September 7, 2001

The Border Patrol's El Paso Sector

by Greg Bloom, FNS Editor

Historical Background

It can be argued that current Border Patrol, border-control strategy originated with Operation Hold the Line in 1993 in the area between downtown El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. In that operation, launched in September, 1993, sector chief Silvestre Reyes forward deployed his agents along the corridors most used by people trying to cross illegally into El Paso from Cd. Juárez. While the year concluded with the El Paso sector's 600 agents having made 285,781 apprehensions, by 1994, with Hold the Line still in place, the number of apprehensions had dropped to 79,688.

While some immigrant-rights and human-rights groups opposed Hold the Line, it was considered a success by the Border Patrol. After Hold the Line came other Border Patrol operations such as Guardian that sought to keep people from moving illegally between the border's large twin cities. Again, these later operations were also deemed Border Patrol successes but many human-rights and immigrant-rights groups still stand in opposition to a border-control system that they believe forces immigrants into the hands of frequently dangerous, professional human traffickers and/or into dangerous crossing zones in deserts and arid mountains.


Along the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez Border

Ciudad Juárez viewed from across the Rio Grande. The river is hidden by grass.

South of downtown El Paso there is a dirt road that runs between the railroad tracks and the Rio Grande. Access to the road is restricted to railroad crews and the Border Patrol and on a Friday afternoon things appear to be quiet along the river which at this point in its run, below a major diversion for agricultural water, is not much more than a wide, calm stream bordered by a few trees and high grasses. Border Patrol agent Robert Cordero points out lights and camera towers that follow the road and says that the lights were recently installed to protect agents operating in the area and people on the Cd. Juárez bank of the river. Cordero explains that people sometimes wait on the Mexican side of the river to take advantage of would-be border crossers. Robbery, rape and murder have been some of the illegal acts committed along the river in the past.

Following the road a little longer it comes to parallel Paisano Drive where Cordero says that low-level drug traffickers known as "mules" sometimes quickly cross the Rio Grande and then pull across 50 pound sacks of marijuana. The "mules" then throw the bags onto Paisano where people arrive in trucks to retrieve the marijuana. For their work, and for exposing themselves to a couple of minutes of risk in the US, the traffickers receive between US$50-$100, according to Cordero (this compares to the approximately US$25 someone might take home at the end of a week's work in a US-owned maquiladora in Cd. Juárez).

Further down the road there is a narrow steel and wooden bridge that leads to Border Marker Number 1 near where the three states of Chihuahua, New Mexico and Texas meet. The large white, graffiti-covered, cement obelisk that serves as the marker is close to the river and sits at the beginning of the land border between Mexico and the US (east of the marker the dividing line between the two countries is the middle of the Rio Grande). Strangely, there is no border barrier near the marker and one can move freely back and forth across the dividing line. The marker's surroundings would seem to speak volumes about the distinct personalities of each nation. On the US side of the border there is a low fence about knee-high that might prevent vehicles from driving from one country to the next. On the Mexican side of the marker there's a little, slightly littered park with some nice, big, shade trees.


The Detention Center

A little bit back from the river, and essentially under the Cordoba bridge that connects Cd. Juárez and El Paso, is the detention center where the Border Patrol holds Mexican citizens that have accepted voluntary return to their country. According to Cordero hardly anyone refuses voluntary return. The only other option is to enter legal proceedings that can takes weeks if not longer to complete and can result in deportation. Once someone has been deported they risk being prosecuted for felony illegal reentry if they come back illegally to the US. This is not something most would-be immigrants want to face.

Cordero says with a laugh that he has had people tell him that they want to accept voluntary return because they know they will be back in Cd. Juárez in a few hours and can try to cross to the US a few more times over the course of the day. Cordero has a good sense of humor about the fact that he and other agents frequently catch people only to have them come back a few hours later. He also recognizes that not all undocumented people apprehended in the US can be prosecuted due to crowded court and prison systems. Prosecution in illegal immigration cases is usually reserved for human traffickers or people with a prior US criminal record, he says.

