Self, like the agents in his command, is fiercely apolitical about immigration, saying that his first duty is to secure the border and win over the residents who are most affected by the trafficking. “In my mind,” he said, “success is actually when you change perception of the citizenry within the state of Arizona.”
The border agents don’t care whether the surge in resources is rooted in public relations. They just view it as a welcome improvement to their jobs. Last year, the agency erected a fence through the cross-border town of Nogales made of thick iron poles, with sharp plates across the top. It replaced a solid metal barrier made of discarded Vietnam War-era landing mats. Before the new see-through fence was installed, smugglers made a game of hiding on the Mexican side and throwing large rocks at Border Patrol vehicles. The veterans called it “rocking.”
“You’d be driving along, and all of a sudden your windshield caves in,” said Mario Escalante, a public-information officer with Customs and Border Protection who has spent 11 years trekking the border. With the old fence, agents on the U.S. side couldn’t see activity on the Mexican side. Smugglers could hole up for hours against the wall and wait for a patrol van to drive by. Once a vehicle was gone, they could toss their drugs over.
Almost overnight, the agents were safer. The new fence eliminated the rocking problem. It forced smugglers to areas farther away from civilization, safe houses, and highways. That gave the agents more time to find and apprehend them. The desert provides few hiding places. If illegal entrants manage to scale the fence inside a city or crawl out of a drain pipe from an underground tunnel, they can disappear in a minute. Out in the wilderness, agents might have a few hours to coordinate a ground apprehension and call for air support. The more remote you are, the longer it takes to run to safety. “We want to get them when they’re asleep, when they think they’re safe,” Escalante said.
CAT AND MOUSE
Federal and local law-enforcement personnel in the Tucson border sector are engaged in a sophisticated surveillance and hunting game with the border-crossers. The agents see no distinction between the people who are smuggling drugs and those coming across in hopes of finding a job and a better life. “The guy that’s crossing people today is crossing dope tomorrow,” Escalante said.
The federal agents and local police are expert trackers, trained to detect any signs of activity along frequently traveled areas. They can identify the types of shoes that illegal entrants are wearing to determine the size of a group or, if they already have apprehended a few, how many might still be at large. They can tell whether the people are in a hurry. Agents use tricks for detecting activity, such as deliberately arranging sticks on well-trodden areas, or desert “roads,” and checking later to see if the display has been disturbed. “There are trails everywhere,” Escalante said. “You’ll know as an agent if you’re tracking dope or people.… If they’re dopers, they’re not going to use the road.”
Agents also drag tires along the dirt thoroughfare that runs parallel to the border fence, a tactic similar to grooming a ski slope. Anyone who crosses leaves easily detectable footprints. Some entrants try to foil the agents by laying blankets over the tire marks. Some even wear “carpet shoes” to mask any identifying characteristic prints.
The Mexican side of Nogales is on higher ground than the U.S. side, which gives smugglers lookout points to observe the Border Patrol and search for weaknesses. Agents are keenly aware that their every move is being watched. “I go home after an eight- or 10-hour shift,” Escalante said. “They can stay up there for weeks. They have all the time in the world.”
Rarely do border-crossers make it across without guides, sometimes called “coyotes,” who charge $1,500 or more a head to shepherd groups of people into the United States. The groups often scatter when agents appear. Scattering is also a useful tactic for drug smugglers, giving them a chance to protect at least some of their load. If it’s a human-smuggling operation, the guides will try to blend in with the passengers to avoid detection.
Smugglers have been known to send scouts into an area where they think a ground sensor is located. If the Border Patrol shows up in that spot to look for the intruder, the smugglers know they’ve correctly identified a sensor. A special team of sensor experts on the Border Patrol constantly moves the equipment. Even the agents patrolling the beat don’t know where the sensors are until one of them is triggered.
LOTS OF COPS, LOTS OF BOSSES
Local police, civilian officials, and federal agents routinely cooperate. Last year, the city of Nogales, Ariz., removed at least a dozen parking meters across the street from the international border fence to thwart a sophisticated tunneling operation in which smugglers parked cars with holes bored in the bottom in a designated spot where the tunnel from the Mexico side ended. “That’s how close we work with Border Patrol. So we took away 18 parking spaces, knowing that we could lose $8,000 to $10,000 in parking revenue in that year,” said Mayor Arturo Garino.