Part 2: Border wars -- high noon at midnight : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

Part 2: Border wars -- high noon at midnight

Sunday, 2 September 2001 17:06 (ET)

Part 2: Border wars -- high noon at midnight By NICHOLAS M. HORROCK, UPI Senior White House Correspondent

(Part 2 of UPI's 14-part Mexico-U.S. immigration series)

NACO, Ariz. (UPI) -- Border Patrol Agent Robert Berg spotted the Chrysler Imperial with Sonora, Mexico, plates halfway through its U-turn on the deserted mountain road and knew immediately something didn't look right. He flashed the emergency lights on his 4-wheel drive truck and forced the Imperial to the side of the road behind an old white side-door van.

Before Berg was even out of his car on this August night, the van's door opened and men tumbled out running pell-mell up a mesquite-covered hill into the darkness. Berg called for backup and detained the two men in the Imperial, both Mexican nationals with cards that allowed them to enter the United States on a temporary basis. They admitted they were connected to the white van.

Within minutes, five other border patrol units had arrived including a K-9 unit with a dog its handler said could find "marijuana or Mexicans" and the agents, led by the dog, were running up into the darkness of the canyon wall. Before long they had located and detained 16 men.

It was now almost 45-minutes after Berg's original discovery, but the Border Patrol agents believed more men had escaped into darkness. They ranged up the canyon, the two-year-old German shepherd mixed breed thrashing through the brush ahead of the Border Patrol.

They found another six men crouching under a tree near the crest of the ridge and then started down toward their cars the way they came up. As he came down along a nearby trail, a United Press International news photographer at the scene literally stumbled over yet another 10 aliens lying undetected by the dog.

In the end, the count showed 32 men had been crammed into that small delivery van. At the going rate of human cargo, this could have been a $40,000 haul for the smugglers.

The oldest alien was a man of 50 who could not sign his name; the youngest was 15 with a Chicago Cub's baseball hat. They had surreptitiously crossed the border from Mexico on foot several hours before, coming over a lower range of the Mule Mountains, a tough climb in the darkness.

The U.S.-Mexico border that they crossed is one of those fault lines of our world, like the green line in Beirut, Lebanon, or the line of Israeli checkpoints on the West Bank. It separates the most technologically advanced nation on earth from a third-world country with an 18th century social structure.

It is also Ground Zero for illegal immigration, one of the most controversial and complex topics facing President Bush.

Thursday, after meeting with Mexico's President Vicente Fox, Bush is expected to announce a plan to "regularize" the status of the estimated 7 million to 9 million illegal aliens in the United States. About half of those aliens came across the border as did the men in Naco, surreptitiously, on foot or hidden in cars, flowing into the United States from not only Mexico, but from Central America and beyond.

The problem is not only Bush's. Mexico's largely agrarian economy has faltered in the past decade and large numbers of the 25 million Mexicans living on farms, particularly in the south, have left to go north. Though some critics of Mexico in the United States say that Fox has little incentive to help, since many immigrants here send millions of dollars of their earnings home, others say that he cannot gain stability in his country if he can't halt the flood of emigration.

Also, Bush wants Fox to actively work on his side of the border to halt the flow and to close Mexico's southern border, which has been a pathway for millions of immigrants from drought-stricken and financially crippled Central America.

In the meantime, the United States is fighting what amounts to a $1.2 billion-a-year, 9,000-person ground and air war to hold back the tide of illegal immigrants on its southern front. The Border War, as it could be called, involves a strategy to "deter" immigrants from coming north, trying to make the border so impregnable that they will see the certainty of being apprehended.

The United States is building a giant wall along the border in Naco, in some places 10-to-15 feet high, in others a reinforced steel rail to prevent what the agents call "bust-outs" where a smuggler drives a car across the border. Beneath ground, the United States has buried seismic sensors on known smuggler routes, technology developed for the Vietnam War, which can detect the footfalls or cars passing within a 12-foot area.

Night and day this border section is viewed by 16 remote cameras mounted on pillars as high as highway lights that provide a detailed view of both sides of the border five miles in either direction. The cameras are infrared and allow agents to locate aliens even more easily at night than they do in the daytime.

Border Patrol and National Guard planes and helicopters patrol overhead day and night and each day Army Combat Engineer units work to extend the fence.

Closer to the Port of Entry at Naco, the United States has mounted giant flood lights, which keep the crossing point lit as brightly at midnight as at noon. Behind the wall in this area, the Border Patrol has "forward deployed" agents in big 4-wheel trucks with steel grating over the windows to protect the drivers against rocks thrown from Mexico.

Along the fence, the government has cleared a two-lane wide swath of land for miles, which it periodically sweeps so that footprints of anyone who crosses can be traced. Day and night, Border Patrol cars go up and down this cleared area "cutting for sign" that immigrants have slipped across the border and into the brush on the other side.

