”

“It’s not a border problem; it’s an American problem,” Lamphere said. “I don’t see how we’ll win this thing.”

The drugs trafficked into the U.S. from the border enter into a pipeline which spreads the entire span of the country, reaching every city and at unprecedented quantities, Lamphere said.

“The drugs are at the highest level anyone has ever seen them coming in here,” he said.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is especially concerning, Lamphere said.

“That stuff is so deadly,” he said. “They captured one transport that had over a million fentanyl pills.”

Fentanyl is the most commonly illicitly manufactured synthetic opioid with a potency of 80-100 times more than morphine and heroin, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Lamphere said that in the U.S., more than 200 people each day die from fentanyl overdoses.

“Out of that (one) million pills that were seized, … one-fourth of them were of a lethal dose,” he said, meaning that approximately 250,000 of the fentanyl pills seized by border patrol before being dispersed onto American streets could have been deadly if ingested.

“We’re losing people at 200 a day,” Lamphere said, adding that roughly 95% of all drugs sold illegally on the street are trafficked across the U.S. southern border. “I’ve never seen drugs in my 30 years (in law enforcement) as bad as they are right now. It’s everywhere.”

Although there are a number of contributing factors, Fentanyl appears to be the main source for the increase in overdose deaths in 2020. There were a reported 93,331 overdose deaths in the 12-month period of 2020, compared to an estimated 72,151 overdose deaths in 2019, according to provisional data released this week from the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the CDC. This data reflects a nearly 30% increase in overdose deaths, with opioids being involved in 74.7% of that total.

Where’s the accountability?

Since his first trip to the border around six or seven years ago, Lamphere said he’s observed a noticeable evolution in the illegal activity, particularly during President Trump’s administration.

“During the last administration (President Trump’s), during the construction of the wall, and (in talking) with the sheriffs, and they talk about the numbers, it (illegal immigration) was getting down to nothing,” he said, adding that the mindset of would-be immigrants considering crossing illegally was challenged by the building of the border wall. “You guys are going to come here through the proper channels – whether there’s a wall or not, there needs to be consequences.”

Currently, according to Lamphere, even if people who enter the U.S. are caught and deported, it can be somewhat of a revolving door.

“Ironically, a lot of them get right back here,” he said. “There’s a lot of problems in the way that we are dealing with illegal immigration.”

“I don’t know any other country that would allow the amount of people crossing their border unchecked than what America is at this point,” Lamphere said. “It’s a mess … I fear for what’s came into this country and what the potential could be.”

Blue burnout

Since January, Lamphere said that he’s noticed more border patrol staff members, but fewer checkpoints, and less “actual patrol.” The totality of the issues weighs particularly hard on the shoulders of law enforcement, which Lamphere said he feels is leading to burnout on a concerning level.

“I see a lot of frustration right now in the staffing,” he said. “Another thing that I see nationwide through my contacts is, you’re just getting a generation of law enforcement that really probably going to hang it up in the next four or five years.”

And that potential reality is staggering for those within the profession, as well as the communities who rely on them for protection.

“When you start losing some of your senior leadership in some of these organizations and you’ve got not experienced people coming into that (the roles), some of the challenges, especially with what we’ve got going on now, I think some of the challenges within law enforcement – it’s tough to recruit people,” he said, adding that issue can be observed locally, as well. “Basically, within the last year, I’ve got all new deputies (in Butte County). And it’s just a change in the atmosphere in law enforcement.”

With more than 60,000 employees, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is one of the world’s largest law enforcement organizations and is charged with keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S. while facilitating lawful international travel and trade.

On a typical day, the agency makes more than 900 apprehensions and seizes more than 9,000 pounds of illegal drugs.

Where do we go from here?

Lamphere said he believes America is in as much jeopardy now than ever before.

To highlight his concern, he again utilized the 200,000 people he claims have illegally entered the U.S. through the southern border and remain uncaptured.

“If you just took a cell of 200, 1% of them, that (in theory could) have been trained, and know how to work on taking down infrastructure,” he said. “And no one knows they’re here. Checking out our vulnerability, infiltrating into jobs … think about power plants … everybody’s looking for workers now, think about all the vulnerability that we have out there as a nation. And you’ve got people that would like to see us crumble.”

Although people commonly look outside our borders when concerned about terroristic threats, Lamphere said solely focusing outward would be a mistake.

“We’re probably going to be attacked from the inside,” he said. “Because there’s enough different people that came here, if they mass together, it’s an army.”

Over the last year, Lamphere said a Western States Policy Committee was developed within the National Sheriff’s Association. Because large expanses of public lands reside primarily within the Western states, he said national policymaking tends to group areas with largely differing populations, land sizes, and needs, together, which can lead to area needs, specifically related to law enforcement, being overlooked.

The committee was formed with the goal of developing policy change proposals, crafted by the sheriffs in the affected regions, which would then be taken to the nation’s capital by lobbyists with the intent of garnering support.

“We had to have a voice into it that, ‘Hey, there’s other things that go on out here,’” Lamphere said.

By coordinating with other sheriffs and witnessing firsthand the impact on the law enforcement community, as well as the greater community of American citizens, Lamphere said the sheriff’s association committee can help develop new policies and administration that he feels could have a more substantial impact on the issues plaguing the border. However, he’s not feeling overall hopeful about the task.

“At this point, with this administration, I feel like all we’re doing is running into a brick wall,” Lamphere said. “I think we have to continue that because if we all just stick our heads in the sand, it’s not good for us … what happens down there won’t stay there. It’s coming here.”

Lamphere served as the Western States Sheriffs Association Board President in 2020.

“Out of all the things I can say that I’ve done and experienced within that role, I’d say our border issue is probably the most impactful right now,” he said. “(It is) no doubt a national threat, but I think our border is probably our most vulnerable point right now.

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