Editor's Note: This piece was written 7 months ago, but is very relevant to today's headlines. It's long, but if you care about this issue you will find it plenty educational.
By Richard E. Hays and Stephen L. Wilmeth
For hundreds of years the desert of what is now Arizona has been the route of goods coming north from Mexico. The flow of merchandise was created by demand from citizens and settlers of del Norte, the expanse of territory generally north of the 54th Parallel. Over time, the goods became as often illegal as they were legal. Today, the goods passing through the rural, isolated expanse of sand, rock, and heat are more often than not, illegal. The circumstances and conditions surrounding the flow are dangerous, and the consequences of stemming the tide must be a national priority.
Since 911, the emphasis of border security has become a national debate. In fact, recent polls in Arizona indicate that 51% of residents believe that border security is more important than the national health care debate. In a margin of 65% to 20%, those same residents believe enforcing border security is more important than dealing with the legalization of aliens already in the United States. As distance from the border increases, these same questions don’t stimulate the same responses. The phenomenon of changing priorities as the distance from ground zero increases is clearly in play on the Mexican border.
Through time, the economics and the conditions of illegal entry have resulted in the evolution of dominant entry points along the border. During the late 80s and early 90s, due to the ease of entry within or adjacent to urban centers these areas became focal points for entry. Ultimately, the Border Patrol responded with organized enforcement tactics that concentrated activities at those points. Examples of this were El Paso, Nogales, and in the expanded urban area at Tijuana. When the El Paso operation was instituted the data was very clear. The incidence of illegal entry was reduced.
In 1994, Operation Gate Keeper was undertaken along the California urban border areas. The entry of illegals was dramatically reduced at the point of asset concentration, but a far different result occurred elsewhere. The success of halting entry in the urban areas was mirrored by the expansion of entry in the desert areas to the east. It was what the Border Patrol expected and wanted. Illegals would be easier to catch in open rural areas than they had been in the congestion of the urban centers in southern California.
"Organ Pipe statistics indicated that finding abandoned vehicles in the monument in 1994 was unusual. By 2001, they had reached nearly 150 per year. In 2003, National Geographic declared that Organ Pipe Monument was the most dangerous park in the United States. It got so bad that signs were posted in the park not to stop for dead bodies. It could be a trap set to lure unsuspecting park visitors!"Several conditions existed to support this reaction to Gate Keeper. First, the economic conditions north and south of the border only expanded the flow of illegal entry. Jobs were available north of the border. Second, Mexican Highway 2 ran adjacent to the border for miles into vast and isolated expanses. Third, the American invention of designated wilderness areas stretched for miles east/ west and north/ south along that boundary in national wildlife refuges and monuments managed by the Department of Interior (DOI). The soft underbelly of the American border was discovered.
The Wilderness becomes a dangerous place
By 1998, visitors entering Organ Pipe National Monument with back country permits were estimated to be outnumbered by illegal aliens trekking north by a two to one ratio. By the following year, the permits issued to park visitors had dropped in half and the number of illegal nightly visitors had nearly tripled. The monument had become a place to be avoided by American citizens.
The increased illegal entry also meant there was no longer a safe place for the illegals as well. The Border Patrol recorded five deaths in what they describe as the “West Desert Corridor” in 1998. By 2002, there were more than 130 deaths in the same corridor. This count is particularly alarming in that the deaths were occurring in the face of declining apprehensions in the Border Patrol sector as a whole. Deaths were running at the rate of about 40 per 100,000 apprehensions whereas five years earlier there had only been four deaths per 100,000 apprehensions . . . a tenfold increase!
Other statistics tied to crime were no different. Organ Pipe statistics indicated that finding abandoned vehicles in the monument in 1994 was unusual. By 2001, they had reached nearly 150 per year. Number of high speed pursuits, tons of marijuana captured, and illegal apprehensions in the park all reflected similarly alarming trends. In 2003, National Geographic declared that Organ Pipe Monument was the most dangerous park in the United States. It got so bad that signs were posted in the park not to stop for dead bodies. It could be a trap set to lure unsuspecting park visitors!
Organ Pipe Staff Quantifies Damage Left by Illegals
In the midst of the chaos the National Park Service, the managing agency of the Organ Pipe National Monument, embarked on an effort to quantify the damage being done to the monument. Their approach and their findings were interesting. They mapped transects across the monument on predominately east/west directions rather than north/south. Their logic was simple. They would be able to observe the north/ south illegal traffic more dynamically.
What they found was more impact on the monument in the designated wilderness areas than in the nonwilderness, fully accessible areas. Why . . . because Border Patrol and Park Service officials were limited in their ability to access the wilderness areas on a continuous basis. They didn’t have full and unrestricted access. Motorized access in wilderness areas is not allowed. The illegals were taking full advantage of easy access through areas preserved for posterity.
