Underequipped, isolated and overwhelmed — agents struggle to hold the line - East Valley Tribune: News

Underequipped, isolated and overwhelmed — agents struggle to hold the line

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Posted: Monday, August 15, 2005 11:51 am | Updated: 7:35 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

ALONG THE MEXICAN BORDER - To the Border Patrol agent’s trained eye, there was only one reason that the beat-up pickup truck flipped a quick U-turn in the middle of the night on the desolate road leading north.

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The driver had just picked up a load of illegal immigrants.

The spotlight wielded by U.S. Border Patrol supervisor Michael Gramley illuminated women and children crammed inside the cab. Shoulders and limbs stuck out from the truck bed, a dead giveaway to the 12 men stacked on each another in a vain attempt to hide. The chase was on. While Gramley followed the low-riding truck through the deserted roads between Yuma and the Mexican border, he radioed for backup. "They’re going to pull over and bail," Gramley predicted. He was right.

The driver veered into a dusty field and, without even putting the truck into park, bolted into the pitch black. Two others in the back of the truck leaped out and ran after him. The other 14 immigrants stayed put, defeated.

Three units of federal agents swept powerful spotlights through the large fields in their patrol vehicles — they badly wanted the driver in the red shirt, likely part of a smuggling operation that could land him in federal prison.

But the paths cut by the spotlights through the black night were too narrow, and thermal-vision cameras were not readily on hand.

The only thing that might have helped was radar similar to that used by the military to track movement for miles in every direction.

The search was futile.

The driver may have escaped the area completely, or was lying low nearby.

Either way, he was listed as yet another "got-away" near Yuma.

Those who remained in the field were just some of several hundred other illegal immigrants apprehended Wednesday through a mixture of new technology and tireless tracking methods used by Border Patrol agents along one of the busiest sections of border in the country.

But the technology isn’t as farreaching as it could be, often leaving field agents without some of the basic capabilities that city police departments use every day.

Often, agents’ radios can’t reach dispatchers, wireless phones go dead in remote canyons and, without radar, they have little hope of finding that driver on the run in the night.

Agents also lack computers in their vehicles, and instead must make all license plate, immigration and criminal history checks by radioing dispatchers.

It’s a situation that a top U.S. Department of Homeland Security official has said was supposed to be alleviated with millions of dollars in new technology, money set aside by Congress last year.

Charles Cape, zone manager for the agency’s wireless initiative in the Southwest, told the Tribune last month that as much as $60 million earmarked by Congress for technologies to secure the U.S.-Mexican border was misspent.

He ultimately learned that the money had gone to other projects in violation of congressional directives.

Cape, who was put in charge of wireless communication in the Southwest region in 2004, says he grew frustrated when he learned he couldn’t put in place basic systems that would enhance border security.

The money was supposed to be used for weather balloons to carry radio repeaters for reliable radio service, wireless computers for agent’s vehicles and wide-area radar already being used by the U.S. Marine Corps near Yuma, Cape said.

Cape, who has filed complaints with his department’s inspector general and the independent Office of Special Counsel, believes that technology lapses have made the southwestern U.S. border vulnerable to terrorist infiltration.

Border Patrol agents interviewed by the Tribune and its sister paper, the Orange County Register, wouldn’t comment directly on Cape’s concerns.

But they readily acknowledged that the more technology they can get to do their jobs, the better.

"Our agents are very versatile, and if they get new equipment, they use it," said Border Patrol supervisor Gustavo Soto of the Tucson sector, which covers the longest stretch of border at 261 miles. "They just have to make sure it’s sturdy and can take the punishment that we put it through every day."

ALONG THE FRONT LINE

The rugged terrain of southern Arizona is unforgiving to agents on patrol and illegal border crossers alike, yet the state’s border has become the nation’s hottest area for human and drug trafficking.

Several border security initiatives have pushed even more illegal crossers into Arizona as other popular crossing points in California and Texas have beefed up their border infrastructures in recent years.

