Desert Duty: On the Line With the U.S. Border Patrol
Read an excerpt from the new book by Bill Broyles and Mark Haynes.
Login / Register
ORNo Account? Register here.
Introduction: On Edge
If you have traveled or lived near America’s southern border, you have seen the forest green uniform, the white vehicle with a green slash and bold letters, and the agents wearing ball caps. They are the men and women who run highway checkpoints, eye passing cars, and pursue groups of smugglers and undocumented aliens across open country. But have you met the agents themselves, those people behind the sunglasses, the humans at the wheel of the patrol truck, your neighbors down the street who shop at your mall and coach your kids’ peewee teams, the fathers and mothers who live and work near the border and wear the green uniform of the U.S. Border Patrol?
They are the mobile, uniformed arm of the federal government charged with patrolling between the official borderline ports of entry. Their authority to enter private lands to patrol for illegal aliens extends twenty-five miles from the border, and they may legally stop all vehicles to check for aliens as far as one hundred air miles from the border. Based upon reasonable suspicion of the commission of a criminal act or upon procurement of a warrant, they may investigate immigration offenses anywhere in the country.
They are the border police, and like your hometown force, they both protect and serve. In a day’s work they may catch a load of narcotics, apprehend groups of people entering the country without permission, and intercept a potential terrorist. The day undoubtedly will include rescuing aliens from death by thirst or murder by border bandits, preventing neighborhood assaults and burglaries, and administering first-aid to accident victims, and may involve delivering an untimely baby or helping stranded motorists. If you don’t know them, you should.
What follows is a set of interviews documenting the trials and triumphs of U.S. Border Patrol agents who have worked the southwest border between the United States and Mexico. They represent two-thirds of the patrol’s history, which dates back to 1924. It is written as told by those who have “walked the line” and is dedicated to their often unsung achievements. We relay the stories in historical sequence, from the older guard now retired to those still wearing the badge, for one name leads to another, policies progress, and equipment evolves. The common theme is duty to country.
These are self-told stories of working folks doing desert duty here, just as they are at dozens of other Border Patrol stations along America’s borders. Names like Eagle Pass, Laredo, Fort Stockton, Douglas, Ajo, Calexico, and Campo signal stations with proud histories. The agency’s motto is Honor First, and uncommon dedication is required. The work is rigorous and dangerous. Agents must be vigilant, self-sufficient, and honest. As you will read, the stories of these law officers reflect the fact that they are actual people with smiles and frowns.
Whether you are an alien downed by fatigue, battered by heat, or threatened by thirst or border bandits; a fellow agent in hot pursuit of drug smugglers or holding suspects at gunpoint; or a citizen lost in the wild borderlands, these are the people you’d pray were on your trail and on their way. If you are a smuggler evading the law, these are the relentless forces you fear.
In their own words, these are the stories of men and women working the border where, before you had breakfast this morning, someone crossed the line and now someone is looking for them.
Since the expansion of our nation into the American Southwest, the unenviable task of policing the nation’s southwest border has fallen on a thin line of hardy individuals dressed in blue or khaki, in denim and chambray, in green or blue wool, or in modern rip-stop nylon. Through the years, the U.S. military and federal law enforcement entities have shared the task of protecting the nation’s borders from foreign enemies, economically motivated migrants, and opportunistic criminals. The working conditions were generally wretched and tasks were rigorous and mostly thankless. On many occasions, however, the men protecting the border were placed into the role of rescuer, delivering innocent citizens and wrongdoers alike from captivity, injury, or death.
The earliest effort at providing security to the borderlands of the Southwest came in 1849, with the establishment of Camp Calhoun at the confluence of the Gila and Colorado Rivers, near present-day Yuma, Arizona. This military post eventually became Fort Yuma, and served the dual purposes of protecting this important river crossing into California from hostile Native Americans and projecting the influence of the United States into a region that was newly won from Mexico in the Mexican War.
Between the establishment of Camp Calhoun and the surrender of Geronimo in 1886, the U.S. Army was active throughout the Southwest, particularly along the present-day border between Arizona and Mexico. Native Americans, and Apaches in particular, did not recognize national borders. They soon discovered, however, that crossing the imaginary line could give them sanctuary from retribution for their transgressions. The raiding parties of the tribes crossed between the countries on long-established trails, committing depredations in an attempt to drive all whites from the region.
The military built forts at strategic locations and employed infantry and cavalry units, as well as Native American scouts, to patrol the border region. They worked to detect the movement of raiders between the countries, vigorously pursued them, and engaged them in combat whenever possible. These pursuits sometimes crossed the international border, with or without the appropriate governmental sanction. The incidents were not always merely about combat, but often involved a humanitarian aspect. Historical accounts record many instances where soldiers were able to intercept war parties and release innocent captives. Eventually, the wayward bands were brought into the reservation system, and many were exiled from the region.
