- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 4, 2001

NACO, Ariz. — 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 four-wheel-drive truck and forced the Imperial to the side of the road behind an old white side-door van. Before Mr. 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.
Mr. 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 conceded they were connected to the white van.
Before long the Border Patrol had located and detained 16 men. They found another six men crouching under a tree near the crest of the canyon ridge. Along a nearby trail, yet another 10 aliens were lying undetected.
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 U.S.-Mexican border is ground zero for illegal immigration, one of the most controversial and complex topics facing President Bush. This Thursday, after meeting with Mexico's President Vicente Fox, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
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 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.
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 the like period 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.

Taking heavy risks
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, silently going through pockets and backpacks for grimy Mexican voter registration cards and tattered birth certificates.
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 prepositioned 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 Mr. Berg happened along.
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.
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," said 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."
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.
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.
The smuggler cars, said Agent Larry Justice, have distinct characteristics. Often the rear end is jacked up to disguise the weight of the seven 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.

A lucrative business
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 Border 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."
The smugglers have key collection points. Mr. 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.
These "decision points" must have "stash houses," and places to prepare the immigrants for passage. 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 persons 20 and 30 miles across dark desert terrain.
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. Mr. 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 smugglers.
"The most deadly decision an immigrant can make is to place he or his loved ones in the hands of a smuggler," Mr. 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."


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