Inside the detention center there are separate holding areas for men, women, and minors. These areas are built against the back wall of the facility and the front of the cells are made from thick pieces of a transparent plastic. In the middle of the room are desks for the agents that run the facility and IDENT machines that identify people by their fingerprints. The use of the IDENT system means that people cannot hide their identity by giving aliases to the agents as some did previously.

Cordero says that on average people might spend a couple of hours at the facility before a Mexican immigration official comes over the bridge to get them and take them back to Mexico. Back in Ciudad Juárez the people are questioned to make sure they are all truly Mexican citizens and if not the OTMs (Other Than Mexicans in Border Patrol lingo) are sent back to El Paso where they are again dealt with by US authorities. Cordero explains that even though non-Mexicans might have entered the US through Mexico they must be sent back to their country of origin by the US.

Unaccompanied minors detained in the US teleconference from a special room in the detention center with their consulate in El Paso and are advised of options available to them before they go back to Mexico. This is part of a program to assure that minors are not released into dangerous circumstances in Cd. Juárez.

In a cabinet to one side of the room Cordero points out shelves full of juice, granola bars, diapers and formula. These goods can be given to people that are dehydrated or hungry or have problems with their babies. Overall the detention center appears clean but well used—sort of like a 24-hour, chain restaurant.

Near the food-storage cabinet is the room where some of the sector's cameras and sensors are monitored. Whenever a sensor is triggered an alarm beeps on a computer and an attendant must investigate. Television-like monitors ring half of the room and show whatever a camera is pointed at from atop the camera towers. The image from one camera can be brought on to a larger screen directly in front of one of the room's two attendants and this image is recorded on a VCR-like machine. To give an example of the cameras' resolution an attendant zooms in on a small stone near Border Marker Number 1. The rock can be seen in detail—even though it is located at least one hundred yards from the nearest camera tower.


The Border Patrol's El Paso Sector

With its main office in El Paso, the El Paso sector is responsible for all of New Mexico and the two western most Texas counties, Hudspeth and El Paso. In 2000 approximately 1,000 agents apprehended over 115,000 people. According to Border Patrol Public Affairs Officer Doug Mosier, the sector has twelve stations located in El Paso, Fabens, Fort Hancock, and Ysleta, TX and Alamogordo, Albuquerque, Carlsbad, Deming, Las Cruces, Lordsburg, Truth or Consequences, and Santa Teresa, New Mexico. In 2001 the sector employed 1075 agents.

The El Paso sector of the Border Patrol also has six highway checkpoints. At these check points, which are inland from the border on major highways and roads, Mosier says that all vehicles are inspected although they are not necessarily subjected to a full search. The agents at the checkpoints are not only on the look out for undocumented people but are also watching for drugs. The Border Patrol is allowed to make drug arrests and seizures because it is cross-designated with the Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

While the Border Patrol does have an anti-smuggling unit that targets international human traffickers, agents do not go into other countries, according to Mosier. At most they use informants to develop their cases. The Border Patrol also has no drug-interdiction taskforce meaning that it does not develop investigations against drug traffickers, producers or vendors. When the Border Patrol makes a seizure everything is turned over to the DEA—cars, drivers, drugs, etc. The DEA then prosecutes the case.

Check points are only one mode of apprehension for the Border Patrol. Its agents also try to deter and apprehend people through air operations, line watches (which include agents alone in trucks watching the border), bike patrols, horse patrols and a remote video surveillance system which is monitored twenty-four hours a day. Numerous sensors of different sorts are also used along the border to detect undocumented people and Mosier says that in the future cameras and sensors will be integrated so that cameras will automatically turn to the spot indicated by sensors.

Horse patrols have been a traditional part of the BP since its 1929 origin and Mosier states that they still play an important role in daily operations. Since 1998 the Border Patrol has had a Border Safety Initiative aimed at saving border crossers that are in physical danger. Mossier stated that horses, with their keen senses, can often alert agents to people in distress long before humans pick up on such signs.


Criticism of the Border Patrol

According to Mosier, the Border Safety Initiative seeks to prevent migrant deaths by posting warning signs in dangerous areas, running ad campaigns about the dangers of crossing to the US, installing lighting along the border and running search and rescue missions. Mosier states that in the year 2000 the Border Patrol rescued 239 people from rivers, mountains and deserts. However, while the Border Safety Initiative may have the best intentions, the Border Patrol's self-positioning as an immigrant-rescue group is often criticized by human-rights and immigrant-rights groups along the border. These groups maintain that it is Border Patrol operations like Hold the Line and Guardian that prevent people from crossing through cities and force them to try their luck on risky desert and water crossings.