During this time the movement of citizens of both countries across the frontier was virtually unimpeded by governments of the United States or Mexico. The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, concluded in 1848, had made U.S. citizens of approximately 80,000 Mexican residents of the Southwest. Economically and as a matter of national policy, neither Mexico nor the United States had any overriding interest in limiting peaceful cross-border trade or interaction.
The laissez-faire approach to immigration into the United States in this era was not to last. When distinguished jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes commented that “the life of the law has not been logic, it has been experience,” he might well have had the Immigration and Nationality Laws of the United States in mind. Throughout the history of the nation, the laws regarding the admission of persons into the United States have at times been non-existent, at other times defied logic, and at other times been outright racist or unenforceable.
Beginning in 1870, isolationism and economic downturns created an anti-immigrant sentiment that resulted in Congress’s enacting laws to protect the country from uncontrolled immigration. The “Exclusion Acts” began in 1875, with a prohibition on the legal entry of convicts and “immoral women.” This was followed in 1882 by an act that excluded idiots, lunatics, and paupers, and the more imposing Chinese Exclusion Act. The latter act was prompted by the fear of a glut of cheap labor. Uncontrolled Chinese immigration, brought on as a result of the large numbers of Chinese laborers imported to build the transcontinental railroad, created alarm in organized labor and governmental circles. The act suspended the immigration of all but a few limited professionals from China for a period of ten years. In 1902 the exclusion was made permanent, and some form of bar on immigration based upon Chinese or oriental derivation existed until 1943.
The enactment of legislation alone was not entirely effective. Chinese were able to embark from China and enter into Mexico. From there, they could enter the United States across its southern border. Many individuals residing on the frontier were familiar with the historic routes transecting the border, and many were more than ready to step into the lucrative business of human smuggling. Officers employed by the national government were sorely needed to augment the meager military resources on the border, which were steadily declining with the end of the Indian Wars.
Initially, the role of patrolling the border to curtail Chinese smuggling fell on the Customs Service. One of the earliest civilians to be assigned to patrol the southwest border was professional lawman Jefferson Davis Milton. Formerly a Texas Ranger, he entered on duty on March 11, 1887, as a U.S. Customs Line Rider, or Mounted Inspector, the forerunner of the Immigration Riders. Reporting to the El Paso Collector of Customs, Milton performed the duties of immigration and customs officer. One of only eleven border guards stationed between El Paso and the Pacific Ocean, Milton’s job entailed patrolling alone on horseback. Leading a pack horse, he rode from Nogales, Arizona, along the border to the Colorado River below Yuma. The primary mission of Milton and his fellow officers was the collection of customs duties on goods brought into the country, but they also prevented the smuggling of cheap, untaxed liquor and Chinese aliens into the United States.
For a time, Mounted Inspectors, employed by the Chinese Bureau within the Customs Service, and line riders, employed by the newly established Immigration Bureau, shared enforcement of the Chinese exclusion laws. To eliminate confusion near border cities and reduce the chance of mistaking fellow officers for smugglers, the officers in charge of the respective units would alternate areas of coverage on the border. Sometimes, however, the units would pair up or work together in one area in response to specific intelligence information.
A change in presidential administrations resulted in a wholesale purge of the Customs Service in 1899, costing Milton and others their jobs. Ultimately, Customs relinquished its role on the border, and the Chinese Bureau within Customs was disbanded around 1900.
The Chinese Exclusion Act also created an Office of the Superintendent of Immigration, which was established within the Treasury Department in 1891. The new Bureau of Immigration oversaw the U.S. Immigrant Inspectors stationed at the ports of entry. By 1904 Immigration line riders, often referred to as “mounted guards” or Chinese Inspectors, were hired and assigned to positions along the southern border. Their role would be to provide border security between the ports of entry from El Paso, Texas, to California. Jeff Milton returned to border work as one of the new Mounted Chinese Inspectors in April 1904. Never numbering more than seventy-five men, they were an enforcement presence along the border whenever resources permitted. As an Inspector “at large,” Milton primarily worked the border between Nogales and Yuma, Arizona.
As dedicated as this small number of patrol officers was, criminal activity was on the rise in Arizona, particularly along the southwest border. Fearing that lawlessness would stymie the attainment of statehood, in 1901 the Territorial Governor of Arizona organized the Arizona Rangers to protect Arizona from outlaws and rustlers. Similar to the conditions during the Indian Wars, much of the criminal activity involved rustling and raiding across the U.S.-Mexican border. To combat the problem, a cooperative agreement was reached between the Rangers and the Mexican Rurales that allowed cross-border pursuit of outlaws. The Rangers continued their work until 1909, by which time the governor had determined that they were no longer needed, and they were disbanded.
