Immigration Documentary Spotlights ‘War On The Border’

Current TV's documentary "Vanguard" is a three-part series that focuses on the people who are at the center of the debate over immigration — Mexican migrants looking to cross into the U.S. and the agents looking to take drug traffickers at the border. Host Michel Martin talks with Adam Yamaguchi, executive producer and correspondent for the report "War on the Border."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later, you'll hear from one of the hottest voices in pop music, KT Tunstall. A performance chat with the British singer and master of the foot pedal is coming up.

But first, we want to take a closer look at the issues along the U.S./Mexico border. Now, we all know the stories: Illegal immigration, border security, drug trafficking, violence. We hear these stories all the time. But do you ever wonder what it takes to actually sneak across the U.S./Mexico border? More than 100,000 people risk it every year and many lose their lives doing it.

Now, a new program, a new series on the program called "Vanguard" is seen on Current TV. It's called "War on the Border," and it takes the viewer along this dangerous trek, as two reporters follow a people smuggler, a so-called coyote through the Arizona desert.

(Soundbite of show, "War on the Border")

Unidentified Man: We are on the very well known migrant corridor and also a place where many migrant bodies are found.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: It's inhospitable. It's treacherous. It's desolate. There is no water, and it's only about 7:30 in the morning and I'd say it's getting pretty close to about 90 degrees.

MARTIN: That again is from the Current TV program called "Vanguard." It's a new series called "War on the Border." Later in that series in an episode airing next week, our upcoming guest imbeds himself in a sting operation to catch marijuana growers who are armed and paid by the Mexican drug cartels.

We wanted to know more about this series so we've called executive producer and one of the correspondents in this series, Adam Yamaguchi, and he's with us now in our studios in Culver City. Adam, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. ADAM YAMAGUCHI (Executive Producer and Correspondent, "War on the Border"): Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, let's just start with the idea for this series. Where does it come from?

Mr. YAMAGUCHI: Sure. We wanted to, really, kind of cast a new light on the issues surrounding the border, you know. The border - U.S./Mexico border has been a hot topic for quite some time now. And we wanted to, you know, we wanted to explore some issues that sort of come out of it, but from a different angle. And so we found two stories that we felt as though spoke to that.

MARTIN: Now, the first series is a - the first segment is about immigration. And you actually, not you, you doing this, but one of your other correspondents actually tries to follow the route that many migrants take in coming across the border. Why did you decide to do it that way?

Mr. YAMAGUCHI: We decided to, you know, we decided that the best way of showing our audience just what it takes, what the hundreds of thousands of people who cross the border every single year endure to get to this country, to get a better understanding of why, you know, what it is they're escaping and why they are deciding to risk their lives to come to America. And we felt as though the only way of really, you know, the most powerful way of showing that was to go on the journey ourselves.

MARTIN: And at some point, one of the travelers, filmmaker John Carlos Frey, becomes weary of the - worried about the coyote and he's thinking about going off on his own, and I'll play a short clip for that. Here it is.

(Soundbite of show, "War on the Border")

Mr. JOHN CARLOS FREY (Filmmaker): Three times, beginning with this morning that we're about to cross, see the border fence? It's right there. He said we're going to get past those cameras and then we'll be in. That was early in the morning. I don't understand why we rest in the coolest part of the day and we wait for the hottest part of the day to cross.

MARTIN: Talk to a little bit about you, about the whole coyote relationship and why that's important for people to understand.

Mr. YAMAGUCHI: Sure. So the two filmmakers spent some time in the town of Altar, which is probably about 50 miles or so south of the U.S./Mexico border. And it is essentially a smugglers' town. This is a town whose really, whose existence is due simply to the fact that it is a gateway into the U.S. It is an illegal gateway into the U.S.

And it's there in that town that, you know, the hundreds of thousands of people who hope to make the trek across the Arizona desert converge throughout Mexico, throughout Latin America, Central America. And they come there and basically link up with a coyote who will ferry them across the desert. You know, there are many people who decide to take the trek on their own without the guidance of a coyote and, you know, while going across the border with a coyote certainly isn't without its risks, doing so without the guidance is far riskier.

And so they, you know, they broker these deals in this town. They, you know, they descend on this town, find one of many, many coyotes doing business there and then they, you know, they wait. And it's at that point, you know, the coyote will decide when and where to take the people who want to cross, you know, they'll determine which routes to take and at which times they believe that Border Patrol maybe has its guard down.

These are people who are watching - watching the watchers, essentially, you know, all day long, all night long. And they will, you know, at any moment decide, okay, now's the time or now's the time we have to rest. And, you know, the clip that you heard, my two colleagues were frustrated with the coyotes because they weren't sure why they were spending so much time just waiting.

MARTIN: In a sense, they can't really trust him. I mean here's somebody they have to depend on, but they don't even know if they can trust him. Just - I want to save some time to talk about the other two pieces in this series. But before we do, the film makes the point that fewer people are crossing, but more people are dying. Why is that?

Mr. YAMAGUCHI: Yeah. So, the reason is that as Border Patrol, as the border checkpoints and Border Patrol increases its surveillance of the area, you know, these migrants are having to go deeper into the deserts, spending more time kind of waiting, you know, in the shadows as you'd heard my colleagues doing. And so that increased exposure in the desert, you know, that's the deadliest thing about this crossing is the elements. So the increased exposure to that is ultimately what's driving the increase in the number of deaths.

MARTIN: Okay. I'm sorry, I just need to move on. We need to talk a little bit more about the other two episodes in the series, one of which you reported.

If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Adam Yamaguchi. He is the executive producer and one of the correspondents on the series called "Vanguard." It's producer by Current TV. He's telling us about a new series, "The War on the Border."

Now, the next two parts of the series look at drug trafficking. In the second episode, you say that marijuana makes up 70 percent of the revenue from Mexican drug cartels. I think a lot of people will be surprised by that. I think a lot of people are used to thinking it's cocaine. It's heroine. Why is marijuana so significant?

Mr. YAMAGUCHI: Yeah. It was a pretty startling statistic for us to find. And that was exactly why we decided to pursue this story. And you're right. And I think that most people associate violence, drug violence in cartels with the trafficking of cocaine, meth, heroine and other hard drugs. But, you know, the bulk product is marijuana. And, you know, the U.S. is the biggest market for marijuana consumption in the world. And so, you know, these cartels are just growing it in huge, huge quantities.

Now, what's changed in recent years is that, you know, marijuana has traditionally been grown south of the border throughout various states in Mexico and then packaged - or processed and packaged and smuggled across the border. But as I alluded to earlier, you know, the increased border checkpoints and security have made it more difficult for that smuggling to happen. And so what these organizations have found is that California is the perfect place to grow marijuana.

There's a ready supply of labor and, you know, there's - the California's Sierra Nevada mountains in northern and central California is the perfect, perfect place to grow this stuff.

MARTIN: All right, Adam Yamaguchi is the executive producer and one of the correspondents on the series "Vanguard." The series is called - on the program called "Vanguard," the series is called "War on the Border." It's presented on Current TV. You want to check your local listings for times. The upcoming episodes of this series will be airing on November 22nd and 29th. And, again, you'll want to check your listing, local listings for exact times. Adam, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. YAMAGUCHI: Thank you for having me.

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