(Reuters) - Sheriff's deputies in Arizona have arrested eight men charged with being scouts for Mexican drug cartels and using hilltop lookouts to monitor drug shipments and illegal immigrants being smuggled through the border area, authorities say.
The Pinal County Sheriff's Office said in a statement on Monday that the operation began in February when a K-9 unit stopped a driver who admitted being paid to carry large amounts of food and fuel to cartel "spotters" or "scouts" nearby.
"The scouts would use the high vantage locations on hilltops and mountains and communicate with the guides and members of the Mexican drug cartels to let them know when law enforcement was in the area," the statement said. "They communicated by using cell phones and digitally encrypted radios."
The sheriff's office said the area is used by Mexican drug cartels, especially the Sinaloa organization, as an important corridor for shipments because of the county's rugged terrain and proximity to two interstate highways. Pinal County is located about 70 miles (110 km) north of the border with Mexico.
Eight men, all Mexican nationals aged in their 20s or 30s, were arrested during a series of operations, the statement said, and evidence was recovered including solar panels, cell phones, radios, binoculars and an AR-15 rifle.
U.S. Border Patrol agents and the sheriff's SWAT and anti-smuggling team hunted for the scouts, sometimes using a U.S. Border Patrol Blackhawk helicopter, authorities said.
One of the scouts told agents he had been on the hilltop for eight to 10 days and was paid $100 for each group of the drug or people smugglers that made it through the area, the statement said. Four groups made it through in that time, it said.
Several of the others also admitted to working as cartel scouts, the sheriff's office said, adding that the eight men were booked into the Pinal County Jail on charges of conspiracy to smuggle marijuana and aiding in a criminal syndicate.
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu said in the statement that most Americans would be "shocked to learn that Mexican drug cartels control high points along their trafficking corridors to safeguard the billion dollar operations."
"The arrest of these drug cartel scouts on mountain tops is further proof that the border is not secure," Babeu said.
Reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Will Dunham