Although the general lawlessness rampant along the border at the time was an issue, the primary driving force behind congressional action on immigration was the protection of American workers. In recognition of this fact, in 1903 Congress transferred the Bureau of Immigration to the newly created Department of Commerce and Labor. Naturalization functions were added in 1906 and the agency was renamed the United States Immigration Service, or “U.S.I.S.”
Line Riders were gradually replaced by Chinese Inspectors of the U.S.I.S. Chinese Division. These were the first uniformed civilian law enforcement officers employed on the border, and they were required to purchase olive drab wool tunics out of their own wages. By 1913, the bureaus of Immigration and Naturalization were transferred as separate entities into the U.S. Department of Labor, and Chinese Inspectors reverted to the title “Immigration Inspectors.”
In 1910, the border region faced a new security threat. Revolutionaries led by Emiliano Zapata began an insurgency against the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. U.S. Cavalry units were once again assigned to patrol the border as a stabilizing influence. By 1913, the forces of one of Zapata’s lieutenants, Pancho Villa, had forced their way north through Chihuahua. The revolutionaries under Villa were occupying Ciudad Juárez, just across the Rio Grande River from El Paso.
When the revolutionaries under Pancho Villa raided Columbus, New Mexico, on March 9, 1916, the attack triggered the last large-scale cavalry operation in U.S. history. A force consisting of three cavalry regiments, two infantry regiments, and a contingent of artillery crossed into Mexico in two columns. They spent a total of eleven months following the raiders and attempting to punish them for the incursion into the United States. Some minor skirmishing occurred, and some of the raiders were killed or captured, but beyond disrupting the revolutionaries’ lines of supply and communication, the Punitive Expedition had little long-term impact on the border.
A new group of mounted guards or inspectors was authorized by Congress in March 1915. At this time most continued to patrol on horseback, but a few automobiles were being used. By 1918, Immigration Inspector Jeff Milton was assigned to work alongside a Customs Inspector at Indian Oasis, a Tohono O’odham Indian (Papago) town 65 miles southwest of Tucson. Milton utilized a stripped-down Model T Ford for some of his patrols. Although he possessed a broad authority as an Immigration Inspector, he still was concerned mostly with the illegal entry of Chinese immigrants.
During and immediately following the Punitive Expedition, the U.S. military continued to perform intermittent patrols along the southwest border. By 1916, political turmoil in Mexico and the termination of steamship travel between China and Mexico had slowed illegal immigration from China to a trickle.
The comings and goings of Mexican nationals across the border seldom merited any attention. Thousands crossed daily or with the crop seasons to obtain laborer jobs. This changed significantly, however, when Congress passed the Literacy Act in 1917. It required any person crossing the border for work to be able to read and write in some language. Many of the laborers who had crossed from Mexico could not meet these requirements. The result was a big increase in illegal entry between the ports of entry.
The United States entered into World War I by declaring war on the Central Powers in April 1917. The next year Congress enacted the Passport Act to deter the entry of enemy agents and spies into the country. Once again, U.S. Cavalry units were assigned to patrol the southwest border to augment civilian interdiction efforts. Civilian law enforcement professionals continued their work on the border alongside the cavalrymen. They were variously referred to as mounted guards, mounted watchmen, or mounted inspectors. They were hired under a mix of civil service standards, and were paid by various agencies. Employed at grade levels below those of existing patrol officers and lacking Civil Service protections, many were released at the end of World War I.
Customs line riders, later called Customs Patrol Inspectors, continued to be an on-and-off presence on the border. They were especially active for several years after 1920, when the Volstead Act was enacted to enforce the prohibition on liquor brought about by the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The Customs Patrol was officially disbanded after the formation of the U.S. Border Patrol in 1924, but was, from time to time, resurrected. Until the early 1980s, when they were again disbanded and converted to Sky Marshals or Customs Investigators, Customs Patrol officers were assigned to work the same border areas worked by Border Patrol agents. Ostensibly, the officers with Customs interdicted goods, while the Border Patrol officers interdicted persons.
In 1921, quota laws enacted by Congress severely limited the numbers of certain nationalities who could apply for legal residence in the United States. The impact of these laws was felt most acutely in many of the northern European nations, the source of much of the earlier migration into the United States. The result was an increase in the smuggling of Europeans into the country to join friends and relatives already living in the United States.
