Peeking Beyond Hampton Terrace: My night on the Juarez Border, Pt.2

culvertAs Jeff and I were walking into the Border Patrol station to fill out my “Release of Liability” paperwork, I asked why they would allow people like me to ride along.   Jeff said that his job is misunderstood by the general public and that the Patrol considers it good public relations to allow responsible people to witness what they do and talk about it.

My first thought was that somebody might allow their 22-year-old girlfriend to ride a shift with them…but knowing what Jeff went through to become an agent, and after meeting a number of them through the night, I came to the conclusion that these guys (and women) are too professional to do that.

Border Patrol is Federal Civil Service, so most agents are military personnel transfering to civil service, or state/local police desiring to move to the federal payroll.   The vetting process is beyond thorough…Jeff had to take tests, and survive interviews and background checks.  It only takes one compromised agent to let something catastrophic into this country….

Jeff attended Border Patrol Academy in Artesia, New Mexico for three months.   His class started at 50 and shrunk to about 30 through attrition…some could not pass the classes and some could not handle the physical training.   Like Paris Island, he said.  Then he had to learn Spanish in 8 weeks.   More attrition there.   During his training, Victoria and Emily stayed with us at Hampton Terrace.

His assignment was El Paso.   An agent is assigned…and has the option of passing up on the first one…but must take the second or be discharged.   Most agents are in the middle of nowhere, so Jeff decided that it would be better for Victoria and the girls to be in a real city while he worked.    He spent his first year on the midnight shift.

So our shift started benignly enough.  As the rover, Jeff had no specific place to be.   While the sun was up, I got the tour.border_patrol  There is a gravel road, only open to agents, which runs the border.  On one side is the Rio Grande ditch (called the “south”) and on the other side is the canal and whatever fences happen to be on that stretch (called the “north”).   The actual border is the middle of the Rio Grande.  And there are a number of people hanging on the south side…..walking their dogs, kicking soccer balls, or “spotting.”   Jeff pointed out a few.   Every night there are waves of crossings and the spotters scope out where the agents are perched.

Every several hundred yards a Border Patrol Cruiser is parked with an agent watching that section.   The job is complicated by the fact that a pristine containment is not possible.   El Paso is considered desert but there is an annual rain deluge.   So there are culverts that run under the border in multiple locations for water drainage.  All have metal grates, but Jeff says there is not a grate out there that has not been compromised.   Once people get beyond the grates they can surface anywhere…even at the Sun Bowl on the campus of UTEP, several miles north.  Some of these culverts are so traveled that agents are assigned around the clock at the north ends.

border_carThere are also railroad trestles and bridges.  In the dark of night undesirables steal along the bridges, cut the wire fence, and drop on the American side.   This is usually accompanied by broken bones, but that is the price some are willing to pay to get in.

We drove the length of the border road.  We stopped a couple of times to chat with agents.  Jeff pointed out the places most popular for attempts, so when the action started, I could already envision what was happening.

As soon as the dusk began, and the sun was a red line on the horizon, the radio started to chatter.  “This is 342.  Two bodies north at 19.” “Roger 342.” “342 here, they are at the fence.” “Got that 342.”  “371 reporting five bodies south at 30.”

North means they are north of the Rio, but not necessarily over the fences or the canal.  South means they seem to be hovering and should be watched.

agentsJeff explained to me that the cartels are behind much of the nightly mayhem and they coordinate to try to overwhelm the defenses.   The most activity is right after sunset and right at the mid-night shift change.  Sometimes they will send a half-dozen people to a certain point as decoys while they try to sneak a single with a backpack of drugs through another seam.

“371, we have two bodies in the canal.  I don’t see the other three.”  “Roger 371.”  “392 here, I see three bodies in the baseball field heading east.”  “Roger 392, cut them off west.”

The dispatcher is a female voice, coordinating the radio traffic. Also, there are a number of automatic sensors, constantly going off.   There are usually set off by the agents driving and walking around…so if a sensor goes off, the dispatcher calls the sensor number: “3278point2.”  99% of the time an agent will respond, “371 Bravo,” which means he acknowledges setting it.   If no response, then the closest agent will dispatch.

Jeff got several calls of that nature.  In one case, while I sat in the car, he and another agent thoroughly searched a ditch and culvert entrance that had a triggered alarm.   They did not find anything.

fence_001About an hour after sunset things went crazy, as Agent Siegel told me they would.   Sightings about 4 places at once.   The expected markers:  19, 30, the pumphouse.   Jeff and I put on the lights and went to the section where 5 were spotted “north.”   A helicopter had swooped down and floodlights were lighting the canal, which was between two fences.   Agents were running across the field, flashlights scanning for anyone who might have made it over the northern fence.   North of that was another canal and fence.    We heard agents on the site asking for ropes to pull the suspects out of the water and for extra cuffs.   I was at the fence taking video (but the action was too far off and dark to share).

Meanwhile, we heard report of a sighting in the second canal.  The two are connected by a culvert so Jeff assumed that while the five were being caught (possibly being decoys) others were running up the culvert into the northern canal, where they could jump the second fence.

We pulled up to that section and Jeff turned on his searchlight.  Right there in front of us was a woman hanging in the barbed wire section of the fence.   Another agent had already seen this and was coming down the slope behind her to cuff her.  For the next thirty minutes Jeff and I cruised the length of the canal and through the adjoining neighborhoods with the searchlight on.  The woman proclaimed she was alone, but it seemed unlikely.   If she was one of six, why would five men would be caught in the first canal and the lone woman would make it 100 yards further north, over the second canal and to the final fence?   She was literally 2 inches from illegal entry, except for getting her pants caught on the wire.   Jeff suspected she was with several more, who likely will never be seen again.

A little later Jeff got a phone call from his supervisor asking him to pick up one of the five detainees and take him to the hospital.  One of the detainees had messed up his hand pretty bad on the fence.   But this detainee had gored his chest on a fence post.night_patrol

Civilians are not allowed to be involved when detainees are being transported, so my evening was over.   Jeff dropped me off at his apartment and finished out his shift, which went overtime several hours.  In these cases, Jeff cannot let the detainee out of his sight, and in fact, has had to stand in the operating room numerous times.

In that shift, they ended up arresting 8 people.   Jeff says in his two years, the most he can remember is 28 arrests and 75 turnaways.   He says there is action pretty much every night.

Most of these people are fingerprinted and photographed, but sent right back into Mexico.   If drugs are found, however, they end up in the American criminal justice system.

Thanks to my daughter, Victoria Vining for editing together my video of the evening.