Monday, January 24, 2005

Borders, Priorities Blur Along the 'Wild Frontier'

By David Kelly
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

COLUMBUS, N.M. — Frustrated by security crackdowns in Arizona, thousands of illegal immigrants and drug traffickers are flooding once-quiet New Mexico, making it the newest frontier in America's struggle to control its southern border.
Border Patrol agents who once caught handfuls of immigrants a day here now arrest 140 or 150 a night. Armed confrontations are increasing, high-speed chases have become routine and officials say they lack the resources to hold the line. At the same time, Mexican crime syndicates using two-way radios and sophisticated cellphones have American law enforcement under surveillance.

"They will call in our agent locations and spy on us at our base right here," said Colby Morgan, an intelligence officer operating out of the Deming Border Patrol Station, the largest in the state. "We haven't seen that before. They are getting at us from both sides of the border."

Palomas, Mexico, just across from Columbus, is a hub for smuggling cartels that view New Mexico as the easiest way to move people and drugs into the U.S.

And Deming, about 35 miles north, has become a distribution point.

The cartels' clout was evident last year when Palomas authorities tried to arrest a drug kingpin. Gunmen shot up the police station, torched the cars and sent eight officers and their families fleeing to Columbus in search of political asylum.

"We are a potential flashpoint on the border," said Rick Moody, patrol agent in charge at the Deming station. "There has been a gradual shift from Arizona to here. We have illegal vehicle crossings every day; fences are being torn down; our cars are getting hit with rocks. Ten years ago, this was one of the least active areas on the border; now it's the wild frontier."

In 2003, New Mexico arrested 48,633 illegal immigrants; in 2004 the number rose to 61,374. The Deming station saw apprehensions jump 26% last year, while the Lordsburg sector 60 miles west had a 109% increase. Border checkpoints like the one at Antelope Wells in far southwest New Mexico once averaged a single drug seizure a year. In 2004, it had seven. This month, border agents found 4,400 pounds of marijuana inside a pickup truck.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (news, bio, voting record) (D-N.M.) said the clampdown in Arizona was making his state "the preferred alternative for drug trafficking and human smuggling." He has requested more agents, vehicle barricades and cameras along the border. The Department of Homeland Security is looking into shifting resources to New Mexico.

"We have to increase staffing and security efforts all across the border," Bingaman said. "The idea that we can put our resources in one place and not see the problem move somewhere else is clearly wrong."

Others say such efforts are futile until there are better jobs in Mexico and stiffer penalties for those hiring illegal immigrants.

"New Mexico is the last frontier. The same cycle that occurred in Arizona is likely to repeat itself there," said Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Studies on Immigration at UC San Diego. "Supply and demand must be reduced; otherwise whatever we do is just a symbolic show of force."

For years, New Mexico's 180-mile border has been the least defended in the Southwest. Immigrants once preferred crossing into Texas and California, closer to major cities and transport centers. But crackdowns there funneled many into Arizona, now the busiest illegal crossing point in the nation, with 500,000 arrests last year. The state recently received $10 million in federal aid, unmanned surveillance aircraft and 200 new border and customs agents — bringing its total to 2,000 for about 370 miles of border.

New Mexico has 425 agents to patrol 14,000 square miles. Much of the border is unmarked and open — no fences, boundary lines or roads to show which side is which.

The Southwest New Mexico Border Security Task Force, a group of New Mexico and federal law enforcement agencies, issued a report in 2003 saying it didn't have the resources to adequately protect against drug dealers, illegal immigrants and "potentially weapons of mass destruction" crossing the border.

Border agents say they have run into heavily armed Mexican soldiers inside the U.S.

"I have found up to 10 Mexican soldiers in a Humvee on our side of the border," Moody said. "We don't know what they are doing here. They usually say they got lost. When that happens, we confront them and escort them back."

Some officials here think elements of the Mexican military are involved in drug smuggling.

The border is a quiet patchwork of farms, mountains and small desert towns. Federal agents depend on helicopters, underground sensors and camera towers to help cover the region.

Illegal immigrants often know the cameras' visual range, and cross where they can't be seen. Spotters sit atop hills in Mexico with cellphones to report which way cameras are pointing.

Life for the Border Patrol is increasingly hectic and dangerous. On a recent night, calls poured in from all over — groups of 30, 25, 10 migrants, coming from all directions. Only a third of those who cross are caught, agents say.