A major overhaul of immigration laws in 1924 reunited the separate bureaus of Immigration and of Naturalization within the Department of Labor to form the modern-day Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). This new INS was charged with administering all of the laws relating to foreign nationals and with patrolling the U.S. borders. The United States Border Patrol was founded by Congress on May 28, 1924, and in June of that year Border Patrol Inspectors assumed the duties of the U.S.I.S. (Chinese Division) Immigration Inspectors. The changeover was not immediate, however. Jeff Milton continued performing his duties as an Immigration Inspector in various parts of Arizona and California up until 1931, when he finally took a well-deserved retirement.
An early recruitment effort for Border Patrol included the following announcement in the Daily International newspaper from Douglas, Arizona, on March 16, 1925:
The newly organized border patrol is looking for new men and an examination for positions will be held at Douglas and at centrally located places in the state some time after April 11. The patrol, which is a branch of the immigration service, will accept no man unless he is big and strong and fearless. He must have experience in cowboy work; tracking and general border occupations and he must have had service in some highly organized police unit or in some regular army. They must be between 23 and 45 years of age and must have had at least three years’ experience in general ranch work along the border. This qualification is necessary because the principal work of these men is border riding, which is done mainly on horseback. Applicants must measure at least 5 feet 7 inches in height and be well proportioned, they must be of good moral character, honest and courageous.
At times during our nation’s history, the border between the ports of entry has been patrolled other than by military or law enforcement officers. Outbreaks of diseases, such as “hoof and mouth disease” during the last two centuries, prompted assignment of agricultural specialists along the border. Known as “tick riders,” or mounted agricultural inspectors, they were assigned to patrol the border for foreign livestock. They exterminated animals crossing the border to eliminate the potential for the spread of disease to U.S. livestock herds.
In 1933 the United States Border Patrol and its parent agency, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), became part of the U.S. Department of Justice. INS continued as the lead agency for border enforcement between official ports of entry until it was disbanded in March 2003.
Following a reorganization triggered by the attacks by foreign operatives on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Border Patrol was given a new look. Operational activities of INS and Customs were moved into the newly established cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which was further divided into branches. Both Border Patrol and Customs are branches within the Customs and Border Protection Agency. Immigrants coming into the country illegally through ports of entry are the responsibility of Customs. Border Patrol agents retain responsibility for aliens entering illegally between the ports.
Within DHS, Border Patrol stands alongside twenty-two other federal agencies, including the Coast Guard, Secret Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which handles undocumented aliens already within the United States. Foreigners coming to the United States legally are processed by Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS). Border Patrol is assigned 5,000 miles of the Canadian border, 1,900 miles of the Mexican border, and the coastal waters of Florida and Puerto Rico. The U.S. Coast Guard patrols for illegal entries coming by sea or air to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico coasts. At America’s 327 borderline ports of entry, other U.S. officers, Customs agents, check incoming traffic for contraband, illegal entrants, and terrorists.
But Border Patrol’s mission remains largely the same as it always was: to manage, control, and protect the nation’s border between ports of entry and to keep terrorists and their weapons out of the country. It has largely been forgotten, but during World War II agents kept an eye out for Nazi and Japanese infiltrators and spies coming across the border. Now they watch for terrorists. With the projected levels of manpower, increased effectiveness of technology, and expanded legal remedies, Border Patrol, along with its sister agencies, may be able to effectively control the border for the first time in its history. Time will tell if America’s lawmakers and voters sustain the support to let them.
Agents receive basic training at a police academy. Over its history, Border Patrol has used several locations, including the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Georgia, but today it employs its own academy at Artesia, New Mexico. The curriculum at the Border Patrol academy includes Immigration and Nationality Law, Criminal Law and Statutory Authority, Spanish, Border Patrol Operations, Care and Use of Firearms, Physical Training, Operation of Motor Vehicles, and Anti-Terrorism. Standard federal law enforcement courses are Communications, Ethics and Conduct, Report Writing, Introduction to Computers, Fingerprinting, and Constitutional Law. Increasingly agents must master computers, remote cameras, and other complex tools. One of the slogans currently used in recruiting new agents proclaims “This isn’t the old Border Patrol,” but in some cases, sons and daughters follow their parents in uniform. At least one family, the Colburns, boasts four generations of Border Patrol agents.
Probationary agents—probies, trainees, or more recently, interns—are assigned to any of 144 stations along the southern border with Mexico or the northern border with Canada. Their training is periodically supplemented, updated, and upgraded with special classes and schools for journeymen agents. They may also volunteer for collateral duties and assignments. For example, they may elect to train for BORSTAR, the agency’s search, trauma, and rescue team. Others become dog handlers, range officers, air observers, intelligence officers, or color guard members. Many will be assigned to undercover operations within the agency or in other federal entities such as the Drug Enforcement Agency or the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Others will add their unique experience and their authority to enforce certain federal statutes to specialized task forces comprising federal, state, and local officers.
