MARICOPA, AZ (KOLD) - Shootings, robberies and murders are all too common in Vekol Valley - a vast area near the Pinal-Maricopa county line.
For Bobby Bunce, strapping on his sidearm is about as routine as getting out of bed in the morning.
"I carry it with me constantly," Bunce says, pulling out his shiny black and silver .45. "It's like putting your shoes on and your hat out here - it's part of everyday living."
Especially when you live so close to one of the busiest drug corridors anywhere in the United States.
This is Vekol Valley.
Located about 80 miles north of the US-Mexico border, Vekol Valley encompasses a vast area between Pinal and Maricopa counties.
It's where Pinal County Deputy Louie Puroll was shot in April 2010; where two immigrants were murdered in June; and where one man died and another was critically injured in a drug ripoff
If you're wondering why it's so bad out here, it's because human smugglers and drug traffickers enter the United States on foot using the Tohono o'Odham nation, where many go undetected as they make their way north.
"This is a very opportunistic place," says Chief Deputy Steve Harry of the Pinal County Sheriff's Department. "Everybody knows this trail that we're talking about is a straight shot through to the reservation, all the way to the Mexican-American border."
In most cases, the smugglers' goal is to make it to Interstate 8 where they pick up a ride or drop off a load.
We saw evidence of both right next to milepost 158.
But sometimes their ride isn't there. Rather than turning around and heading back, they can continue north into the more populated parts of Vekol Valley.
"There's a big tower with a beacon on it. They use tabletop for a reference," concerned resident Bobby Bunce says. "They head for it from the south."
The beacon Bunce is talking about appears to be a radio tower of some kind just off Interstate 8.
Bunce says illegal groups use the distinctly-flat "Tabletop Mountain" and well-known "Antelope Peak" as common points of reference.
These landmarks can be seen from 25 to 30 miles away - and both feed directly into Vekol Valley and the nearly 40,000 people who live here.
"You never think it's gonna happen in your own backyard, but it does."
Dallas and Perry McKenzie are a Canadian couple who own a seasonal home in Vekol Valley.
Whenever they get the chance they love to hit the open road on their Harley Davidson motorcycle.
But doing so lately isn't nearly as carefree as it used to be.
"You wonder about your safety sometimes where you're riding around out here," Perry McKenzie says.
Her husband Dallas agrees.
"It's scary. You never know what's gonna go on. You know you don't feel safe out here. They're on the run. They could knock you over and take your machine, whatever has to be done."
So what's being done to protect Vekol Valley and the people who live here?
Because it's not directly on the border, the United States Border Patrol doesn't typically send resources here unless there's an arrest or an immediate threat.
The Pinal County Sheriff's Department has become increasingly visible, residents say.
"Oh yes, yes . . . in the last year it has quadrupled out here," Bunce says of the increased Sheriff's Department presence.
But when you're talking about hundreds, perhaps even thousands of illegal entrants spilling into the corridor each night - even the most avid nature lovers have to think twice about of visiting Vekol Valley.
"It's a nice place to go," Bunce says, looking out over Tabletop Mountain. "I still go over there . . . but I don't go by myself.
"And I don't go unarmed."
Talking with residents in Pinal County, they're pretty happy with the Sheriff's Department and what they're to do to combat some of these problems.
Along those lines, Pinal County is the only non-border county receiving federal money for border-related enforcement. Politics is definitely part of the game when it comes to issues like this - and outspoken, conservative Sheriff Paul Babeu is instrumental in that.
But when you live out here - quite literally in the middle of a smuggling superhighway - you'll take any help you can get.
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