"A few years ago it wasn't so bad," said Border Patrol agent Jack Jeffreys. "Now you come to work and think, 'Maybe I won't be going home tonight.' "

Jeffreys was plowing through prickly pear in his Chevrolet Blazer, trying to catch a group of migrants outside Columbus. He jumped out and joined two other officers walking with flashlights.

They quickly found eight men, one woman and a 5-year-old boy hugging the ground. Their bags held Mexican passports, a cellphone with global positioning coordinates and water bottles full of raw garlic.

"They think garlic keeps away snakes," said agent Harry Brown. "A lot of these guys come from tropical environments and know nothing about the desert."

They were taken to a cramped processing facility in Columbus, fingerprinted and checked for criminal records. If the reports came back clean, they'd be released the next morning into Palomas.

"I came this way because it's easy," said Carlos Bueno, 35, nabbed while trying to reach Los Angeles. "There are too many police in Arizona."

The surge in illegal immigration here hasn't produced the vigilantism seen in Arizona, where armed citizens sometimes round up migrants. One reason is the relative dearth of people living along the border. The other is fear.

James Johnson helps run his family's 160,000-acre ranch with 15 miles bordering Mexico. Over the last few years, they've had their fences cut and their trucks stolen and seen smugglers ferry drugs over their land.

Vigilante groups have called offering their services.

"If we did that, it wouldn't be three weeks until one of our throats were slit," said Johnson, 29. "A lot of these vigilantes don't live on the border; they live in cities or towns where the people crossing don't know them. But these people know us."

Two years ago, he confronted some men in a truck on his property. "I asked what they were doing there," he said. "They pulled a gun, aimed it at me and said they could do whatever they wanted."

His father was robbed of his truck at gunpoint by men who fled to Palomas.

"I think 90% of the public thinks of the border as Tijuana or El Paso or the Rio Grande," he said. "They don't realize most of the border has no fence — no markings at all."

The biggest border community on the U.S. side is Columbus, a town of about 1,700 people three miles north of Palomas. It's a place of sandstorms and trailer homes, with a tiny downtown that quickly melts into the surrounding desert. The local police department — the chief and a pair of patrol officers — operates out of a rented two-room office.

Chief Clare May sees cars blow through town at 100 mph with border agents in pursuit. Stolen vehicles litter the roadsides, and drug and immigrant trafficking is rife among those in his community. Calls for assistance, often related to illegal immigrants, jumped from 450 in 2003 to 900 last year.

"We have drop houses here that will charge illegal immigrants $50 a night and house 15 of them," he said.

Locals can earn $1,500 to $3,000 transporting 100 pounds of marijuana to Phoenix, or $1,500 to smuggle an immigrant, he said.

May has taken his M-4 automatic rifle out on calls to back up border agents.

"The federal authorities know we are inundated, but their focus is on Arizona," he said recently. "This doesn't have to be another March 9, 1916," he said, referring to a raid here by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa that left 18 Americans dead. "But if they get by me and get by the Border Patrol and customs, then they're coming to you."

Across the border in Palomas, men and women huddled under trees in the plaza, waiting for nightfall. Many had arrived in buses from other parts of Mexico.

"All these people want to do is work and to fill the jobs the Americans don't want," said Rodolfo Vazquez, owner of a barber shop overlooking the square.

Five young men with backpacks sat on a broken park bench. One had been caught the night before by the Border Patrol and released in the morning. He grinned as he swigged tequila from an old motor oil jug.

"Tonight I will try again," he said confidently. "This time I'll make it."

Word was out, the men said: Arizona was too tough to cross, and New Mexico was easy by comparison.

"I hear the ranchers [in Arizona] get paid for every one of us they turn in and go to jail if they don't turn us in," said a man from Veracruz who refused to give his name.

They were waiting for a yellow school bus that came every evening, taking migrants out past the American security cameras.

Luis Sanchez, 23, was heading for Miami.

"I can work there and save my money so someday I can go back to Oaxaca and live," he said. "It's beautiful in Oaxaca. I have my house and my life there, but there is no work, so I come here. Maybe it's the last chance for me."

A man strode over and whispered angrily to the group, warning them not to talk to strangers.

They got up, bent their heads and walked into the twilight, waiting for their ride north.

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