Like any job, especially those demanding quick and decisive staccato bursts of information and commands on the police radio, Border Patrol has its own blunt, single-syllable lingo. A typical transmission might sound like, “Whiskey 5. Yankee 9. The lower drag is cut,” meaning that Yuma ground unit 9 is telling Wellton unit 5 that he has finished checking—cutting—a dirt road for footprints. “Apps” are apprehensions, persons in custody. “Bodies” are the number of people in sight or custody. “Sign” can be any clues to the movement of people or vehicles, such as footprints, litter, or tire tracks. Air units, either a helicopter or plane, use the radio call-sign “Omaha” and pilots are known as “X-Ray units.” Agents from Wellton use the call sign “Whiskey,” while those from Ajo use “Alpha,” Yuma units are “Yankee,” and Blythe agents use “Bravo” to identify themselves.
A casual listener of radio traffic from Border Patrol trackers may think he has tuned into shop talk at a shoe store. Shoe prints must be described in sufficient detail to allow other agents to identify the same “sign” sight-unseen at another location. Common shoes may be described by type, such as pointed-toe cowboy boot, lugged work boot, running shoe, flip-flop, huarache, or irrigator boot. Too, they may be described by manufacturer, such as “Converse” or “Nike,” or they may be described as having a herring-bone or diamond pattern, ball bearings in the sole, or a sonar pattern in the heel or toe. The combination of shoe prints in a particular group—a cowboy boot, running shoe, and a lug sole, for example—provides a distinctive signature almost as defining as a license plate. And, as unbelievable as it may sound, groups composed of aliens from outside North America could often be identified before they were caught by the fact that their collective foot sign contained few of the types common to Mexicans and Central Americans. This foot sign might be described to others as “Chinese,” “Japanese,” or “weird” tennis shoes.
People who cross the border without permission or papers have been referred to as illegal aliens, illegal immigrants, UDAs (undocumented aliens), and “wets,” which is short for “wetback.” Agents from past eras used the word “wet” or “wetback” when referring to undocumented aliens, with no derision intended. The term comes from the language aliens used to describe themselves, a Spanish-to-English translation of mojado, which means wet and refers to the fact that the aliens often crossed rivers or canals during their journey from Mexico into the United States and were still damp at the time of their apprehension. Some today refer to themselves as alambristas, which means fence jumpers. Agents call Mexicans who are in the country legally “Mexicans,” reflecting their nationality or country of origin.
Because of America’s common border with Mexico and the disparity in economic levels in the two countries, a very high percentage of illegal aliens come from Mexico. Illegal aliens from other countries are OTMs (other than Mexicans), and they may represent any other country in the world. According to the U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics, Mexicans comprised 91.4 percent of all aliens apprehended in 2008, with 7 percent from Central America and 0.6 percent from Caribbean nations. Where did they enter the United States? The vast majority, 97.4 percent, were apprehended in the Southwest, 1.5 percent on the coasts, and 1.1 percent on the northern border. From a decade high of 1,189,031 apprehensions in 2005, the total fell to 723,840 in 2008, with 83.8 percent of those being male and 70.9 percent between the ages of 18 and 34.
Mexicans call the Border Patrol La Migra, from the Spanish word for “immigration police.” In this book we use “alien” and “agent” throughout, except where quoted from a conversation. Any foreigners, Mexican or other nationalities, are aliens. Those who hold legitimate papers such as visas, passports, and green cards, fall into a couple of dozen categories ranging from ambassadors to students, businessmen to tourists, guest workers to entertainers, and resident aliens to refugees seeking asylum. The job of Border Patrol is to sort out who has valid papers and who doesn’t.
In Mexico, aliens crossing the border without visas or passport papers are called pollos (chickens) in counterpoint to the human smugglers, who are called polleros or coyotes. Pollero on one level means chicken farmer but has come to mean guide for pollos, illegal aliens. The predator-prey relationship of coyotes and chickens should not be taken humorously, for the coyotes are as likely to pluck or devour the pollos as to guide them. It is a ruthless trade, where humans are shuttled like cargo, held for payment—ransom, really—in filthy “safe-houses” (which are anything but safe), or stolen by rival smugglers. Sometimes pollos are discarded in the desert to die if they can’t keep pace with the fast-moving groups. The bottom line is profit margin, and deaths or injuries are seen by smugglers simply as costs of doing business.
