Arizona is known for its tough-on-crime sheriffs. An image of a take-no-prisoners lawman is part of the state’s reputation.
Tony Estrada of Santa Cruz County, currently Arizona’s longest-serving and only Hispanic sheriff, is cut from that same cloth.
But for national audiences, the embodiment of that image has always been dominated by larger than life publicity-seekers such as Joe Arpaio and Paul Babeu, known more for their racial profiling efforts than their law enforcement duties.
That’s what sets Estrada apart. A soft-spoken lifetime Democrat, Estrada has served as the border county’s sheriff and a thorn in the side to conservatives and liberals alike for over 25 years.
“He low-profiles his party affiliation even when he is running for his seat,” said Santa Cruz County Democratic Chair Mary Darling. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a Democrat or Republican thing or any other party affiliation, it’s more about the community.”
Estrada has been a part of the Santa Cruz County community, Nogales in particular, since he came to the U.S. from the Mexican side of Nogales as a 1 1/2-year-old with his mother and brothers in 1944.
Growing up and forming a life in United States, Estrada has seen the gradual change in the relationship between his birth country and his home country. He believes things have only gotten worse over the years.
“In 1995, after NAFTA and because of all the border patrol presence and all the fencing and everything happened, the first drug tunnel was discovered [in Santa Cruz County],” he said. “Since then, I think 110 drug tunnels have been found here.”
Growing up, Estrada recalls how laborers and farm hands would cross the border from Mexico into the U.S. with near impunity.
Although he acknowledged the drug trade and human trafficking routes have made the borderlands more dangerous, and he agrees with federal oversight to a point, Estrada pointed to an almost seven-year gap between homicides in Santa Cruz from 2012 to April of this year as evidence the county isn’t a narco-ravaged wasteland.
“The things you would usually associate with the drug trade and human smuggling – the drive-bys, the home invasions, the kidnappings – they aren’t happening,” he said.
Trump and the Feds
When it comes to placing blame for the violence that does exist, Estrada believes that after the era of endless conflict in the Middle East, the U.S. has “taken its eye off Mexico.” Estrada said the media often looks for a convenient scapegoat south of the border instead of being introspective.
“Illegal immigration pales to the drug problem we have right now in the country,” Estrada said. “We have 5 percent of the world’s population and consume about 50 percent of the world’s drugs.”
In the last three months, Estrada has had to deal with an additional layer of federal intervention along the border, with the introduction of active-duty Army troops sent by the Trump administration to prepare for the possible arrival of Central American asylum-seekers.
Estrada said he did not “believe in the idea of the caravan,” but that it was the act of a “dictator” to depict people “who have nothing” as “animals and criminals and everything else they can possibly think of.”
After spending most of his youth poor, Estrada said he could relate to the people traveling in the caravan.
“How many people would come thousands of miles with children in their arms in hopes of something better?” Estrada asked. “Do [the Trump Administration] think they come all the way over here just to make it rough on America? They come over here for a better life.”
Estrada’s recent disputes with President Trump over his militarization of the border and proposed border wall, and with Arizona Governor Doug Ducey over the implementation of a Border Strike Force which Estrada’s department refused to participate in, show his willingness to buck state and national GOP leaders.
Closer to home, Estrada’s latest scrape is with the all-Democratic Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors. Although the disagreement stretches back to 2015 according to Estrada, tensions rose during a July 2018 board meeting.
During the regularly-scheduled call to the audience, Estrada spoke about his department’s need for an additional lieutenant, a position that could only be filled by board approval. Instead, the board voted 2-1 to eliminate the lieutenant position entirely.
“They’re doing it like a kingdom. We are going to tell you what to do, how to do, and meddle in your office to see what it is your problems are, that’s not their job,” Estrada told reporters after the vote.
For their part, Manuel Ruiz, chairman of the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, said the move was budgetary, but also had to do with how many rank-and-file officers the sheriff’s department employed.
“We had some instances where [Estrada] was understaffed and asking for another administrative position, and we said ‘no’ because we felt there needed to be more boots on the ground and having more administrators than deputies is not good,” Ruiz said.
That’s not how Estrada saw the vote. He contended that the board had initially told him it was strictly a staffing issue, and that only after he had met the boards demands to fill out the rank-and-file positions did he learn of any budgeting issue.
Estrada now believes the issue has become a power struggle.
“It was not a budget issues, they were not in the red, it was just another excuse not to give me that position,” he said, adding that the vote to eliminate the position was “unethical.”
“How can they reject an elected official from being able to do his job?” Estrada said.
In response, Estrada has appealed to the State Attorney General, and said he is willing to sue the board in the order of public safety, to gain control of hiring practices.
However, in response to his queries to the Attorney General, Estrada believes the board is behind a recent investigation of his department by the Arizona Auditor General regarding overtime pay.
The dispute comes down to what kind of work, exactly, is deemed payable for duties performed outside or after regular hours.
Deputies were paid overtime for work that included supervising shifts and training, according to Estrada.
“They were getting compensated for that,” Estrada said. “This has been going on for a long time, for decades, probably before I came.”
In an email exchange with Estrada, Santa Cruz County Manager Jennifer St. John contested his characterization and the longevity of the practice.
“This is extremely inappropriate,” St. John wrote. “I’m not sure how we can have such differing views on this issue.”
Estrada feels confident he will be vindicated on both issues.
“I’ve always operated honestly, I wouldn’t involve myself in something not above board,” he said.
Even with the threat of a lawsuit against the county and a current investigation of his office hanging over his head, Estrada is still confident. While he isn’t positive he will run for an eighth term in 2020, he doesn’t believe recent developments will affect his chances.
“I haven’t made that decision yet,” he said, laughing. “But people joke and say ‘Sheriff, that’s what you said last time.’ But they do what they can to try and convince me.”
Darling, the County Democratic Chair, echoed Estrada. She credited the sheriff with establishing a small town, “Andy-Griffith-like” atmosphere in the community. She said Estrada should have no problems if he chooses to seek re-election.
“He reflects the values in this community,” Darling said. “He is able to navigate, regardless of affiliation, regardless of party, to help make the community run.”
Eddie Celaya is a reporter for the Arizona Sonora News Service. He is a senior majoring in journalism at the University of Arizona. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.