Bloody Border

Statistics show danger for Border Patrol agents is increasing. Are U.S policies partially to blame?

In Nogales, the borderline pulses like an angry vein through skinny canyons, up knobby ridgelines and across pallid ravines. It pierces the shade of walnut trees, leaps the sewer stench of the Nogales Wash, snakes down haphazard slopes and creeps behind downtown storefronts, before flowing without remark into the barren Arizona desert.

Barely south of this line, on a clear afternoon right before Christmas, gunshots echo through the tough and narco-riddled Mexican barrio of Buenos Aires. This causes Agent Jim Hawkins, U.S. Border Patrol, to clench his jaw in the slightest way. "Just another day in the neighborhood," he says.

Too many times, Hawkins says, those shots are aimed for him and other agents patrolling this rugged turf. "Every night, there's something going on. You get this close to the fence at night, they're at least gonna try to hit you with a rock."

But even war becomes mundane: He briefly turns his gaze from Buenos Aires, recalling another night not so long ago, when he was all settled into his surveillance spot for the long haul. "We got out of the vehicles, and we were talking," he says. The other agent "was basically telling me what was going on, and we were about to wrap up the conversation, and the rocks just started flying.

"Just to show how used to it we get, I calmly walked back to my truck--I didn't even spill my coffee--and got in the truck and put the window screen up."

Like it was nothing.

Now, social scientists might suggest those throwers were heaving stones of resentment toward uniformed symbols of U.S. imperialism. But Hawkins says they were just distracting the agents, while runners rushed drugs through fence holes, or flung drug packets to receivers on the American side.

It could all just be a surreal game, if life here was not so fiercely serious. Take the Nogales metal border fence; tall as a house and ugly as sin, this barrier is hewn from salvaged aircraft carrier landing mats and painted shit-brown. While not exactly a beacon of goodwill toward our Latin neighbors, Hawkins says the fence effectively pushes most illegal traffic to the fringes of town, before it finally submits to mere barbed wire.

Or consider a Border Patrol jeep sharing the trampled bluff; silently, it lurks behind the chain-link sanctuary of a cage, the driver a shadow behind his wheel.

Or the guns of Buenos Aires--another trigger squeezed, the flat pop of another round and another death in the making.

That's just the way it is, here on the line. Along with "Hamburger Hill" to the west, Hawkins ranks this knoll among the meanest postings in Nogales. And that's no measly distinction, amid a rising tide of assaults against agents--from rock-throwing and rifle shots to Molotov cocktails hurling toward them--flooding the entire U.S.-Mexico border from Brownsville to San Diego.

The Tucson and San Diego sectors are the hotspots; in fiscal year 2005 (ending Sept. 30), they recorded 43 incidents of agents being shot at, compared with 18 the year before. Three agents in those sectors were struck by bullets, two of them just east from this Nogales hill. A total of 20 agents have been hospitalized. And they've fought back, killing five smuggling suspects in the two sectors.

Such is the mood that, late last year, a leaked FBI memo warned of two agents being targeted for execution by a Mexican drug cartel. That warning was soon rescinded, but the message lingers.

In this perilous place, not even headquarters is safe. Brawls have exploded in Border Patrol detention centers, where agents often process hundreds of undocumented aliens in a single night--and where there have been allegations of lax security.

Many blame spiraling border violence on various enforcement-heavy strategies, such as last year's Arizona Border Control Initiative, which placed heavy reinforcements along the line. Or on the latest buzz, called the Secure Border Initiative. Unveiled in November by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, this plan promises to rush even more money and manpower to the line.

But therein lies the key to increased violence, say critics of these variously named strategies. A larger Border Patrol force--mushrooming during the last few years to 11,000 agents--means a greener force, they say, and plenty of new targets for smugglers and their minions.

Meanwhile, the work of agents has grown more complex. They now use highly sophisticated equipment, from triple-fencing, underground sensors and above-ground stadium lights, to cameras recording nearly every illegal footstep in urban areas.

As for the smugglers, they're raising hell because they have to, Hawkins says. "It's bad business for them, because they don't need that kind of attention. But now they have no choice. There are fewer and fewer smuggling routes. They're just fighting each other for the territory that's left."