Agents at Yuma station, who patrol the far southwestern corner of the state, log more apprehensions than any other Border Patrol station on most days, with more than 110,000 apprehended since Oct. 1. Last week, 367 people were caught in a 24-hour period.

On a daily basis, they track footprints through the rocky hills of Andrade, Calif., just west of Yuma, scour the high fences of urban San Luis and drive the sand dunes and marshy river banks of the outlying areas.

Two hundred miles to the east, agents at Nogales station are struggling to keep up with record numbers of drug smugglers who carry large loads of marijuana on their backs through meandering canyons and high hills.

Much of the area close to the border is monitored by camera operators who watch the desert through an advanced system of cameras staked atop 50-foot poles.

Dispatchers alert agents when a camera catches activity and direct them to the exact spot for apprehension.

Sensors triggered by vehicle and foot traffic are also in place on the hundreds of dirt roads, trails and fencing that lace the desolate landscape.

It was a sensor that prompted a Border Patrol helicopter to check out the remote Calabasas Canyon near Nogales on Friday.

The sound of its rotors sent a group of 10 or more people scattering into the hills in all directions, but not before they dropped their heavy loads — an estimated 600 pounds of marijuana worth $500,000 that was later recovered.

As a pair of agents trudged deep into the canyon in pursuit, they ran into a recurring problem.

The communications center was not receiving their radio traffic, and the agents instead had to switch to two-way handheld radios so they could at least communicate with each other during the search.

"Sometimes we can’t get a clear signal. All you hear is static," Soto said.

"It’s still transmitting, you just can’t get it out. We’re limited by the highest peaks of the mountains," he said, referring to the radio repeaters sprinkled through the region.

They have the ability to move mobile repeaters into trouble areas and switch to repeaters used by other stations, but it still doesn’t penetrate the canyons.

The weather balloon repeaters — that could have been provided by the money earmarked last year by Congress — would hover 65,000 to 80,000 feet above the desert to ensure reliable radio service anywhere, even to the deep canyons and low areas along the Colorado river banks.

The dead spots are a safety concern; a lone agent who comes faceto-face with a large group of immigrants, armed drug smugglers or terrorists in these areas has no way to call for backup.

But Gramley, an 11-year veteran of the Yuma station, says agents do the best they can.

"You’ve still got a job to do," he said. "Clearly, calling for backup is not an option. You go after them — there will be runners, and you take the ones that you can into custody.

"Most are good people. They’re not here to kill people or sell drugs, but you never know who it’s going to be."

In the Nogales area, agents work in pairs as they patrol farther from civilization. Often, one has to climb a hill just to be able to communicate with base.

"The agent who made the arrest can stay in the canyon and send the other agent up the side of the hill to get better reception," Soto said.

Earlier this summer, two Nogales agents were shot when they were ambushed by a large group in a nearby canyon.

Luckily, their radios worked, and other agents were able to come out from the city to help, Soto said.

But as with the drug smugglers this week, the suspected gunmen scattered through the rolling hills and eluded capture.

Agents say part of the reason people often get away is lack of manpower.

But new technology such as wide-area radar — also part of the budget appropriation already passed by Congress — could be invaluable in tracking suspects through the canyons or sighting illegals hiding in orange groves, junkyards and car lots that hug the border.

The radar system, with a range of about three miles in every direction, is already used at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, where border crossers who trek through the potentially deadly Barry M. Goldwater bombing range are an everyday liability.

When the radar detects people in the area, the range must shut down all operations until military personnel or Border Patrol agents find the group or can ensure that the area is clear before training missions can resume, Gramley said.

A Marine Corps spokesman said he could not comment on the technology for security reasons.

A NUMBERS GAME

Just on the other side of the high fence in San Luis, Mexico, near Yuma, dozens of pairs of eyes watch the two Border Patrol agents who wait on the levee at dusk.

The eyes are always there, people paid by smugglers to scout the milelong stretch for even the smallest window of opportunity.

With a sprawling neighborhood only a couple hundred yards away, a few moments is all it takes for a successful banzai run over the fence and into the open before the crossers are well-hidden among houses.

