ORGAN PIPE CACTUS NATIONAL MONUMENT - Within a few years, vehicles driving loads of illegal immigrants or drugs through the rugged terrain of Arizona’s southwestern deserts could largely be a thing of the past.
Already, 63 miles of vehicle barriers are in place on the Arizona border. Authorities look to have a total of 200 miles of barriers across the Southwest, mostly in Arizona and New Mexico, by the end of next year.
The aim is to take vehicles out of the equation for law enforcement agents combatting smugglers. Trucks, SUVs and other vehicles afford smugglers the easiest way to bring large numbers of immigrants or heavy loads of marijuana from Mexico through vast, remote expanses of sun-baked desert.
“Using vehicles is going to help them accomplish their mission more effectively,” said U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Michael Friel. “It’s faster. It’s quicker. They can get more individuals across than on foot.”
Authorities concede vehicle barriers won’t deter pedestrians — either illegal immigrants or backpacking drug runners.
But they also note that time becomes their ally in tracking and catching illegal crossers who have to hike across miles of rocky, hilly terrain to meet their rides on highways leading to urban areas.
The barriers being used now range from bollards — concrete-filled steel poles poking out of the ground at staggered heights — to train rails welded horizontally onto concrete-reinforced steel posts to X-shaped barricades weighing up to 1,400 pounds. That doesn’t include border fencing meant to stop pedestrians in more populated areas such as the Arizona communities of Douglas, Naco, San Luis and Nogales.
The lines of barriers have been going up for years as authorities have looked for ways to stop the influx of illegal immigrants into the four U.S. border states, of which Arizona’s 377-mile border is the busiest segment for illegal entries.
At Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the barriers put up along 29 miles of the park’s southern boundary at a cost of $14 million were a response to the 2002 killing of park Ranger Kris Eggle by criminals who had driven north while fleeing Mexican authorities.
Organ Pipe Chief Ranger Fred Patton said the fortifications completed last July have been effective so far at the 515 square-mile park, which is already crisscrossed by hundreds of illegal roads cut by trucks and vans carrying migrants or drugs.
“It’s eliminated the vast majority of the vehicular smuggling that was taking place before,” Patton said. “We still get some, but comparatively, it’s not anywhere close to what it was.”
At this point, smugglers and other criminals can still circle around the Organ Pipe barriers to the east and west and drive in through other isolated stretches of the border.
But authorities are optimistic about what they’ll be able to do to stop it once fencing extends from the port of entry at San Luis, in extreme southwestern Arizona, across Organ Pipe and other vast tracts of land.
“In essence, we’ll be able to have an area of control from California toward the eastern end of Arizona,” said John Davis, a Border Patrol agent in southern Arizona. “If you can stop all the vehicles ... it makes your chances of catching them a lot greater.”
No one suggests that such barriers are an ultimate solution, however.
Patton said smugglers are likely to drive up to the barrier from the south and unload their contraband — human or otherwise — into other vehicles on the north side of the barrier. There also have already been successful breaches of Organ Pipe’s barrier, for example.
“We never considered that this barrier was impenetrable,” Patton said.
“You literally couldn’t build one that was.”