Along a beefed-up border, the work of these people-smugglers--called coyotes--has also shifted from mom-and-pop operations to sophisticated, brutal gangs ready to brawl. And they now advise their customers to do the same, says Hawkins. "They tell them to run, and to not obey our commands, to not stop until we take them down. And they're telling them to fight."

Peter Andreas calls that a seismic shift. He teaches political science and international studies at Brown University, and is author of Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide. "The traditional relationship is remarkably non-violent between Border Patrol and migrants, because they both obviously have an interest to keep it that way," Andreas says. "The migrants are typically going to be sent back across (the border) and then try again. So their incentives are to play along and get processed through as quickly as possible. The Border Patrol has the same incentive--just get them through the system and back (where they came from).

"But in recent years, there has been a much greater reliance by migrants on coyotes," he says. "As the coyotes have become more prominent players in border-crossing experiences, they've affected the whole dynamic, and changed potential for violence."

T.J. Bonner agrees. He's president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing approximately 10,000 agents. A new and feral breed of smuggler "has managed to drive the small-time operators out of business, because it's gotten so lucrative," Bonner says. "In the past dozen years or so, we've seen a tenfold increase in the cost of being smuggled across the border."

He claims the Border Patrol has failed to protect agents against this growing threat. "Part of the answer is having the right type of equipment to respond, which in most instances is sitting in the trunk of a supervisor. For example, the agency has nonlethal devices like pepper balls, but only the supervisors have those. They don't trust the rest of us with them."

(Agent Hawkins calls that "a flat-out lie. They are available to anyone who wants to check them out," he says. "But you do have to have special training for it.")

Bonner also accuses the agency of failing to update its communications system. "This would require a major investment of money, and obviously, the agents' safety isn't worth that much," he says.

His point is driven home by so-called dead zones--remote desert postings where lone Border Patrol agents lose radio contact. But even when well-intentioned, the government can't quite get it together: In July, Department of Homeland Security official Charles Cape blew the whistle on his own agency, claiming that funds meant for beefing up border communications had simply disappeared into a Washington, D.C., black hole. "I've never seen one dollar since I've been out here," Cape told reporter Mark Flatten from Mesa's East Valley Tribune. "There's nothing. They've sucked it all up at headquarters."

To Bonner, the problem "is bureaucratic bungling combined with politics. And that has caused what appears to be a disregard for the safety of the agents on the ground, because the bureaucrats are too spineless to stand up to the politicians and say, 'This is not safe, so we're not going to not do it that way.'"

Meanwhile, factors agents can control often go awry. Last spring, Agent Ephraim Cruz complained in a memo to supervisors that searches of incoming detainees in the Douglas station were haphazard. He even snapped Polaroids of those detainees displaying their overlooked watches, belts and makeup kits. Knives and guns have been found in cells, he says, placing both detainees and agents at risk.

Hawkins concedes that weapons--or potential weapons--are sometimes overlooked. "We're taught to do good searches at the detention centers," he says. "But sometimes, agents can get a little lazy. They deal with so many people that they can get fatigued."

But any slip can be dangerous, because detainees "can outnumber agents by large margins," he says. "They might be rowdy, and it can turn ugly fast."

The growing violence also has political fallout. For example, it has prompted Gov. Janet Napolitano to lambaste the federal government for inaction; in August, she joined her New Mexico counterpart, Bill Richardson, to declare a state of emergency along the border. That allowed disaster funds totaling $1.5 million to go to counties along the boundary, to help fight narcotics smuggling and illegal immigration. Not long after, Napolitano also held a joint press conference with Sonora Gov. Eduardo Bours, pledging to coordinate efforts to slow violence on both sides of the border.

Taken together, all of this means one of two things: The increasingly savage border is either a sign of progress or blinding defeat, according to who's doing the spin.

But to Jim Hawkins, blood in the ranks speaks more clearly than politics. "A rock can kill you. We've had guys getting stitches, and one in Douglas lost an eye to rocks."

Then there's the female agent who pulled over a suspicious car--and got shot by the driver as she approached. "And even after she was hit, she started a pursuit," he says. "That's how well-trained she was to do her job."

