Phoenix or Busted

The Valley is now the prime way station for ruthless smugglers engaged in the lucrative trafficking of human cargo -- illegal immigrants

The terrain along the fence on the U.S. side of the line is scorched earth decorated with heaps of garbage and towering security lamps brand-named Nightbuster 4000s, which clank on at dusk like stadium lights.

And then the game really begins.

Before the new steel fence was erected between downtown Agua Prieta and downtown Douglas, hordes of UDAs would scale the outdated lower fence, scramble down one side of a deep trench dug in 1901 for troops fending off Pancho Villa, climb the other side, then sneak through Douglas neighborhoods to the highway and desert north of town.

Vicente Terán Uribe rules over "the Kosovo of Mexico."
Paolo Vescia
Vicente Terán Uribe rules over "the Kosovo of Mexico."
Colosio waits by a pay phone in Agua Prieta just before crossing to the U.S.
Paolo Vescia
Colosio waits by a pay phone in Agua Prieta just before crossing to the U.S.

"This place was literally invaded, every night," says Mayor Borane.

Cries of outrage from Borane's constituents were not entirely unheeded. Five years ago, there were 50 Border Patrol agents stationed in the town. Today there are five times that many, plus a detail of 100 agents temporarily reassigned from their usual posts in California and Texas.

As Borane alluded, the Border Patrol's principal mission in Douglas is to guard Douglas. Most of the agents on shift at any time are concentrated in a condensed area around the periphery of the town. The Border Patrol would catch more Mexicans if more agents were out in the desert, but this would leave Douglas less protected.

"The traffic in town has been controlled," says Victor Colón, chief of the Border Patrol's Douglas station.

"Basically, the traffic is going around Douglas now."

Most of it, anyway.

Even with the heavy Border Patrol presence around town, there are still groups of UDAs who come over the main fence in daylight view of Border Patrol agents. Usually they are quickly apprehended, unless the group is large enough; then a few get through.

God help Douglas and the Border Patrol if the 100,000-plus would-be border jumpers in Agua Prieta ever organize into a single human wave attack.

As it stands, they travel alone or in scattered, small bands -- mostly outside of Douglas. There are two prime times: right after sunset and after sunrise, though the game is played 24-7.

Border Patrol agents catch 1,000 UDAs or more a day around Douglas. Often they catch the same ragged men as the day before, or the day before that. These people are caught because they trip motion sensors planted in the desert like mines, or they're seen through night-vision goggles or infrared cameras, or simply because agents in off-road vehicles follow their footprints. (Every night before dusk, Border Patrol agents drag tires on chains down back roads and well-defined footpaths to smooth out the dust for better tracking.)

The night of the dust storm, four Border Patrol agents converge east of Douglas where the barbed wire girding the international boundary ends. It was here Colosio planned to make his run, where the ground is an accidental landfill of crushed Tecate cartons, food containers and scraps of clothing.

Hundreds of the plastic, one-gallon water containers that desecrate the desert from Douglas to Bisbee scuttle through the scrub. Flocks of plastic bags (they contained clothing before they were discarded on the run) dance in the wind and snag on trees and cactuses. A forlorn sign erected by the Mexican government warns travelers to be wary of scorpions and venomous snakes.

"There's a lot of stuff out there tonight," says one of the agents.

Asked to explain "stuff," he says, simply, "Aliens."

Motion sensors were tripped here minutes ago, and the agents were dispatched in time to chase a large group back into Mexico.

"It's better to just chase them back over if you can," says one of the detail agents from San Diego (all four requested anonymity). "Saves everyone some time."

He scans the desert on the Mexican side of the border through night-vision goggles he says are "Vietnam war-era."

"I can only see about 200 feet. They're probably out there laying low in the brush beyond that, waiting for us to leave."

If so, the strategy works. Radio traffic directs the four agents farther into the desert. One by one they peel away, dust rolling through the beams of their bouncing headlights.

Their sudden departure is a metaphor for the border enforcement policies that have turned the Agua Prieta to Phoenix corridor into the primary route for illegal immigration into the U.S.

For decades, the great majority of UDAs crossed the border nearer to San Diego, California, and El Paso, Texas.

Then in 1994, the Border Patrol enhanced enforcement along those two traditional smuggling regions.

The intent was to clamp down on illegal immigration from Mexico, which was rapidly increasing following the crash of the Mexican economy.

The result was to funnel illegal immigrants to the Arizona border. Now the Border Patrol is playing catch-up by shifting agents from California back to Arizona.

Some of those agents from San Diego man checkpoints on Highway 81 north out of Douglas, which Colón admits are easily avoided by smugglers who send scout cars ahead.

"They circumvent the checkpoints," he says. "They either drop off the people and have them hike ahead, or they drive around."

Once they've cleared the roadblocks, though, the smugglers still have to get past the local police in communities such as Bisbee, where officers in the past year have busted more than 800 vehicles transporting illegal immigrants bound for Phoenix.

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