In an internal report done by the Park Service monument staff, very alarming results were presented. The most glaring example pertained to a representative one square kilometer parcel of land in the Valley of the Ajo. The following was quoted. “Results of a GIS model, based on transect data, of what a “typical” square km of valley floor habitat might look like to a monument visitor taking a hike.” The one square kilometer had transected indications of the following evidence of illegal impact on the monument:
1. Seven rest sites
2. 15 incidences of vehicle tracks
3. 40 sites of trash disposal
4. 48 discarded water bottles
5. one set of bicycle tracks
6. one set of horse tracks
7. three abandoned camp fire sites
8. 254 foot trails!
The report went on to quantify the establishment of “wild cat” roads which serve as access for drug runners. On a map in the presentation, 35 such illegal roads can be counted. That compares to 13 legal, established roads in the monument.
The Reciprocal or Mirror Effect
As the data was analyzed something very interesting began to emerge. The damage was not confined to designated wilderness areas managed by United States agencies on the north side of the border. What was occurring was that similar damage was occurring in desert areas adjacent to the international border on the south side of the fence.
El Pinacate, the “sister park” to Organ Pipe had become a staging area for illegal entry into the United States. In an aerial survey done for the purposes of mapping air strips used by drug runners, not only illegal airstrips were found, but roads and trenching done by the Mexican military to dissuade the establishment of the airstrips were being created in the fragile cinder landscape of the Pinacate Biosphere Reserve.
Twenty two airstrips were found that had been trenched by the Mexican military. Twelve other trenching sites were found that were intended to prevent the establishment of airstrips. Five illegal, “wildcat” roads were mapped, and six fully operational illegal strips were being used for loading and flying drugs north.
In addition, “colonias” continue to sprawl out along Highway 2 as the infrastructure is built in response to the business of moving goods and services north. Mountains of trash, extensive wood cutting, and vandalism to border fencing and facilities lead the Organ Pipe staff to write that the activity will “impact natural and cultural resources along the border”. Pictures of such activity lead any observer to surmise that the statement was understated at best.
The Greater Picture
Land agencies of the United States are charged with managing massive stretches of lands that lie near and adjacent to the Mexican border. The DOI through its various agencies alone manages about 47% of those lands in Arizona and 48% of the lands adjacent to the border in New Mexico. Every stretch of that land today is under assault from illegal entry with many areas that reflect conditions very similar to those in Organ Pipe. If Department of Agriculture lands (Forest Service) are added, the list is expanded.
Two additional examples include the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation and the Coronado National Memorial. The Tohono O’odham, administered by DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), is a reservation with a native Indian population that has an historical extension into Mexico. In that expanse of land, Tohono O’odham people do not have allegiance to powers north or south of the border. The native Indian population, originally known as Papagos, move back and forth across the border. Drug cartels have made permanent inroads into the area with cash and the promise of greater wealth. The BIA has little ability to deal substantively with the issues.
Further east, the Coronado National Memorial magnifies the risk that roadless border areas pose to the entire nation. In a 3 X 3.5 mile corridor, the Yolanda Molina de Hernandez Organization runs drugs like greyhounds on a racetrack. Once inside the monument, runners either go north or northeast into USFS lands and the Huachuca Mountains where there are over 70 miles of trails. Citizens who enjoy the adventures of an outdoor excursion know what this area has become. It is not for the faint of heart and it gives a new meaning to the Wild West.
"What they found was more impact on the monument in the designated wilderness areas than in the nonwilderness, fully accessible areas. Why . . . because Border Patrol and Park Service officials were limited in their ability to access the wilderness areas on a continuous basis."In both of these cases, the mirrored effect of infrastructure expansion seen at Organ Pipe has occurred. Where roads are absent and railroads are present, the drug cartels have established facilities and or terminals for staging and running drugs and humans north. The buildup of infrastructure is continuing. Airstrips are established, colonias are expanding, more roads into DOI and USDA managed lands have been made, and degradation of fauna and flora continues.
The El Paso Experience
In the first major effort aimed at reducing illegal entry in urban areas, Operation Hold the Line was started in El Paso in1993. Data from that operation indicates that apprehensions fell quickly from about 22,000 per annum to about 7,000 and stabilized near 9,000. What was not seen was the wholesale displacement to entry elsewhere as seen in the desert corridor of Arizona. What was occurring?