For many decades, patrolling the border involved a minimal amount of technology. Cavalry and law enforcement officer alike relied mostly on a good mount, a handgun, and a rifle. An expansion of technology generally followed the end of each war fought by U.S. forces. After World War I, automobiles began to replace animals as the primary form of transportation for border lawmen. The end of World War II saw the introduction of two-way radios into border enforcement. The Korean War brought the large-scale introduction of aircraft into border patrol efforts, and the Vietnam War introduced helicopters, remotely monitored sensors, and computer databases into common usage. In the post-9/11 world, vast improvements have been made in identification methodology, available bed space for detainees, weaponry, and border fences and ports of entry.
Despite the vast gains made in technology, one of the stocks in trade for border law officers remains the ancient art of “sign cutting.” It involves detecting the physical clues to the passage of a living thing and following that living thing by using those clues as a guide. First used by humans in prehistoric times, the ability to track aided in hunting, in self-protection, and in conducting war. This skill, honed by daily practice through the decades, is one common link between all the various entities and individuals who have worked the border. Native American scouts for the U.S. Army, Jeff Milton and his coworkers, and present-day agents all have used sign cutting to accomplish their mission.
Through the years the tracking art has served many functions. It has been used to document the trails used by marauders and allowed a count to be made of the offenders. It has provided officials with a gauge of illicit activity and precipitated a call to action when large numbers of smugglers and crossers were detected. Frequently, it has been used as a means of following and intercepting offenders. And last but not least, when done by skilled professionals, it has been utilized as a means for finding individuals in distress and saving their lives. A large number of individuals, illegal border crossers and innocent civilians alike, owe their lives to the tracking art used by border law officers.
An Outpost of Trackers
In this book about border patrolmen we focus on one Arizona station that watches over what is arguably the most perilous crossing along the U.S. border. Here undocumented immigrants attempt to negotiate sixty-four miles of the line. It is hot, dry Sonoran Desert, a land with few waterholes and summer temperatures routinely topping 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
At times the Border Patrol station has been located in the small farming town of Tacna. The owner of a roadside gas station and soda stand on the highway from Yuma to Phoenix or Tucson contrived to call it Tachnopolis, after an imaginary Greek priest, but the actual town never was very big and the signpost has moved several times. Since 1990 the Border Patrol station has been located at Wellton, eleven miles down the road from Tacna. When wells were dug here for the southern transcontinental railroad that arrived in 1879, the spot was named Welltown and later shortened to Wellton.
Now Interstate 8 serves both Tacna and Wellton. The enormous swath of land lying south from the interstate to the border is virtually unpopulated, a despoblado, an area with no real roads and few jeep trails. Much of it is administered by the U.S. military as the Goldwater Range, where Marine, Navy, and Air Force fighter pilots learn to strafe, bomb, and dogfight. A large section is the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and Wilderness Area. Another sizeable portion is Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and it too is largely federally legislated wilderness. Public entry to these lands requires a permit and, even then, access to much of the area is limited or closed. Perimeter signs state: “Danger. Military reservation. Unexploded ordinance. Permit required. Peligro. Municiones vivas. No entre.” South of the border, in Mexico, lies the enormous Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, featuring drifting dunes and rugged volcanic flows and cinder cones; it is bounded by modern roadways. Fewer people live in this twelve-thousand-square-mile region today than when the first European explorers passed this way in 1540.
This is the landscape crossed by the infamous El Camino Diablo—the Devil’s Highway—where Spanish pioneers from the interior of Mexico and from Spain migrated by land to settle San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and where miners raced to California’s Gold Rush of 1849. Many hundreds died here, most of thirst. One observer, Lt. Nathaniel Michler, in 1857 reported that the land was scorching hot and blindingly bright, and travel here was a “torment.” And of the road he wrote, “All traces of the road are sometimes erased by the high winds sweeping the unstable soil before them, but death has strewn a continuous line of bleached bones and withered carcasses of horses and cattle, as monuments to mark the way.” This area is the setting for Charles Bowden’s Blue Desert, John Annerino’s Dead in Their Tracks, Aron Spilken’s Escape!, and Luis Urrea’s The Devil’s Highway.
Signs sponsored by both the United States and Mexico have been posted along the border, alerting illegal aliens to the danger. The signs face south to greet America-bound aliens and carry such messages as “Peligro. Zona Despoblada” with a drawing of cactus, the sun, and no dwellings. Another sign has a you-are-here map showing 100 kilometers to go, with cactus, a scorpion, rattlesnake, and skeleton lying under a large red sun symbol; a skull-and-cross-bones and a stop sign punctuate the urgency of the message. Advertisements in Sonoran newspapers and on Spanish-speaking airwaves warn of the dangers of crossing this desert. Scattered emergency-beacon towers invite aliens to push a red button and wait for rescue. Still aliens come.
