The third of a five-part series.
A vehicle barrier outside Nogales, Ariz., separates the U.S. from Mexico. The Border Patrol continually monitors the boundary and uses technology to track down illegal migrants.
A vehicle barrier outside Nogales, Ariz., separates the U.S. from Mexico. The Border Patrol continually monitors the boundary and uses technology to track down illegal migrants. Jason Beaubien/NPR
The border emphasizes how much the U.S. and Mexico rely on each other, and, like siblings, it also illustrates the tension between them. As the U.S. builds new fences and heightens patrols, a drug war on the Mexican side has killed thousands of people this year alone. Meanwhile, trade across the border continues to grow.
Radio dispatchers monitor cameras trained on the American side of the U.S.-Mexican border at Nogales.
Radio dispatchers monitor cameras trained on the American side of the U.S.-Mexican border at Nogales. Jason Beaubien/NPR
Hundreds of miles of fence are being erected along the frontier with Mexico, and over the past four years the number of Border Patrol agents on the boundary has nearly doubled, as the Department of Homeland Security attempts to lock down the southern border.
These measures have helped sharply reduce the number of illegal immigrants crossing into the United States.
Border Patrol agents are busy all along the border, including in Nogales, Ariz. The arid, khaki-colored hills surrounding this town look soft and rolling from a distance, but up close the terrain is menacing. Dry, waist-high grasses grab at clothes, thorny bushes scratch at the skin, and the dusty soil gives way under the ankles.
Just after sunrise one day, Border Patrol agent Benny Rosario leads three Mexican men in handcuffs out of the brush to a dirt road. Rosario says agents on a nearby hill with a night vision telescope spotted several groups of migrants moving through the area in the pre-dawn darkness.
"Well, it's mainly infrared traffic, so they pick up the heat spots," Rosario says. "You can see the terrain out here — it's pretty rough. It's all hill over dale. For the most part they're able to put the agents in on where the group may be going, so it's been working out for us tonight."
The night was a busy one in the U.S. Border Patrol's busiest stomping ground. The Tucson sector covers 262 linear miles of the Arizona border from the Yuma County line to New Mexico. Last year agents arrested more than 300,000 illegal migrants. The Border Patrol agents use walkie-talkies, remote cameras, ground sensors, radar systems, dogs, floodlights, night vision goggles — and just about anything else they can think of to catch people sneaking over the border.
In the end, Rosario says his job often comes down to a footrace. Many of the migrants scatter when the Border Patrol descends on them.
"Tonight, fortunately, that hasn't been the case," he says. "There was one group. Actually this group ... ran from us initially up further north. But the scope trucks were able to stay on them and we were able to pick them up further south here."
The men Rosario just caught had been in the desert for three days. The first thing they asked for as they were being loaded into the back of the Border Patrol truck was water.
Testing The Agents
"We have about 22 cameras that we use and they are all equipped also to see in the dark," says Esmeralda Marroquin, a supervisor with the Border Patrol at Nogales Station. She is standing in what looks like a war room, as two radio dispatchers sit in front of a bank of video monitors. The cameras are trained on various parts of the Nogales border.
Some of the screens show the rusty old fence that cuts a swath between residential neighborhoods in Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Sonora, in Mexico. Other screens show the new fence on the outskirts of town and vehicle barriers in the desert.
Across the border, hundreds, maybe even thousands of people get ready to test the Tucson sector agents. Carlos Gonzales is one of them. He was recently deported and is preparing to head right back in.
"Me and my friend — we are going to come back tonight," Gonzales says. "We going to start walking around 11:00 when immigration moves. That time, immigration moves. We get the chance to walk, we going to walk about two nights in the desert."
Gonzales, 28, has lived half his life in the United States. He says he expects to die in New York City. But if he's not careful, he could die here in the desert. Last year, at least 183 migrants lost their lives trying to cross this part of the Arizona border.
Gonzales says he is not worried about all the Border Patrol's fancy new technology. If he gets caught, he says, he'll just try again.
The terrain between Nogales, Sonora, and Nogales, Ariz., is such that rainwater flows north. One problem for the Border Patrol is that a massive flood control system runs from the Mexican side into the U.S.
Marroquin is standing in a tunnel that's big enough to drive a truck through.
"Unfortunately people do cross and a lot of people don't understand the dangers of these tunnels and how quickly they can flood and how quickly they can lose their life," she says. "Once it starts raining, it's a matter of minutes to get someone out of there before it flash floods, and then rescue efforts begin further north."
The Border Patrol has installed cameras in the tunnel and nozzles that can fill the cavern with pepper spray if anyone tries to sneak through.
'You Name It, We've Seen It'
In addition to the drainage tunnels, the Border Patrol also discovered last year alone 14 homemade tunnels crossing under the boundary. The tunnels are used for both migrants and drugs.
Agents also seized more than 400 tons of marijuana last year as well as huge shipments of cocaine, methamphetamines and heroin that smugglers were trying to get into the U.S.
"We've seen it inside baby diapers. We've seen it inside prosthetic limbs. You name it, we've seen it," says Brian Levin with U.S. Customs and Border Protection from the Nogales port of entry.
Levin says some 45,000 people enter the U.S. through this port every day, and his officers process $18 billion worth of cargo each year.
"We are the busiest port of entry for winter produce coming in from Mexico, heading to North America," he says.
Under the reorganized Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection is in charge of securing the legal "ports of entry" — the customs and immigration checkpoints to enter the U.S.
Border Patrol administers the parts of the border that aren't at official crossings, and Levin says at the port of entry, agents have to search for illegal migrants, narcotics and other contraband, while still allowing legitimate traffic to flow.
"We have to be able to balance our enforcement mission with our facilitation mission," Levin says. "We cannot sacrifice the safety and security of the United States for facilitation, but we are not going to ignore that. And it comes down to balancing the two."
Levin says new technology is helping to speed traffic and secure the border. Scanners can read chips in passports and IDs even before the drivers gets to the customs booth; radiation detectors can screen for a "dirty bomb," and computers link his agents to criminal databases in Washington, D.C.
Crossing The Open Desert
Yet despite all this technology at the port, smugglers still regularly cross the border in the open desert.
About three miles outside of Nogales, Marroquin has just found a spot where vehicles have been driving over a small ridge to get around a new Border Patrol fence.
"This is a drive through," Marroquin says. "They've actually brought a car up and over and are getting around the fencing here. As soon as areas like this are discovered, they're immediately addressed and more fencing is put up to control it."
Marroquin describes her work as a Border Patrol agent as an art that mixes tracking with technology and intuition. Agents regularly pursue groups of migrants just following footprints in the sand. The awkward hand gesture of a driver, she says, can tip you off that the trunk is full of drugs or illegal immigrants.
The additional personnel, the new fences and the added technology are all making the Arizona border a lot harder to cross, but ultimately, she says, it's the agents — who are out there every day chasing people through the thorns and the rugged grasslands — who have changed this frontier.