Desert Invasion - U.S.


Underequipped, isolated and overwhelmed agents struggle to hold the line

By Kristina Davis, East Valley Tribune, August 14, 2005

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

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....

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....

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....

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....

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

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....

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...

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.

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