In the early 1990s, the federal government embarked on an ambitious project designed to secure our borders. Over a dozen years later, although that goal remains as elusive as ever, a few lessons are emerging. Predictably, in those areas where significant resources were allocated, illegal cross-border traffic was significantly reduced. The Border Patrol's 'strategy of deterrence,' which emphasized high-visibility positioning of vehicles within a few yards of the international border, has made agents vulnerable targets for an increasing number of attacks. These include hand-thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails, various projectiles launched by slingshots, as well as bullets fired from guns. Although most of these attacks are carried out as diversions intended to facilitate smuggling operations, their consequences are no less dangerous to Border Patrol agents." --T.J. Bonner, speaking before Congress in November

No one has ever mistaken the U.S.-Mexico border for a particularly peaceful place. From Indian wars and cutthroat bandits to 19th-century Americans lusting for fiefdoms in Sonora, this line has always perpetrated mischief. But the broad ferocity of today's borderline seems unique.

In part, it can be blamed on a shifting drug trade, increasingly ruthless coyotes and internecine battles for smuggling corridors among various criminal cartels.

But evolving U.S. security strategies, begun in the 1990s, also play a role. They bear brawny names, from El Paso's Operation Hold the Line and San Diego's Operation Gatekeeper to Arizona's Operation Safeguard. And these variously labeled Border Patrol operations share one key element: spinning a thick enforcement web around towns like Nogales and Douglas, thereby forcing crossers out into the desert, where they're more easily nabbed.

Not surprisingly, these tactics are also highly controversial for driving migration routes deep in the backcountry, where illegal aliens are more likely to die. In the last fiscal year alone, a record 279 known immigrants died along the Arizona-Mexico border.

That's not the only contention surrounding these policies, however. The Border Patrol has concentrated more agents on the line in urban areas. While this has visceral appeal for get-tough politicians, it also turns agents into convenient targets. Bonner calls it an unnecessary risk. "There's a lot more that could be done to protect agents," he says, "and that includes not putting them in harm's way directly on the border. That strategy doesn't work.

"The thought process behind it is that, if we're up there close to the border, people (from Mexico) who are making three or four dollars a day will say, 'Gee, I didn't realize there are so many Border Patrol agents here. I guess I'll go home and starve.' That didn't work for laborers, much less criminals and terrorists."

But assuming the tactic won't change soon, "at least give agents some protection," he says. "Put them behind an earthen berm, or some type of protection so they're not just sitting out there in the open."

Top agency officials defend their policy, calling it an effective tool for disrupting trafficking routes. In a past interview with me, David Aguilar, former Tucson Sector chief and now head of the Border Patrol, noted how smugglers "take advantage of the infrastructure available to them, beginning in Mexico." That infrastructure "translates into highways from the interior of Mexico to the border."

In turn, those highways lead to areas that can accommodate gatherings of large groups for mass crossings--border towns with plenty of cheap flophouses and quick transportation routes. At the same time, Aguilar said that smugglers need similar staging areas on the U.S. side, thereby "drawing them into our communities."

But "once we take that (infrastructure) away as we have done in San Diego, as we have done in El Paso, as we have done in Nogales and even in Douglas, the smuggler then continues to push for areas where he can continue his efforts," Aguilar says.

Mario Villarreal, a Border Patrol spokesman in Washington, D.C., calls it a package deal. "With the beefed-up enforcement, the outstanding work, really, of the men and women of the Border Patrol on the front line, and the upgrading of infrastructure--the lights on the border, the sensors buried in the ground--it's much more difficult to cross illegally into the United States than it was a few years ago."

Beyond all the ballyhoo about strategy, however, one prominent researcher questions whether eye-popping border statistics truly reflect growing violence--or just creative Border Patrol number-crunching.

"It's hard to evaluate the meaning of the figures being supplied by the Border Patrol about increased violence against the agents without distinguishing against the different types of attacks being talked about," says David Spener, a professor of sociology and at Trinity University in San Antonio, and editor of The U.S.-Mexico Border: Transcending Divisions, Contesting Identities. "Is it just rock-throwing?" Spener asks. "Or is it people guarding drug shipments shooting at the Border Patrol?

"If they are now trying to do a lot better job of collecting data about minor incidents," he adds, "that could also count for an increase."

The bottom line, suggests Spener and other researchers, is that the Border Patrol has a vested interest in making the region look as dangerous a possible, thereby amplifying its security role.