The fortification of Naco is just the latest development in an effort from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico to halt the greatest illegal land migration of our time.

As of Aug. 23, at Naco alone, Border Patrol Agents intercepted 94,728 illegal aliens since Jan. 1, down about 8,000 from this time in 2000. There are no figures on how many illegal immigrants slip through, but one "guess" by the Border Patrol is that they detain one in three.

Despite that disparity, Naco is a symbol of the Border Patrol's success over the past five years. Now with nearly 9,000 agents on the Mexican border and the support of perhaps an Army division of equipment and manpower from other agencies, the Border Patrol has in effect forced the immigrants to cross some of the harshest desert and mountains in the world.

The Mexican detainees sat quietly along the road, some peering fearfully at the Border Patrol agents, others looking weary and dispirited. All seemed to know the drill, as though they were acting out a role they had played before, silently going through pockets and backpacks for grimy Mexican voter registration cards and tattered birth certificates.

Where were they going? Phoenix they all said, but the Border Patrol agents laughed. "That's the stock answer," said Tim Cayton. "It's probably Chicago or Los Angeles. They want to keep the real destination secret."

"If everybody who said Phoenix was going to Phoenix," another agent quipped, "the population would be 27 million."

The two men with the visitor cards had driven the Imperial and the van through the U.S. Port of Entry at Naco, using the cards that allow them to go travel into the United States within 25 miles of the border.

They had pre-positioned the white van for the illegal aliens who had climbed across the border in the darkness, and were making the U-turn to return to Mexico when Agent Berg happened along.

Perhaps one of the silent men sitting along the road was the guide who would have driven the van north. But he will remain silent knowing the Border Patrol is trying to prosecute smugglers. The others will not betray him out fear or the hope he will guide them again. By dawn all the men except the cardholders will be in Mexico and by the next night, the Border Patrol agents say, many will be headed back north.

It is a routine night in Naco, a dusty hamlet with a sign that says "Population 445," probably looking much as it did in the 1930s, hard on the border of the Republic of Mexico, really nothing but shotgun shacks, a gas station and a couple of saloons.

Naco is in Cochise County, the most eastern county of Arizona. Anyone who ever saw a Western movie will recognize Cochise County, the home of Tombstone, Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It is where Cochise, the great Apache chief, had his stronghold and where the 6th U.S. Cavalry hunted down Geronimo.

The high desert country is covered with scrub grass and mesquite. They say it takes 12 acres to feed one steer in a good season and to survive on foot a man needs to drink at least two gallons of water a day.

For all its breathtaking beauty, framed by the Huachuca and Mule Mountains, the high desert holds deadly risks for the immigrants: rattlesnakes, scorpions, brambles with inch-long needles, robbers who wait to steal what little they have -- and their own guides, who abandon them to the elements.

"The smugglers don't tell them the dangers," says Border Patrol Agent Tim Cayton, who has been stationed here for nearly two years. "Half the time we find them without water, suffering dehydration and wandering along the highway hoping we will pick them up."

The night before, he and his colleagues had rescued a woman who had collapsed in the desert. One of her companions gave up his chance at the United States to go out on the highway and flag a Border Patrol car and lead them to her.

Border Patrol agents carry water in their trucks, and most of them are trained in first aid and CPR. "Rescuing people is a big part of the job," Cayton said.

For all the technology the Border Patrol has, this is dirty and dangerous work. A few minutes after Berg's seizures were headed for the processing center, a seismic monitor went off near the border area, sending Cayton and others out on foot into a sea of dark desert to search for intruders.

"You're never sure what sets them off," said the former Green Beret. "Half the time it's cattle, or maybe one of our own trucks."

Cayton puts on his night vision goggles, which allow him to see the terrain in an eerie green light. But the goggles blind his depth perception and he can crash through brambles and into streambeds when moving quickly. Uniforms and legs are torn almost every night by brambles and cactuses.

There are other dangers as well. Though the immigrants are usually docile when apprehended, sometimes the smugglers are not. Many of the groups that smuggle humans also smuggle drugs. In 1999, drug smugglers shot and killed a Border Patrol officer and the drug traffic along these same routes is increasing.

Two years ago, 13 people were arrested in Naco for importing cocaine through a tunnel dug under the border from a house in Naco, Mexico, to a house in Naco, Arizona.

If the immigrants elude the agents in the miles between the border and Highways 92 and 90, the Border Patrol has a second chance at them by locating the cars that are going to pick them up and carry them north.

It is dawn now and Agent Larry Justice, a U.S. Marine for nine years before joining the Border Patrol three years ago, is searching the washes and ranch roads for signs of recent traffic. They abound. Empty plastic water bottles, clothing, trash of all sorts can be found in the arroyos and under the brush.

