Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Increase in Border Attacks, Smuggling, and Deaths at Texas’ Big Bend Region

Build the freakin' wall already, sheesh.

 At LAT, "Could the Big Bend in Texas be the border's weakest link? Smuggling of drugs and migrants is on the rise":
Two Border Patrol agents bent to study the sandy dirt like animal trackers — what they call "cutting for sign."

They didn't have to look far.

Just yards from the Rio Grande, Agent Lee Smith pointed to footprints and scraps of carpet. Smugglers tie carpet to their shoes in hopes of covering their tracks, he said. Smith followed the rough trail through thick brush, his fellow agent close behind, wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a long gun.

They saw no one. But the agents sensed smugglers watching, waiting.

"They come right across. What's here to stop them?" Smith said.

Sometimes smuggler scouts cross on horseback: The muddy banks are pocked with human and horse tracks. The river here, about 60 miles east of El Paso, is just a few yards wide, one of the reasons Border Patrol agents in Texas' Big Bend region have seen troubling increases in smuggling, attacks on agents and migrant deaths in recent years.

"There's hundreds of these crossings just in our area of operation," Smith said. "The drug cartels, they own this part of the land. We have conceded large swaths of the border. There are areas where there are not agents for days."

He called the vast Big Bend "the absolute weakest link on the southern border."

The natural barriers beyond the river that made the landscape a stunning backdrop for "No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood" and "Giant" were also supposed to protect it. Or at least that was long the assumption of U.S.officials. There's the river. There are mountains — the snow-covered Chinati, Chisos and Davis ranges.

There's the Chihuahuan high desert, the land full of prickly cat claw and temperatures that soar above 100 degrees on summer days and dip to below freezing on winter nights. And for many years, smugglers avoided Big Bend, that part of Texas where the border makes a gentle swoop south before swinging back north.

But smuggling routes shift according to the dictates of criminal organizations, often in response to border enforcement. In the late 1990s, border traffic moved from Southern California to remote desert stretches of Arizona; by 2013, it moved east again to Texas' Rio Grande Valley, the epicenter of migration and enforcement ever since.

But now new routes are opening up to the west, in Big Bend.

"As things in the Rio Grande Valley get tougher to cross, they're looking for other places, and this is a spot that over the past few years has become established for smuggling," said Border Patrol Agent Rush Carter, a spokesman for the agency in Big Bend.

Just as migrants once tried to cross the Arizona desert unprepared, Central Americans are arriving in Big Bend without cold weather gear, abandoned to the elements by smugglers. Migrants tell agents that smugglers advertise the area as an easy crossing, the least patrolled stretch of border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection divides the southern border into nine sectors. Big Bend is the largest: 135,000 square miles, 510 miles of river, a quarter of the entire southern border.

The sector stretches north to include 118 counties in Texas and all of Oklahoma. Yet it has the smallest staff of any southern border sector, about 500 agents assigned to a dozen stations and several highway checkpoints including one in Sierra Blanca, notorious for large drug busts. That's fewer agents than have been assigned to a single station in the Tucson sector, Smith said.

President Trump has promised to add 5,000 Border Patrol agents, potentially doubling Big Bend staffing, but with high turnover, agents said that they would still be spread thin.

With such a small staff, agents usually patrol alone, with hand-me-down technology from other areas, including radios so spotty agents have erected makeshift cell towers in the brush to boost reception. Sometimes they just yell.

They don't have observation towers along the border as in the Rio Grande Valley, and their single aerostat blimp hovering overhead, unlike those used in the Valley, is not equipped with infrared technology, Smith said...