President Bush's recent announcement that he will send 6,000 National Guardsmen to be deployed along the U.S./Mexican border continues to draw controversy among many Americans. Some border patrolmen posted along the southwestern border states have expressed concern that the National Guard may not fully understand the complexity of the job. In Santa Teresa, New Mexico, which borders El Paso, Texas and Mexico, one VOA reporter accompanied a border patrolman on his duties to see what a typical day was like.
Within five minutes of getting in Supervisory Border Patrol Agent' Edmund Hirales' SUV, the radio was abuzz with urgent messages from fellow patrolmen. They were on a high-speed chase after two drug runners who crashed their truck through a fence at the Mexican border and escaped into Mexico on foot. Speeding down the highway to meet them, Officer Hirales arrived at the site of the abandoned truck where he joined about a dozen of his fellow officers who gathered to inspect the situation.
"Ok, there were two of them in there?" Mr. Harales inquired. He explained, "They ran up the mountain so they were able to get close enough to the river, abandon the vehicle and then they ran south across the river. So they left the vehicle."
Agents at the scene discovered that the vehicle in question was loaded with marijuana. The collapsed barbed wire fence was the point of separation between the United States and Mexico, just a few meters away from the Rio Grande River. Several people began to emerge from the small, adobe structures that dotted the landscape. One of those was the juvenile who led the high-speed chase, who unabashedly stared at the officers who were staring back at him with binoculars.
"To him, he got away," said Officer Hirales. "He might have lost what he was carrying but he got away." Mr. Hirales said that the youth didn't look like "a repeat customer" and didn't appear to have any noticeable body marks such as tattoos or any cuts or abrasions, indicating that he wasn't injured in the escape.
It was remarkable to the accompanying reporter that the teenager appeared so fearless as he stared back at the officers. Hirales explained, "He knows that once he crosses a river there's nothing we can do. "So there's no threat now."
Supervisory border patrolman Ed Barerra, also at the scene, gave his assessment of suspects.
"They're more likely to be 'mules' - hired young kids." He explained, "A few thousand dollars to them, it's just an easy job - if they get caught they're juveniles, they know they'll probably be released."
Mr. Barerra added that what 'mules' have to fear perhaps as much as law enforcement, are the drug lords who hire them. An unsuccessful job such as this one may result in the youths being forced to smuggle drugs across the border again, only the next time, for free.
Apprehending drug smugglers is routine for the U.S. Border Patrol, but does not constitute the majority of arrests. Most often it is apprehending undocumented immigrants. This is in spite of the well-known danger of trying to walk 40 kilometers through the desert, or the risk of death by suffocation to ride in an air-tight truck provided by a "coyote," an individual secretly hired to transport people.
Patrolman Edmund Hirales says those smugglers - who are paid thousands of dollars to do the job - may be ruthless once they get their money. "Sometimes they are unprepared for this journey. A lot of times the smugglers will bring them to the border and say, 'Wait here for a day or two and I'll pick you up' and then they never come back."
Officer Hirales says many times the immigrants are abandoned and dehydrated. Or, he says, "they try to make it on their own and they're wandering around trying to find the nearest town or nearest civilization to get to." He says at that point the apprehending officers are "the life saver because they put themselves in a situation where they do need help."
Back at the patrol station, the drug-runners' heavily-armored truck was being unloaded of its cargo. Patrolman Edmund Hirales unzipped one of 30 Adidas sports duffel bags that had been crammed into the truck.
"It's a typical duffel bag with cellophane wrapping - the smell of it is marijuana." He guessed the weight of this load of marijuana to be about 450 kilograms with a market value of more than a million dollars.
Edmund Hirales has been a border patrolman for more than 15 years. He says he loves his job because it is never routine -- but says he "never lets his guard down."
Border patrolmen are hired from throughout the United States but are specially trained in the southwest.
Hirales says new officers are often surprised to see what the border actually is. "A lot of people think when you talk about the U.S. Mexican border that there's this big barrier that separates the U.S. from Mexico and then they get down here and say, 'Well, where's Mexico?' Well, it's there. Well, where's the border?' That's it." He explained, "Sometimes the only thing that's separating the U.S. from Mexico is just a marker or just two strings or a barbed wire fence. And a lot of times they're shocked. 'That's the border?' That's the border."
The terrorist attacks of September 11th, resulted in more funding and support for the U.S. Border Patrol. In 2003 it became part of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection under the Department of Homeland Security. And while most everyone in Washington agrees that some form of immigration reform is long overdue, the debate about how to enforce it is not likely to be resolved anytime soon.