"Spotters" living in caves along Pinal County smuggling corridor

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Hiram Rendon-Rios By Jennifer Thomas Hiram Rendon-Rios By Jennifer Thomas

ARIZONA CITY, Ariz. -- A stretch of Pinal County south of Casa Grande has become known as a corridor for smugglers.

Authorities have seen entire hillsides covered with backpacks and other debris from desert crossers, but it's a desert dweller that recently captured the attention of authorities.

The area has become a popular road for drug and human smuggling, both of which make a lot of money for cartels. Those cartels want to watch over and protect that cargo so they reportedly planted a "spotter" up in the Sawtooth Mountains.

That spotter was living in a cave near the top of Wildcat Peak.

"We have a spy scope and we were looking through there and we would see him, then we wouldn't, then we'd see him," said Pennee Murphree, a Silverbell Estates resident.

Murphree and her husband, Pat, weren't the only ones who noticed someone was now watching them.

"We see the person up in the hills and first we went, 'Wow, what's he doing up there and does he have a weapon?'" said Jay Stewart, another resident. "So, yeah, there's a little bit of fear. We're always outside walking around."

A worried call was made to the Pinal County Sheriff's Office.

"They went out, ICE and the Border Patrol, inserted a three-person enforcement team with a helicopter shining a spotlight on that area and apprehended one suspect," said Sheriff Paul Babeu.

That suspect was identified as Hiram Rendon-Rios, 23, a Mexican national working as a spotter for a drug cartel. He was living in the cave and had a supply of food, communications equipment, clothing and binoculars. He was deported back to Mexico.

On Sept. 7, Nancy Henderson's Arizona City home was burglarized. Guns, batteries, food, socks, flashlights, night-vision equipment and binoculars were taken from her home. Evidence indicated that several individuals carried the stolen property through the desert and into the Sawtooth Mountains up near Wildcat Peak.

"They didn't take any jewelry, they didn't take any electronic items, computers, TVs," Henderson said. "They didn't take normal things that you would think of that would get stolen."

Seeing an increase in the amount of trash left in the desert, it doesn't surprise people living in the area that drug trafficking and human smuggling has picked up. They're worried, scared and frustrated not enough is being done to fight this.

"This isn't happening at the border," Henderson said. "This is happening in our backyard, in my backyard."

The residents say they've seen a lot of people come and go from the area, but only one person, Rendon-Rios, has been arrested.

"Many of our Pinal County residents are forced to live in constant fear because the federal government has refused to take the necessary action to secure our borders immediately," Babeu said. "We cannot afford to wait any longer for help in Pinal County."

Until something is done, neighbors say they'll be keeping a closer eye on each other's properties.