Other criticism aimed at Border Patrol revolves around bike and vehicle patrols through predominantly Mexican-American communities and Border Patrol ride-alongs with local law enforcement such as city police and county sheriff officers. Groups such as El Paso's Immigration Law Enforcement Monitoring Project have complained that some women are afraid to call for help in domestic violence situations because they fear that a Border Patrol agent might show up and apprehend an undocumented member or members of the family. When asked about such a scenario, Mosier stated that he believed victims of domestic abuse would be happy to have any law-enforcement agent arrive during a time of need.

Responding to criticism that the Border Patrol is not welcome in predominantly Mexican-American towns in the sector, Mosier stated that shop owners in small towns and downtown El Paso like the presence of Border Patrol agents because they help keep down crime. "Merchants love them," said Mosier about the Border Patrol bike-patrol agents that go through communities and added that "people aren't intimidated in general" by the Border Patrol.

Mosier's statements are supported by the comments of Blanca González who lives in the Las Palmeras colonia between Berino and Anthony. When asked if she noticed a Border Patrol presence in her community, González stated that she sees a lot of agents for a while, especially around harvest time, but then they disappear for a long time. "They don't bother me," she said about the Border Patrol agents, "It's good that they come around. They have to carry out the law."

However, González does believe that local law-enforcement calls in Border Patrol when they believe someone is in the US illegally. She also maintains that law enforcement in general wrongly believes that everyone in the colonias is undocumented. That is not true, she says.


Collaborative Problem Solving Program

Facing community complaints and dealing with them is something that the Border Patrol realizes that it must do. For example, in response to criticism that agents were driving too fast in Columbus, NM the Border Patrol held a meeting there and heard that it was not being sensitive enough to residents. Open dialogue with the community helped, according to Mosier, and the Border Patrol agreed to slow down its vehicles in the area. Other such programs have resulted in Border Patrol agents getting feedback and perspective from lawyers, immigrant-rights groups and others that have differences with the organization.

However, there is only so much the Border Patrol can do in response to criticism. For example, Mosier stated that a few people that attended the Columbus dialogue wanted open borders between the US and Mexico. "That's not our decision," he said.

Mosier notes that in 1997 the El Paso Sector received a civil-rights award from an organization composed of the chiefs of police from around the country. They were given the award because of their standards for openness, the availability of complaint forms and their willingness to meet with groups that are at odds with them.

Regarding criticism by environmental groups that Border Patrol is disrupting fragile, critical desert habitat with its patrols and road building without having done the proper environmental studies, Mosier said that the Border Patrol does do required studies and that completing them is "never really a problem." The Border Patrol has to be sensitive he said and "impact studies do get done."


Community Programs

The Border Patrol seeks to integrate itself into the communities where it has a presence, according to Mosier. Its Pride Unit goes into public schools to talk to children about peer pressure and not using drugs. A sector honor guard, established in 1998, participates in local parades and has 24 volunteers. A Youth-of -the-Month program, which results in the selection of a Youth-of-the-Year, took a Gadsden High School student to Santa Fe, NM to meet Governor Gary Johnson. Also, local citizens can attend a six-week long, one-day-a-week citizens academy to learn about Border Patrol duties and life and the training that Border Patrol agents undergo.

The Border Patrol also seeks to be a good international neighbor as well. One example of this is that the Border Patrol trains Mexican rescue crews in water rescue techniques. For a cost of US$2,000-$3,000, that the Border Patrol absorbs, it can train 120 Mexicans in a series of one-day classes. The instruction of 15 people per day goes from the classroom to the practical, Mosier said, and is an important part of what the Border Patrol does along the border. Not too different from other law enforcement agencies, businesses and organizations along the border, the Border Patrol wants to have an active, positive role in the civic life of the areas where it operates.

Frontera NorteSur, On-line news coverage of the US-Mexico border.

Return to the Frontpage