Though most of the action is in the southern half, the Wellton Station’s arena of responsibility comprises 7,995 square miles. That is an area larger than the entire state of Massachusetts, or New Jersey, or Connecticut plus Rhode Island. Imagine trying to detect and then follow a group of walkers, or even a single set of footprints, across an entire state. That is what this job requires. In days gone by, you might be the only agent on duty, and even today the lives of those walkers, facing fatal fatigue and heat stroke, could literally be up to you. If you find and save them, they live. If not, they die.
The old Tacna station sometimes consisted of only one Border Patrol agent operating out of his home, a two-drawer file cabinet, and a Jeep. In Border Patrol lore, Tacna was a place you never wanted to work. Agents used to mention Tacna in the same breath with Presidio and Sierra Blanca, Texas, as the absolute worst places to live, but many who were assigned to Tacna enjoyed both the area and the work. A new station was opened in Wellton in 1990 to accommodate several dozen agents instead of the handful who had served at Tacna from the 1960s into the 1980s. A newer station is being planned for up to 350 agents. The number of agents nationwide is expected to swell to 20,000 by 2010.
A multi-pronged effort at Wellton has begun to pay dividends, though many observers doubt the flow of attempted crossings can be cut to absolute zero, meaning there will always be a need for Border Patrol here, as a deterrent if nothing else. From May 2007 to May 2008 alien apprehensions at Wellton dropped 88 percent and the number of smuggling vehicles crossing the desert was virtually nil after rising to several hundred a few years before. As of 2008, a number of factors have come into play. A stout barrier along the borderline inhibits vehicles. Yuma Sector adopted a zero-tolerance policy: instead of being returned immediately to their home country, every crosser now faces “delivered consequences,” and most are prosecuted. The state of Arizona has passed an employer sanctions law that punishes businesses that knowingly hire undocumented aliens. The United States and Arizona economies sometimes sputter, so fewer unskilled jobs in construction and service industries are available.
In addition, Border Patrol has established an encampment near the border; it is called Camp Grip, as in “get a grip on the border,” and it is manned 24/7, drastically reducing the time required for agents to intercept crossers. Too, Wellton station now increasingly mans permanent checkpoints on the highway. In the field, remote sensors detecting vehicles and people are more widespread and sophisticated; these include ground radar units mounted on trucks. Ironically, the electronic age is also a boon for crossers, who can now more easily obtain phony identification and attempt to enter through ports of entry instead of the open desert, and who can communicate with their “pick-up” cars by disposable cell phones.
Wellton Station is one of three stations within the Yuma Sector, which is headquartered in Yuma. The scope of the problem and the vision for solution is explained by Chief Patrol Agent of Yuma Sector, Paul A. Beeson, who says that by all accounts 2005 was the high-water mark in terms of smuggling and illegal alien activity, as Yuma Sector agents caught over 138,000 aliens without papers, smugglers, and other criminals and intercepted 2,700 vehicles—over 7 a day—illegally trying to cross 118 miles of borderline. With a doubling of the number of agents, a commensurate increase in the amount of equipment, and improvements in policy and tactics, Yuma had only 8,363 arrests in 2008, a drop of 94 percent. In the first few months of 2009 the trend showed a further decline of 40 percent from the previous year. The heightened number of agents also lowered the number of fatalities. The number of aliens known to have died in the desert in 2005 was 51, but fell to 5 in 2008, not counting the remains found of persons who had died in previous years. Vehicle crossings have fallen over 90 percent, to 240. Chief Beeson notes, “While we have experienced a tremendous level of success here, we know that there are still weaknesses. We have a pretty good handle on what is traversing our area, and some do manage to evade arrest. We know that number is relatively small, but I hate to lose even one.”
These declines in alien deaths, apprehensions, and attempts to cross illegally in vehicles indicate major improvements for the health and safety of not only aliens but also borderland citizens and Border Patrol agents. In America before 9/11 the new numbers might be cause for celebration, slowing the pace, or taking a day off. However, Yuma is but one sector of many, and 2008 is but one year of many. America’s border history is a cautionary tale of hard-earned gains easily eroded or summits not quite reached. Chief Beeson reminds us, “We still have threats. We still have vulnerabilities. We are better positioned today than we were a few years back and we’ve seen some tremendous benefits as a result, but we’re not done. We still have to have as part of our strategy the ability to detect, identify, classify, respond, and resolve any cross-border incursions. We are well-situated here to do a good portion of that, but we’re not there yet. I will tell you that I say we have operational control over a good portion of our border but it’s not at the level where we’re satisfied that we’ve addressed all the threats and vulnerabilities in this area.”
