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Danger and Alarm on A New Alien Gateway

4 minute read
Richard Woodbury/Agua Prieta, Mexico

It’s a moonless night, and Jorge Macias Onate, a Mexican border-police officer, knows he’ll be busy as he eases his Dodge Ram along his country’s porous border with the U.S. Soon his headlights pick out four scraggly youths preparing to scale the 12-ft.-high steel fence that separates the town of Agua Prieta from Douglas, Ariz. As he slows the pickup, the teenagers scatter like rabbits toward the sagebrush. “Wait! Don’t run! We’re not here to arrest you,” yells Macias. “We want to help you. The problem is on the other side.”

Macias and two colleagues are members of Grupo Beta, a federal unit set up to protect U.S.-bound migrants from bandits and warn them of dangers north of the fence. The officers can’t arrest the youths for trying to cross into the U.S.; that’s no crime in Mexico. Instead, the officers hand out bottled water and pamphlets describing the perils that await to the north, including dehydration and scorpions.

Such dangers are especially acute in the remote Sonoran Desert of eastern Arizona. Because of U.S. border-patrol crackdowns elsewhere, the Sonoran section has become the busiest corridor for illegal immigration. So far this year, U.S. officers have caught 350,000 illegals there, up 25% from last year. Officials estimate that more than twice that number got through, to Phoenix and points beyond. As the traffic has mounted, so have the casualties. All told, 154 migrants in the Southwest have died this year from heat exposure, drowning and accidents–a 30% increase over 1998.

None of the warnings seem to faze Arturo Rodriquez, 21, who has traveled three days in a bus from Chiapas with his cousin Javier and two buddies for a chance at a new life. “I’d rather die than go back,” he says. “I can make as much in a month in the fields”–about $1,100 after taxes–“as in a year back home.”

Rodriquez and his friends scout the fence for a hole big enough to wedge through. Strolling with the youths, Officer Macias cautions them to watch out for bandits and flash floods. Farther on, the cops come upon a bedraggled family from Veracruz and talk them out of attempting to ford a flooded arroyo. Though Grupo Beta cannot prevent migrants from crossing, it has moved against the “coyotes” who guide them, arresting 90 in three years. But the special teams themselves are widely suspected, by migrants and U.S. lawmen, of taking payoffs from the smugglers. “They go after us, but they can be paid off,” says Juan, 14, a smuggler’s apprentice lounging in the courtyard of an Agua Prieta hotel that is bustling with people preparing to cross. The youngster collects $50 a head for leading migrants the last few hundred yards over the border.

Once there, they may meet Roger Barnett, whose 22,000-acre ranch sits astride the migration route to Phoenix. He occasionally dons a badge reading RANCH PATROL and jumps in his pickup with an M-16 rifle and 9-mm pistol to guard his spread against trespassers. By his count, Barnett has corralled hundreds of aliens and marched them to the border patrol since last year. “It’s a jungle out here,” says the cattleman, trudging through mesquite fields littered with plastic jugs and soiled diapers left by illegals. Larry Vance, a utility-company technician, climbs a 30-ft.-high watchtower in his backyard to spot aliens crossing his 20 acres. Says he: “You’ve got to understand that this is an invasion.”

The U.S. border patrol has responded by pouring in scores of new agents. The greater surveillance has driven up the cost of guided passage to Phoenix to more than $1,000–triple the price a few years ago. But still they come. “The only real solution is in Mexico,” declares Douglas Mayor Ray Borane. “Their government needs to address the flagrant trafficking of humans for profit.” Indeed, the traffic has been an economic boon for Agua Prieta, whose 1998 population of 120,000 has swelled an additional 100,000. In the past two years, 15 hotels have opened or started construction, primarily to provide lodging for U.S.-bound job seekers. One of them, Jose Bueno Montano, 33, who was caught by the U.S. border patrol and returned to Agua Prieta on the two previous nights, vows, “I’ll keep coming and trying until I make it.”

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