... 2c74e.html

Border Patrol stops immigrants in their tracks
With high-tech gadgets available, 'sign cutting' still a reliable technique

12:00 AM CST on Sunday, January 8, 2006
By ALICIA A. CALDWELL / Associated Press

FABENS, Texas – Agent Juan Galaviz had just started his morning patrol shift when a U.S. Border Patrol dispatcher called. A group of illegal immigrants had tripped one of the thousands of underground motion sensors along the Texas-Mexico border.

Agent Kevin McCrary finds footprints at the U.S.-Mexico border. The Border Patrol has used 'sign cutting,' or studying physical clues, to catch over 22,000 illegal crossers in two years. Agent Galaviz immediately steered his unmarked Chevy sport utility vehicle toward a patchwork of fields, pecan orchards and irrigation canals in Fabens – a favorite spot for illegal immigrants sneaking across the border just east of El Paso – to where other agents were on foot, looking for signs left by the group.

Markers – footprints on otherwise untraveled dirt roads, water splashes along canal walls – are the tools agents use for "sign cutting," a centuries-old technique for tracking people. For agents with millions of dollars in technology at their disposal, knowing how to track a person by following footprints in the sand, broken tree branches or even overturned rocks can be the most valuable tool.

In the El Paso Sector, which covers two West Texas counties and all of New Mexico, sign cutting has helped catch more than 220,000 illegal crossers in the last two years, according to the Border Patrol.

"It's kind of something that we always fall back on," said Kevin McCrary, a senior Border Patrol agent who has worked in the Santa Teresa, N.M., area about 10 years and trains other agents on how to track immigrants.

The key, Agent McCrary says, is to find fresh signs and to get ahead of the illegal crossers. Once agents have a trail, the goal is to surround the crossers and make sure they don't get away.

As Agent Galaviz joined the hunt near Fabens recently, his eyes darted back and forth, looking for any signs of life as he drove south while using a two-way radio to get direction from his colleagues.

"What kind of sign are you finding?" he would periodically ask the other agents. He was trying to get a better idea of how many sets of prints or even what kind of shoes the migrants were wearing.

He stopped occasionally, glancing at footprints only to find that they looked to be at least a day old.

Every Border Patrol agent is trained to track this way, but Agent McCrary, an 18-year Border Patrol veteran, said the only way to get good at it is to practice.

"Sometimes the simplest forms of skills will give you the most mileage, and certainly sign cutting is one of those," said Doug Mosier, an agency spokesman.

Along with direction, footprints can indicate travelers' size, whether they are carrying a heavy load or if they are in distress and dragging their feet through the sand, Agent McCrary said.

Rain and wind sometimes erase footprints, but other times they help agents determine the age of a footprint that's not completely obscured, he said.

Illegal crossers use a variety of tricks, though, to throw agents off their path, such as using tree branches to brush out their footprints or to disguise which direction they headed.

One group strapped foam cushions to their feet, said Agent Galaviz, a nine-year veteran who patrols near Fabens, a popular crossing point because it's close to neighborhoods where crossers can blend in easily or quickly make their way to Interstate 10 to escape the area.

"I guess one of them, his feet were too big, and he left a toe print," the agent said. It was a toe print good enough to follow, and the group was eventually arrested.

One group even carved cow hoof prints in wood and attached them to their sandals, McCrary said, but such tricks can be cumbersome, slow and almost too uniform to really get the job done.

"Any time you see regularity in nature, it probably is not going to be natural," he said. "I don't think nature has as much regularity as manmade things."

Footprints aren't the only sign. Agents McCrary and Galaviz said they can track a group by spotting overturned rocks, revealing soil that is darker where the rock was sitting. Broken branches and trails of trash also can help.

When the crossers in Fabens set off the underground sensor, agents found their footprints within minutes. The fresh trail led agents along a maze of deep irrigation canals. Mud tracks on the cement banks of one canal and matted brush helped give away the hiding place of 13 illegal crossers. Agents arrested them within 30 minutes of the sensor going off.

When Agent Galaviz arrived, the last of the group was being escorted out of the canal while other agents canvassed the area to make sure they hadn't missed anyone.

Agent McCrary said such arrests are common, and usually all agents have to do is look for the signs.

Recently, agents working in Santa Teresa, used sign cutting to follow a set of tire tracks leading north from the border to a stolen truck that had its tail lights covered with tape. Authorities arrested a 20-year-old Mexican national and seized 1,387 pounds of marijuana, worth about $1 million.

"If there's tracks, there's going to be somebody," Agent McCrary said.