One prevailing expert theory is that at the time the illegals didn’t have the soft entry points through federal wilderness areas to fall back to. All New Mexico areas allowed fully motorized access by the Border Patrol and had “engaged resident ranchers” that lived and were constantly present on the expanse of border running west from El Paso. East from El Paso was even less accessible. Those lands are dominated by private land holdings with residents who constantly patrol and communicate with the Border Patrol and local law enforcement. Illegals were being monitored and constantly ran the risk of being in the path of American citizens who would and could report their presence.
Further evidence of this phenomenon was found in radar records of drug flights from Mexico. In Texas, the concentration of such flights and apprehensions of drugs is relatively sparse considering the expansive landscape across south Texas. New Mexico shows similar results while the Arizona situation is staggering. The situation there is akin to a full scale invasion by a foreign power. There, isolated federal lands made worse by wilderness designation are an outright threat to American security and well being.
The Theory Tested
In the Boot Heel of New Mexico, the Border Patrol installed a communication device on Big Hatchet Mountain. The facility handled sensor signals from the entire eastern half of the Boot Heel area. The device was placed without the consent of Bureau of Land Management (BLM). When word spread of the device’s presence, environmental groups demanded that the device be removed claiming that it would interfere with desert bighorn and the lesser and Mexican long nosed bats’ breeding and life cycles. The BLM, under pressure because the area is a wilderness study area, pressed the issue and the Border Patrol capitulated and removed the device.
For several years, the eastern half of the Boot Heel adjacent to a very dangerous Mexican border was without this device! When the Border Patrol finally got approval to put the device back into service some astounding data was found. From 2006 records, it was found that mechanical traffic had increased by 671% and foot traffic had increased by 348% from the same period the year before. Soft entry points are sought and found by illegal operatives along the border. When they are found the cartels take full advantage of them! In the case of Big Hatchet, the Border Patrol was denied full access and was operating with diminished ability because of environmental demands. American security and American people were put at risk.
The Opportunity for New Territory
Today, there is a continuing effort to designate wilderness on federal lands along the Mexican border. The Wilderness Society through its affiliated groups, the Sky Island Alliance and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, has proposed huge areas on and or near the border for wilderness legislation. Two of these areas, the Tumacacori Highlands of southern Arizona and the Potrillos Mountain complex in Dona Ana County, New Mexico are large isolated areas that pose the same risks to the United States as the Arizona lands already under siege.
The question becomes what will happen if wilderness is successfully legislated. In Arizona, what is going on all around the Tumacacori Highlands will expand. In New Mexico, the outright risk of duplicating the Arizona experience is fully in play. The American people must remember that the Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits motorized access and man-made facilities. Notwithstanding the promises of bastardizing that wilderness standard with “cherry stem” roads providing limited access, locals fear what will happen when the legislation reaches the committee hearings and horse trading in Congress. Any agreements made conditionally with local needs in mind will likely be altered, more roads will be closed, the Border Patrol will fight for access, and the drug cartels will find a new soft underbelly of access into the United States. The protection in play with the combination of resident ranchers, state and local law enforcement, and the Border Patrol will become constrained and conditional. What is arguably the sole reason the Arizona experience hasn’t been duplicated in New Mexico will be forever altered.
The New Mexico component even has some of the characteristics of the Arizona model. In addition to the vast areas of federal lands, Highway 9 runs parallel to the border. Experience with trucks being loaded at staging areas in Mexico and crossed to be unloaded at points along that road becomes the same kind of opportunity. What makes matters even more dangerous is that a portion of the northern boundary of the proposed Potrillo Mountain Wilderness area is formed by an ultramodern east-west transcontinental rail line just 24 miles from the border. The specter of accessing that major east-west transportation line with a weapon of mass destruction provides a heightened security risk.
The Lessons Unlearned
When legislation designating more wildernesses on the U.S. border is heralded by environmental groups and Mexican drug cartels alike, American leaders need to reassess their position. It isn’t the casual visitor to Organ Pipe, Cabeza Prieta, or segments of the Coronado National Forest making new roads, trashing the travel corridors, setting fires, poisoning water holes, and carrying AK-47s. The American visitors are the only people who will follow the rules and honor the spirit of wilderness as it was intended. Those big, blacked out Jeep Gladiators that are running across desert wilderness areas at night are not occupied by folks who are maintaining a bird identification list nor do they care in the least about any fragile cinder cone formation. They are just glad that the chances of encountering a Border Patrol agent or any other American who has a vested interest in maintaining the integrity of the lands are limited because of the restrictions placed upon that agent or that citizen.
What is more insidious is the manifestation of our actions on like areas to the south of the border. The El Pinacate phenomenon needs to be reviewed. When our lands are being ravaged by an onslaught of humanity and our actions have unwittingly created the same devastation across our borders because of the infrastructure and policing actions that are taking place to combat it, shame on us for our idealism. In this case, we run the risk of having met the true enemy, and . . . he is in our midst.