Over in Douglas, Mayor Ray Borane also questions the hype. "I own property right on the border, next to the point of entry," he says. "Our family has had it for years and years. And I'm down there two or three times a day, and I see the Border Patrol playing cat-and-mouse with these guys. But I don't see the rock-throwing through the fence that I used to."

So is there a problem or not? Again, it depends upon whom you ask. Likewise for solutions.

But for Margo Cowan, harsh crackdowns are exactly the wrong approach. Cowan is an attorney for the No More Deaths immigrant-assistance group, and she blames current Border Patrol policies for "creating an area that's sort of like a war zone. And in that area, there are no rules. Somehow, everyone who has a piece of this has created it--whether it's the drug and weapons smugglers, or the border policy that doesn't allow workers to come and work in an economy that clearly needs them."

Others, such as Mark Potok, criticize government tolerance for armed border-vigilante groups like the Minutemen. Potok directs the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project. Based in Alabama, the center has gained renown for successfully suing hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. "The rhetoric of violence has certainly grown in the last few years," he says. "And these groups--with their conspiracy theories, their frequent bigotry and their weapons--raise the ante hugely, and make violence almost inevitable."

Jim Hawkins slips his Ford Excursion into gear and rumbles toward downtown Nogales. His eyes endlessly scan passers-by, slow-moving cars and single guys hanging on the curb. "We're always a target," he explains. But perhaps less of one since the fence forced smugglers to the city limits. And that makes life safer for everyone. Confronting smugglers in congested city centers "is a challenge," he says, "because you don't know who's in that crowd."

A heavy urban presence has also nurtured better community relations, he says. "When I first got here, you had to worry about the crowd turning on you. You could tell they were at that point where they just might consider it, if they thought they could get away with it. But now, they'll even point out where the (smugglers) went. I think now people understand that illegal immigration is a huge problem. And if they don't want this to turn into the Third World, they have to protect what they've worked so hard for."

Mayor Borane says the Border Patrol has become just another face in his town. "People have become so accustomed to having the Border Patrol here, and all of the different ramifications surrounding it. It's innocuous--just part of the community like the local police force."

But Jennifer Allen suspects different reasons for this complacency. She heads the Tucson-based Border Action Network, and says such descriptions "are at odds with other folks in Nogales and Douglas, who call us and say, 'What are our rights? We feel they are being violated by the way the Border Patrol talks to us, treats us, enters our property without permission and endangers the rights of our children.' That's what we hear not only in Nogales, but in all border communities."

Allen calls it pure intimidation. "If you take small towns that have 15,000 or 25,000 people, and you throw in the Department of Homeland Security, which means that you have Border Patrol, Customs, the DEA, the FBI and all the rest--that's upwards of 15 federal law-enforcement agencies all wearing assorted hats along the border. You've got billions of dollars spent in technology and infrastructure, and thousands of agents.

"What's the overall impact for these small towns, where people by and large don't speak a lot of English?" she asks. "The sheer political and physical force of these agencies stymies people's willingness to speak up for themselves."

But Sheriff Tony Estrada, of Santa Cruz County, which includes Nogales, says those agencies blunt the impact of violent border crime. "We're always active along the border, but we haven't experienced the problem the Border Patrol has experienced."

Still, "sometimes, it seems like a time bomb," he says. "You never know where and when it's going to go off."

That lesson isn't lost on agents like Jim Hawkins, who now turns his big Excursion toward headquarters. He recalls the moment back in 2002 when about 30 undocumented aliens surprised him. It was sun up, and he was patrolling alone in Mariposa Canyon, near Nogales. It was very dicey. The leader of the group started a standoff. Hawkins had to think fast or be overwhelmed. They started to scatter as he rushed the troublemaker and threw him into cuffs.

"At that point, you're thinking on a different level," he says. "It's not emotional thought anymore. I mean, everybody's different, but I don't get scared in these situations. I get scared afterwards, if that makes any sense. I mean, I'll sit there and think, 'I just did what?'"

"It's like a mantra: 'You will survive. You will win the fight.' You really start to see danger differently, like it's really no big deal."

There is silence. Then Hawkins guns the Excursion and roars northward through the hills of Nogales.

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