By Reyes Mata III
Posted: 02/26/2012 08:50:09 PM MST

Border Patrol Agent Gilbert Molina tightens the saddle on his... (Matt Robinson / Deming Headlight)

DEMING — Illegal immigration — once comprised primarily of groups of peaceful family travelers — has streamlined into smaller packs of younger, more aggressive men who use the remote desert region beyond the urban border to smuggle people and drugs into the United States, say some agents who patrol this area.

These younger illegal immigrants, some carrying 50 pounds of drugs for several days, travel in groups of two to five and evade capture by heading quickly to the mountain canyons of the Texas-New Mexico border, agents from U.S. Customs and Border Protection say. If these illegal immigrants are to be caught, agents say, it's best done before they reach a cavernous maze where the stone ground makes tracks harder to follow and the rocky terrain blocks them from view.

To do that, agents are using a tool familiar to the Southwest.

"For the mountain regions, we use horses," said Bobby W. Stephens, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent, who spends at least ten hours a day tracking illegal entries into the country.

"With horses we can go a lot faster, and can bring it to a law enforcement conclusion a lot quicker," said Stephens, who is stationed in Deming. "We don't have as many people getting away from us with the horses."

Brought back to action 14 years ago, the horses have been assigned to 61 agents to patrol the El Paso sector, which covers 268 linear miles of the international boundary. This patrol region covers all New Mexico, and includes 88 miles along the Rio Grande between Santa Teresa and Fort Hancock, Texas, and 180 miles of land boundary between Lordsburg and Santa Teresa.

The race to the mountain canyons is becoming increasingly familiar to agents looking to stem illegal immigration and drug smuggling, which last year saw more than 45,000 pounds of illicit drugs confiscated in the El Paso sector area.

An increase in agents — from 11,000 to 21,000 nationwide since 2005 — a border fence, and more advanced tracking technology in urban border areas have left only the strongest segment of immigrants willing to venture to the least populated areas of the border for a push into the United States, agents said.

There are 2,700 agents in 11 border patrol stations in the El Paso sector.

And, in the Texas-New Mexico region, these illegal immigrants try to outmaneuver agents by veering toward the mountains as soon as they suspect they are being tracked.

"They cross the border and head for the mountains. I have tracked groups that are going straight across the desert, on flat territory, then they do a complete 90-degree turn to get into the mountains and follow the mountains," said Stephens. "They are using the mountain range to stop us."

A new, more aggressive type of illegal immigrant

The personality type of the illegal immigrant is different now, agents say, because only those immigrants who feel they can handle the arduous desert trek are taking the chance.

"You are talking about younger men who are taking more risks than the average person," said Lorena D. Apodaca, an agent with the communications division of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

This type of boldness, she said, represents a more serious threat to agents who are trying to stop them from entering the country.

"They might be inclined to show more aggression," Apodaca said of the new immigrants. "The risk is higher when you are talking about apprehending these younger men."

Stephens agrees.

"Before it was a lot of families, a lot of women, lots of children. Now it's more young men, anywhere from 18 to 30 or 35 years of age usually coming through now," he said. "With family groups, they knew they were caught, they did everything they were told. There were no problems at all. Now there is a lot more risk. They do tend to fight you, resist your apprehending them."

The horse as a tracking tool

In remote areas along Texas and New Mexico, agents usually don't witness people entering illegally. They see evidence — a campground, footprints, overturned rocks — and then begin the process of tracking them, which can last anywhere between several hours to several days, and range in length from five to 15 miles of tracking each day.

"What we do is we go out and look on the border for foot signs coming across. Then we follow it. We used to follow on foot," said Stephens. "Now with the horse patrol, you get a foot sign, then you put a horse to trot, which is three to four times what a man can walk," he said.

It's a slow process where even a single weed out of order could mean a change of direction. Tracking with a vehicle, rather than a horse, would not allow an agent the opportunity to see the detail on the landscape that often times is evidence of a smuggler's tricks.

"A lot of times, especially across (dirt) roads, they take brush and try and brush away their tracks because they know agents will be looking," said Stephens. "If you are on horses, and on the trail, it doesn't matter. (Agents on a horse) will pick up the trail later."

Once the trail is secure — or once agents see the people they have been tracking — a horse makes the chase much quicker than if agents were on foot, as they were previous to the horse unit's implementation.

"If you are tracking a group, you can only walk as fast as they can. So it's very hard to catch up with them without a horse," said Stephens.

Why are the numbers of illegal immigrant apprehensions dropping?

In 2006, more than a million people were arrested trying to enter the United States illegally. That number has been steadily dropping. Last year less than 340,252 people were arrested trying to illegally enter the United States. Along the Southwest border, agents arrested 1,071,972 illegal immigrants in 2006. That number steadily dropped to 327,577 apprehensions last year. In the El Paso sector — which includes New Mexico — agents stopped 122,256 illegal entries in 2006. Last year's number was a little more than 10,000.

Immigration apprehension figures have dropped because of "historic levels of personnel, technology and other resources," said Doug Mosier, spokesperson for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Add to that, Apodaca said, is what the Border Patrol calls "enhanced prosecution" against people caught trying to come into the United States illegally.

"People coming in illegally, we will prosecute them and deport them," she said. "Whether it's their 50th time coming in, fifth time, or first time."

The El Paso sector follows this prosecution model vigorously, she said, as compared to a time prior to 2006 when agents had more discretion to consider unique circumstances before deciding who they would prosecute.

All of these factors combine, officials said, to create a pyschological deterrent to illegal immigration, which is stopping immigrants from attempting an illegal entry and leading to the decline in illegal immigration figures.

The decrease is largely attributed to the Department of Homeland Security's 2005 decision to peg onto its budget an extra $4 billion to incorporate the Secure Border Initiative — a coordinated effort to increase the number of Customs and Border Protection agents and bolster the department's infrastructure and technology.

Only the strongest are traveling the desert

Word spread through the immigrant community that more agents and better detection technology was being used in urban border areas, officials said. This meant an illegal trip into the United States would have to be made in remote areas that entailed a walk "between 25 and 45 miles" through rugged terrain, said Stephens.

"A lot of it is through mountains, all of it is through the desert," he said. "Typically it will take them two days from the time they cross to the time where they get to where they need to be picked up by a vehicle or stashed in a house somewhere."

The people best suited to make such a physically demanding trip are the young men. In years previous to this, an entire family would make the illegal trip. Now, only the young men typically take on that challenge, agents said.

"Before, you would catch grandmothers, mom, dad, children. But hardly not anymore," said Gilbert Molina, a border patrol agent who joined the mounted patrol six years ago. "In the last three or four years things have definitely changed."

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