- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 29, 2015

ANIMAS VALLEY, N.M. (AP) - WARNING, the sign says: primitive road. WARNING, another reads: no services ahead.

Heading down County Road 1 deep into New Mexico’s Bootheel, one of the Mexican border’s most rugged corridors, no sign warns of the drug mules - men smuggling 65-pound packs of pot on their backs - trekking expertly, constantly, through the ragged mountains that flank this valley, or of the migrants walking north in desperation.

Illegal traffic of drugs and migrants is on the rise here.

At the same time, Border Patrol says its ranks are running thin in the Bootheel; the Lordsburg station that mans two forward operating bases should have 284 agents, but is down by 50, or nearly a fifth of the force.

Low vehicle barriers in some areas prevent illegal vehicle traffic, but the Bootheel’s rugged terrain makes tall fencing impossible. Along this 86-mile stretch, encompassing hundreds of square miles of Hidalgo County, border enforcement often means boots on the ground.

This is a night in the life of the men and women who wear those boots - patrolling this rough border country, hundreds of square miles across the sloping valleys and steep peaks of the Animas, Hatchet, Peloncillo and Chiricahua mountains.

‘SOMEONE IS OUT THERE’

7:20 p.m.: Agent Emanuel Gamez turns his Ford F-150 Raptor, a special edition with Kevlar tires, east off County Road 1 toward the Animas range. He slows down now and then to inspect the dirt trail for fresh foot traffic or “high sign” - burlap from a drug sack snagged on the yucca, or a shirt torn on the creosote.

He is one of several agents heading out this evening from the Bootheel’s two forward operating bases - two of the 16 FOBs on the border meant to house agents as close to the line as possible.

The agents head in all directions and no one leaves without enough water for a full day’s hike, knowing that, once they are committed to tracking a group, it could take all night or longer.

Mule deer scatter through tall grasses at the sound of Gamez’s truck approaching. Hawks soar.

Gamez cut his teeth in the Bootheel as an agent for the past six years. He joined after years of installing satellite dishes in ranchers’ homes out here. He knows the terrain well.

The sun is still strong, the temperature is shy of 100 degrees and the radio is quiet. It seems like there is no movement at this hour, not of migrants or drug mules. But someone is out there, Gamez says. Someone is almost always out there.

In daylight, he says, the spotters working for guides known as coyotes, drug cartels, or both, are watching the Border Patrol as closely as the Border Patrol is watching them.

Things have been picking up in the Bootheel. Migration patterns are shifting.

After last summer’s rush on the South Texas border by tens of thousands of Central American migrants, and under pressure by the Obama administration, Mexico toughened enforcement at its own southern border and along the coastal route north. The strategy has effectively pushed Central American migrants west into other corridors, including toward New Mexico.

Mexico apprehended 92,889 Central American migrants between October and April. The Border Patrol apprehended 70,226 “other than Mexican” migrants at the southwestern U.S. border during the same period.

Somewhere in the Animas mountains, a group of migrants is trudging northward, but the Border Patrol doesn’t know it yet.

More than two hours into the shift, the sky darkens to black and the Milky Way appears like a sparkling smoke plume.

‘YOU NEED MORE PEOPLE’

9:45 p.m.: Gamez makes a stop at a second FOB behind the Antelope Wells border crossing, one of the border’s least used ports of entry. The morning before, five Indian nationals and 48 Guatemalans, including seven unaccompanied minors, stepped over the low vehicle barrier there and gave themselves up.

That has been happening more often lately, Hector Maese, deputy patrol agent in charge of the Lordsburg station, told the Journal later. Guatemalan families - including a mother with a 2-month-old in her arms - have been turning themselves in much as they did last year in South Texas, although in far fewer numbers.

At the FOB, several agents have just finished a shift and are shooting the breeze around a table. A TV blares. They answer a journalist’s question: What is the biggest misconception the public has about their work?

“Really, honestly? They really think that it’s secure, the border, with what we got,” says Agent De La Garza, who declined to give his first name. “You need more people. You need more - not less. If they think that it is secure, it is not. There is no way. We’re doing the best we can, but there is no way.”

DISTANT SHADOWS

11:50 p.m.: Agent Gamez’s truck radio cackles to life.

Shadows have been spotted by an agent 20 miles away manning a long-range, night-vision camera affixed to a tower on a truck. The shadows could be “walkers.” They could be drug mules.

A quarter-moon sheds pale light the agents will soon use to track them.

The camera-equipped agent radios to the field: “Any agents around Highway 9?”

Gamez starts heading in that direction.

The scanner crackles again: “We’re tracking on this group that’s over by (unintelligible) 9. We’ve got about eight bodies on scope heading westbound.”

Gamez radios back, confirming a second group of crossers: “10-4. I’m hearing they got a group over here also by County Road. I think some assets are over here.”

It can take a week to walk from the border to Interstate 10 - a key destination for both migrants and drug mules. But the two often represent different streams of illegal traffic.

Border agents and Hidalgo County sheriff’s deputies say drug mules often take the toughest mountain routes and do so expertly, walking relentlessly through difficult terrain without getting lost or winded. They have a schedule to meet: a load to drop off at I-10 at a precise time synced with the arrival of a vehicle that will pull off the highway.

These men aren’t in the country to look for work: Running drugs is their job. They’ll head back to Mexico and do it all over again for a fee or a cut of the sale.

A 65-pound sack of marijuana is valued at $800 a pound in the U.S., or $52,000, according to Border Patrol. Mules who fail repeatedly in smuggling loads often hand themselves over to agents, risking jail time rather than returning to Mexico empty-handed, where the cartel’s punishment could be fatal.

Migrants also cross the border on foot. But even when they have crossed illegally before, they rarely know this desert region and easily become lost or desperate when they realize just how far they are from their destination: Phoenix, or the town of San Simón over the Arizona state line, or the highways. When water runs out, they will also turn themselves in.

Unless the Border Patrol intercepts them first.

The agent with the camera directs three agents, now on foot, onto the trail of the shadows for more than an hour. The agents walk in complete darkness, listening through an earpiece: to your left, 50 yards more.

Slowly, the three agents close in. Gamez, who has remained in his truck, hears the play-by-play and eases his truck onto a trail nearby - not close enough to give away the chase.

His headlights catch a big-horned owl and the bird takes flight with its prey.

Another half-hour passes.

The migrants stop to rest in a dry wash. That breather will cost them their journey.

The Border Patrol catches up.

HANDCUFFED IN PAIRS

2:30 a.m.: They are six, not eight, as originally believed.

The migrants, Mexican men in their 20s to 40s, emerge from the dry wash handcuffed in pairs and holding their belongings in their free hands, everything in black trash bags. They look as if they had been walking for days.

Gamez and nine other agents are waiting to provide backup and transportation back to Lordsburg. The agents offer the migrants water, but there is little interaction between them otherwise. The men are loaded into trucks.

It’s 4 o’clock in the morning and Gamez’s shift is nearly over. He won’t go home to his Mexican wife or newborn baby in West Texas, three hours away. He will head back to a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer in Lordsburg that he shares with another agent. The family will wait for his days off.

The migrants will spend the rest of the night in one of a half-dozen holding cells at the Lordsburg station. Two of those cells - marked “moms w/ kids” and “dads w/ kids” - are already filled with some of the Central Americans.

The radio is quiet again as Gamez takes the dark road back to the FOB. There, the next shift of agents is gearing up to trek the Bootheel into dawn and another day.

___

Information from: Albuquerque Journal, https://www.abqjournal.com


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