Like a scout in the old Westerns, Justice moves along "sign cutting," tracing the footprints, trying to judge if they were made last night or a fortnight ago. He is looking for things like insect trails over the footprint or a dulling of the edge that shows it has been there a while.

After an hour of getting out of his car and walking -- "Half the job is on foot," he says, though "everybody thinks we ride in cars"-- he has found the trail of a group who moved through only hours before.

He sets out for likely pickup spots that his experience has told him may be where a car or van is waiting. Suddenly at a dirt intersection, a white 10-year-old Chevrolet appears and does a U-turn when the driver spots Justice. The Border Patrol agent gives chase following the car into a ranch and then back out, finally pulling him over.

The driver, a young Hispanic man in a baseball cap, has no identification. He says he lives in Phoenix and is returning the car to a friend in a nearby town after fixing the brakes. Justice checks the car's license and finds that it has been picked up carrying illegal aliens on two previous occasions.

The smuggler cars, Justice says, have distinct characteristics. Often the rear end is jacked up to disguise the weight of the 7 to 10 aliens that may be hiding in the back seat and trunk. Other times a radio check of the car's license will show they have recently been bought used and the owner is "unknown," or the car is registered hundreds of miles from where it was spotted.

The Border Patrol's IDENT computer system later identified Justice's detainee by fingerprints and picture. He is Francisco Gutierrez Mendoza, 23, a Mexican national, who has been detained 14 times in recent months for entering the United States illegally.

He was arrested in Phoenix on a charge of possessing a weapon, but the computer did not show the disposition of the case and he had been deported from the United States on Aug. 2.

"He's a professional driver for a smuggler," Justice said. "If he was just an unlucky UDA (undocumented alien), the returns would be over a longer period of time."

Mendoza will be taken to Tucson and brought before an immigration judge to have his deportation reinstated. He will probably come back illegally.

The smuggling of human beings is a highly organized multimillion-dollar business. The human cargo across this border is not Mexicans alone, but people from Central America, Asia and Europe.

"Free passage is a thing of the past," Agent Rene Noriega explained. "If an alien has not paid for passage, he will be paying. If they attempt to cross without paying a smuggling group, they'll be assaulted."

The apparatus of this smuggling empire begins in the home village of the immigrant. It is perhaps a travel agency or a lawyer who takes a down payment and then sends the immigrant north, exacting a promise that he will pay when he gets a job in the United States.

Chief Patrol Agent David V. Aguilar, who heads the Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol, said that in times past the smuggler "guaranteed" the immigrant would get to Phoenix or some other main southwest point for $400 or $500 from the border.

But as the more effective U.S. enforcement began, those "guarantees are a thing of the past." Now smugglers get $1,400 to $2,200 to get people from the border to Phoenix, and "we've had smugglers in China selling passage across this border for $35,000 to $50,000." Enormous additional fees can be charged for other "OTMs," Border Patrol lingo for "other than Mexicans."

The smugglers have key collection points, Aguilar calls them "decision points" like Hermosillo, Mexico, 120 miles south of the border, where they bring the immigrants and plan which entry points to the United States are vulnerable. It is a cat-and-mouse game. The Border Patrol is watching the smugglers, and the smugglers send scouts to watch the Border Patrol and choose places the U.S. border may be vulnerable.

These "decision points" must have "stash houses," and places to prepare the immigrants for passage. Nogales, Naco, Agua Prieta are Mexican border towns where the immigrants will make the final rush across the border.

If the Border Patrol is skilled, the guides and scouts for the smugglers must be as well. They have to navigate groups of people as large as 25 or 50 people 20 and 30 miles across dark desert terrain to rendezvous points that are no more than a signpost or the edge of a pasture. The scouts choose the route that will elude the Border Patrol.

"If a scout makes a bad call, " Noriega says, "he pays very dearly for it." The patrol routinely finds dead bodies along the trails.

The smuggler's infrastructure is not in Mexico alone; it stretches throughout the United States, where operatives can check on the immigrant's earnings and get payment from him or his family back home. Often the immigrant pays for his passage by carrying a backpack with marijuana or becoming a guide or a driver.

Noriega said often-unscrupulous North American employers pay the smuggling fees to bring workers to the United States and deduct the costs from their pay. Other times, "contractors" who supply farm or factory labor are also collectors for smuggling groups.

"The most deadly decision an immigrant can make is to place he or his loved ones in the hands of a smuggler," Aguilar argues. "He may die on the desert, him or his loved ones assaulted and even killed making this trip."

"What we are dealing with here is the unscrupulous nature of the smuggler."

-- Martin Thompson (, September 05, 2001

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