By June 1, the U.S. Border Patrol hopes to have in place a massive reinforcement on the border between Mexico and the state of Arizona. The operation, called "Arizona Border Control," is aimed at stopping smugglers and preventing migrant deaths in the hot, arid zone.
For the Border Patrol, the thrill of the chase is an everyday occurrence. The flood of immigrants and drug smugglers crossing the Mexican border into Arizona these days is relentless. Because of stricter enforcement at more populous zones along the border, smuggling operations have moved here to the arid and remote desert. Now, the order has come to shut it down here.
Bouncing over the rough terrain in a four-wheel drive vehicle, Border Patrol Agent Andrea Zortman is excited to be a part of the effort. "Your adrenaline gets pumping. Everybody wants to get the dope [illegal drugs] load and everybody wants to get large groups of aliens. We are out in the brush and we see an inordinately huge amount of foot sign, we are going to get excited about going after that because finding them yourself and apprehending a group of 40 or so people by yourself is kind of exciting," says Ms. Zortman. "It makes you feel good."
Chasing down immigrants every day can be exhausting, both physically and mentally. Some illegal entrants come in large groups that must be rounded up and some, like Raul Andrade, make a run for it on their own. He says he came up from the central Mexico state of Puebla looking for a job in construction or other work to feed his four children back home. A Border Patrol agent nabbed him only a few hundred meters beyond the boundary fence. He was then placed in the back of a vehicle and taken to a holding area to be questioned and then repatriated back to Mexico.
Most Border Patrol agents express sympathy for the individual immigrants who come seeking work, but have only contempt for the smugglers, known as coyotes, who take large amounts of money to guide people across the border.
Andrea Zortman says she and other agents have rescued many immigrants who turned over their money to coyotes only to be left stranded in the searing heat of the desert. "If the smuggler feels that they are lagging behind the group or if the smuggler feels that they will not make it, that coyote will just leave them out here. He will just leave them," she says. "He will continue on with his group and so that person is left there in the middle of nowhere. They may not have water or food and they definitely do not know where they are. Sometimes a hunter will come across them or sometimes we will catch their group farther down the road and someone in that group will let us know that they left a person in distress out there."
Agents in the field carry extra water and first aid supplies, but for serious cases they call on the Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue teams, known as BORSTAR. These teams include trained paramedics and can use intravenous injections of fluid in cases of severe dehydration. The next three months are the hottest and deadliest for immigrants here.
Finding the smugglers is not always easy, since they dress like the immigrants they guide and mix in with them. But Andrea Zortman says keeping careful records of people apprehended in a computerized system is making it easier to separate ordinary immigrants from the coyotes.
"For the most part, if they are just coming across to visit their family or get a job and a better life, they will try a couple of times and then we will not see them anymore. But if they are a coyote or smuggler, those are the ones who obviously have been crossing multiple times and so we get them into the station and look them up in the computer system," says Ms. Zortman. "If they have been caught multiple times pretty much around the same area and each time they are with completely different people than the time before that is usually a telltale sign that they are the guide or smuggler."
Human smugglers are often as sinister and dangerous as drug traffickers. They usually lend the immigrants the money they charge for the trip -- around several hundred dollars for each immigrant -- and then extract payment from family members back home. Much of the estimated $12 billion in remittances sent home by Mexican immigrants each year may be going to smugglers.
In addition, Border Patrol agents know they are up against even more sophisticated operations that deal in modern day slavery. A U.S. Justice Department report this week indicated that smugglers bring as many as 17,500 people to the United States each year and force them to work as prostitutes, as sweatshop laborers or as domestic workers. The money made by these organized crime groups is growing and so is the job of the law enforcement agents who try to stop them.
Photos Courtesy of Greg Flakus