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Sheriff deputies face challenges patrolling swath of desert land in far East El Paso

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El Paso County sheriff’s deputies will navigate more than 80 acres of rugged land near the Socorro Student Activities Complex in an effort to reduce criminal activity that has plagued the area.

The move comes following the El Paso County Commissioners Court’s authorization of $60,000 to pay overtime costs for deputies to monitor the unincorporated land in far East El Paso. The funding comes from county salary savings incurred during the pandemic.

The recent increase in patrols comes following a deadly shooting in July when a 21-year-old man was killed and five other people were injured in the desert behind the SAC.

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Sheriff’s Cmdr. Ryan Urrutia said some of the complexities in monitoring the land, which has multiple property owners including the Socorro Independent School District, are the rugged terrain and vast expanse with multiple access points.

“Some of these areas are very inaccessible to regular vehicles. So we’ve got to use specialty vehicles (such as) four-wheel-drive trucks or (all terrain vehicles) to get into some of these spots — which creates dangers for deputies and the public,” Urrutia said. “When we arrive, they want to flee … so it can create a very dangerous situation for everybody involved.”

Socorro Independent School District officials said they appreciate the partnership with the Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies in keeping their communities safe.

SISD Trustee Pablo Barrera said he is supportive of the added patrol.

“They’re just trying to protect the community. So at the end of the day, I’m all for that,” Barrera said.

A sheriff’s truck patrols the desert in far East El Paso. (Photo courtesy of El Paso County Sheriff’s Office)

Urrutia said it is not the first time the Sheriff’s Office has increased patrols in an effort to prevent drug use and reckless firearm shooting in the desert. Several houses in the surrounding area have been hit by stray bullets, he said. 

Unincorporated areas of El Paso County fall under state disorderly conduct laws, which Urrutia said means that firing a weapon is not illegal. 

“Discharging a firearm within the city limits is against the law. We would abide by disorderly conduct laws to where if they were to discharge towards a residence, that does become an offense,” he said.

Urrutia said if deputies find people shooting too close to residences, they will try to redirect those individuals to safer, more remote locations.

“If they are in violation, then those will be bound by the disorderly conduct or even deadly conduct depending on the intent. So each one is case-by-case and it just depends on what the circumstances are,” he said.

Urrutia did not disclose how many deputies would be assigned to the task, or how often the land would be patrolled.

“We don’t want those that are going to frequent that area and commit crimes to know that we’ll be there or how many resources are allocated to this,” he said.

Cover photo: The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office is using four-wheel-drive trucks and other specialty vehicles in stepped-up enforcement near the Socorro Student Activities Complex. (Photo courtesy of El Paso County Sheriff’s Office)

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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