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Along US-Mexican Border, Patrolmen Are Often Rescuers As Well As Enforcers

It has been a perilous summer along the U.S.-Mexico International Border. The scorching summer heat in the southwestern states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas has claimed the lives of more than 200 suspected illegal immigrants this year. That makes the job of a border patrolman as much about rescue as it is about law enforcement. In Santa Teresa, New Mexico, which borders El Paso, Texas and Mexico, Robin Rupli 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 is abuzz with urgent messages from fellow patrolmen. They are on a high-speed chase after two drug runners who have crashed their truck through a fence at the Mexican border and escaped into Mexico on foot. We speed down the highway to meet them.

Arriving at the site of the abandoned truck are about a dozen border patrol officers who have gathered to inspect the situation. "Ok, there was two of them in there," asks agent Hirales. "And 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. Was it '46?' Yeh, it was '46' it had narcotics, it had marijuana. It was loaded with marijuana."

The collapsed barbed wire fence is a few meters away from the Rio Grande River which, at this point, separates the United States and Mexico. Across the river are small, adobe structures from which several people begin to emerge. One of those people is the juvenile who led the high-speed chase, who unabashedly stares at the officers who stare back at him with binoculars.

"To him, he got away," says Mr. Hirales. "He might have lost what he was carrying but he got away. I was looking at him to see if he was a familiar customer, but no, he isn't. And he doesn't appear to have any tattoos, no cuts or abrasions, so he's not hurt or anything."

Rupli: So you're looking at him now, standing there plain as day. And he's not afraid to be on the other side of the river with you looking at him through binoculars?

Hirales: No, 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, one of the officers who has joined us at the scene, assesses the suspects.

"They're more likely to be 'mules' hired young kids," he says. "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."

What 'mules' have to fear perhaps as much as law enforcement, are the drug lords who hire them, adds Mr. Barrera. 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 more than three million were detained at the U.S.-Mexican border in the last three years. 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," he says. "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. A lot of times they're abandoned and 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, and many times they're dehydrated or on the brink of being exhausted or other ailments. And many times you are the life saver because they put themselves in a situation where they do need help."

Back at the patrol station, a heavily-armored truck is being unloaded of its cargo. Patrolman Edmund Hirales unzips one of 30 Adidas sports duffel bags that have been crammed into the truck.

"It's a typical duffel bag with cellophane wrapping - the smell of it is marijuana," explains Mr. Hirales.

There are about 450 kilograms of it, with a market value of more than $1 million. Edmund Hirales has been a border patrolman for 15 years. He loves his job because it is never routine. But he says he never lets his guard down. Border patrolmen are hired from throughout the United States and are trained in the southwest. According to Mr. Hirales, 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 says. "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 11, 2001 resulted in more funding and support for the U.S. Border Patrol. On March 1, of this year, it became part of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection under the Department of Homeland Security. And in July it was announced that 375 experienced border patrol agents from the southwest will be transferred to the understaffed north - making it the largest-ever redeployment to guard against terrorism on the U.S.-Canada border.