Air support for Wellton is based at Yuma International Airport and shares its runways with Yuma Marine Corps Air Station, which specializes in pilot training for U.S. Navy and Marine Corps attack and fighter jets, as well as combat helicopters. Yuma’s Border Patrol “air force” started with one second-hand airplane fifty years ago and now includes eleven sophisticated aircraft. The pilots match their missions with EC-120 Eurocopters, AS-350B3 Eurocopters, Piper Super Cubs, a UH-1H Huey, and a Cessna 182. The pilots spend significant time patrolling the Wellton area, for it presents the most challenging tracking, pursuits, and rescues.
Aircraft are a very effective tool. Nationwide in the fiscal year 2004, for example, Customs and Border Protection aircraft flew almost 46,000 hours while apprehending 96,341 persons and assisting in seizing $103.6 million of illegal drugs. This works out to 2.1 arrests and $2,259 of contraband for each hour flown. The number of rescues and prevented deaths are not officially tallied but number in the thousands, especially in the Wellton arena, where in 2005 pilots apprehended 2.3 aliens per hour and seized over two tons of drugs and 92 vehicles. By 2008 at Yuma the program’s success rose dramatically as the numbers fell about 90 percent to 0.3 aliens per hour and seven vehicles seized during the year; the amount of drugs seized per hour remained constant.
Total success would be zero apprehended, not millions: no aliens, no drugs, no vehicles, no terrorists. In the words of Yuma’s chief pilot, Howard Aitken, “The aircraft are another tool in the tool box that is utilized to deter and provide certainty of arrest. If an alien, smuggler, or terrorist knows that he cannot enter in Yuma without being caught, he tends to try other places or not come at all. The other tools are tactical infrastructure, more boots on the ground, and Operation Streamline. The deterrence factor is big.” Operation Streamline is a program used to prosecute nearly all persons caught entering the country illegally within the Yuma Sector’s area of responsibility.
But the denominator in this story is the border agents themselves. They are common folks doing an uncommon job. Like police work anywhere, days of humdrum patrol and investigation are interspersed with moments of fear and heroics. Shots have been fired here, but the real count is in persons rescued from heat and fatigue, aliens apprehended, and tons of drugs confiscated. There is a toll of human life. Hundreds of aliens are known to have died in this crossing, but the total is unknown. Plane crashes have killed three Border Patrol pilots and an agent on duty in the region, and four ground agents have died, two in car crashes, one run down by a smuggler fleeing to Mexico, and one drowned as he attempted to save aliens caught in the swirling Colorado River.
Sometimes public attitudes toward agents are wary or even hostile. Expecting the worst, author Aron Spilken approached Border Patrol for information while writing his account of the Salvadorans who were rescued or died in the southwestern Arizona desert early in July of 1980. He assumed that “[p]eople who did such work must be harsh and insensitive…. What I found instead were public-spirited people with a difficult job. . . . Certainly the desperate energy that [the agents] invested in saving the Salvadorans’ lives could only have come from a certain nobility of spirit” (Escape!, page 4).
Time at a Border Patrol station is measured in daily logs and monthly reports, but it is remembered by traumatic events. At Wellton, agents remember those thirteen deaths and the rescues of those Salvadorans in 1980. Even though the massive search, rescue, and recovery occurred in a neighboring station’s area, Wellton agents were called to help. They also mourn the death of junior pilot Lester Haynie on June 14, 1985, when his small patrol plane clipped a power line. Then five Salvadoran women and children perished in the Mohawk Dunes a few days later. Four years later pilot David F. Roberson died in an early morning plane crash. Without warning his Husky A-1 plunged straight into the ground from less than one hundred feet, and he died instantly, even before the plane was destroyed by fire. That was July 14, 1989, but it still haunts those who knew him. In May of 2001, a group of twenty-six aliens followed their coyotes across the border. For days they wandered west of the Granite Mountains. Fourteen died. Agents have that tragedy posted on their mental calendar, too, whether they were on duty then or not.
And each agent will remember the time he or she first rescued an alien from the desert or the clutches of a smuggler, or discovered the remains of someone long dead, or administered a drink to a heat-exhausted child or first aid to a terrified alien injured by a smuggler.
It takes special people to confront the desert daily, to ride out to meet armed smugglers, to retain compassion when threatened, to remain calm when situations fly out of control, and to serve with honor. Welcome. Meet the agents at Wellton Station who have chosen desert duty.