"Groups will wait and build up," Gramley said as he scanned for "bodies," the agents’ term for illegal crossers.

"They’re watching us. Then they will try it at night just after dark."

It’s a numbers game here on the border as the understaffed agency does its best to hold back the sheer volume of illegal crossers each day.

"These fences aren’t meant to necessarily stop entries," Soto said as he drove along the 20-foot fence constructed of Vietnam-era landing mats in Nogales.

"They’re meant to give us more reaction time."

On the Nogales, Mexico, side of the fence just across the port of entry, the sentiments of several Mexicans are graffitied in Spanish: "Fronteras: Cicatrices en la tierra," meaning "Borders: Scars in the Earth."

The San Diego border sector added a secondary fence and stadium lights to its front line recently, and the border at San Luis is expected to do the same to help reduce the brazen runs that can quickly overwhelm agents. Stadium lights installed just eight months ago are already helping.

"We were getting smoked," Gramley said. "It’s difficult with that many people running around."

It is not just Mexicans crossing, either.

The number of people from around the world who are entering near Yuma has spiked dramatically, with 1,700 so far this year compared with 200 last year.

The majority come from Central and Latin American countries, such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Brazil and Honduras.

But they can come from countries with terrorist ties as well, something that has Cape, the federal whistle-blower, deeply concerned.

Cape said applying wireless technology not only bolsters the chances of stopping terrorists before they cross the border, it also provides security for the agents working the front lines.

"There’s always the fear," Soto said. "Our primary mission is to defend the country against terrorists and weapons of mass destruction from coming in."

The likelihood of an agent being assaulted continues to grow, whether it’s from gunfire, smugglers throwing rocks at them over the fences as a distraction or drivers ramming patrol vehicles in an attempt to avoid capture.

Some relief is in sight.

Hundreds of agents still in training will soon be assigned to posts along the Arizona border.

With the added manpower also comes the need for more technology for agents, including nightvision goggles and handheld GPS devices, which agents already carry.

Cape concluded that wireless laptops were needed in all vehicles so agents could run identification and license plate checks without tying up dispatchers.

Wireless laptops are a common tool for most police departments.

Gramley said vehicle computers would be a great asset, as long as they could take the wear and tear of the back roads.

"I don’t know how they’d handle the abuse," he said as he bounced up a makeshift road on a steep rocky mountain in a four-wheel drive.

Permanent highway checkpoints also don’t have computers to check the thousands of cars that pass through daily.

The Nogales checkpoint that can be moved up and down along Interstate 19 has an outmoded satellite computer that is rarely used, and agents instead call communications officers on cell phones for their numerous checks every hour.

CONGRESSIONAL SCRUTINY

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., sits on the House Committee on Homeland Security, which is investigating Cape’s accusations.

Sanchez said Democratic staffers have already begun making inquiries into Cape’s contention that money that should have gone for computers, reliable radios and radar was spent elsewhere.

She said it’s important that the money be put to its intended use.

"Because of the long borders we have, we can’t physically check them all the time," Sanchez said. "We need to rely on the new technology we have to help us."

Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., turned the matter over to the committee after the Tribune reported July 31 on Cape’s complaint.

Hayworth called the situation "deadly serious" and said it is critical that money meant for border technology is properly spent.

Hayworth and Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz., also enlisted the aid of Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of an appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security and a frequent critic of the agency’s spending.

If the House Committee on Homeland Security finds some validation of Cape’s claims, there will likely be a congressional hearing, Sanchez said.

In the meantime, agents will continue to hold the line as they always have — the best they can.

On Wednesday, agent Jeremy Campbell left the San Luis levee that overlooks the border to relieve another unit for only a minute.

A group of seven began to sneak through a hole under the fencing.

When he returned, they huddled motionless on the American side of the fence, hoping the agents didn’t spot their entry.

All Gramley and Campbell could do was wait and see what the crossers would do next, and after 20 minutes, the group "spooked" and ran back into Mexico.

"What you can see and what you can catch isn’t the same thing," Gramley said. "You can chase them across the border all night. They’ll be back."

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