Part 1: The Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector

By Greg Bloom, Frontera Norte Sur Editor

Historical Background

It can be argued that current Border Patrol, border-control strategy originated with Operation Hold the Line in 1993 in the area between downtown El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. In that operation, launched in September, 1993, sector chief Silvestre Reyes forward deployed his agents along the corridors most used by people trying to cross illegally into El Paso from Cd. Juárez. While the year concluded with the El Paso sector’s 600 agents having made 285,781 apprehensions, by 1994, with Hold the Line still in place, the number of apprehensions had dropped to 79,688.

While some immigrant-rights and human-rights groups opposed Hold the Line, it was considered a success by the Border Patrol. After Hold the Line came other Border Patrol operations such as Guardian that sought to keep people from moving illegally between the border’s large twin cities. Again, these later operations were also deemed Border Patrol successes but many human-rights and immigrant-rights groups still stand in opposition to a border-control system that they believe forces immigrants into the hands of frequently dangerous, professional human traffickers and/or into dangerous crossing zones in deserts and arid mountains.

Along the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez Border

South of downtown El Paso there is a dirt road that runs between the railroad tracks and the Rio Grande. Access to the road is restricted to railroad crews and the Border Patrol and on a Friday afternoon things appear to be quiet along the river which at this point in its run, below a major diversion for agricultural water, is not much more than a wide, calm stream bordered by a few trees and high grasses. Border Patrol agent Robert Cordero points out lights and camera towers that follow the road and says that the lights were recently installed to protect agents operating in the area and people on the Cd. Juárez bank of the river. Cordero explains that people sometimes wait on the Mexican side of the river to take advantage of would-be border crossers. Robbery, rape and murder have been some of the illegal acts committed along the river in the past.

Following the road a little longer it comes to parallel Paisano Drive where Cordero says that low-level drug traffickers known as “mules” sometimes quickly cross the Rio Grande and then pull across 50 pound sacks of marijuana. The “mules” then throw the bags onto Paisano where people arrive in trucks to retrieve the marijuana. For their work, and for exposing themselves to a couple of minutes of risk in the US, the traffickers receive between US$50-$100, according to Cordero (this compares to the approximately US$25 someone might take home at the end of a week’s work in a US-owned maquiladora in Cd. Juárez).

Further down the road there is a narrow steel and wooden bridge that leads to Border Marker Number 1 near where the three states of Chihuahua, New Mexico and Texas meet. The large white, graffiti-covered, cement obelisk that serves as the marker is close to the river and sits at the beginning of the land border between Mexico and the US (east of the marker the dividing line between the two countries is the middle of the Rio Grande). Strangely, there is no border barrier near the marker and one can move freely back and forth across the dividing line. The marker’s surroundings would seem to speak volumes about the distinct personalities of each nation. On the US side of the border there is a low fence about knee-high that might prevent vehicles from driving from one country to the next. On the Mexican side of the marker there’s a little, slightly littered park with some nice, big, shade trees.

The Detention Center

A little bit back from the river, and essentially under the Cordoba bridge that connects Cd. Juárez and El Paso, is the detention center where the Border Patrol holds Mexican citizens that have accepted voluntary return to their country. According to Cordero hardly anyone refuses voluntary return. The only other option is to enter legal proceedings that can takes weeks if not longer to complete and can result in deportation. Once someone has been deported they risk being prosecuted for felony illegal reentry if they come back illegally to the US. This is not something most would-be immigrants want to face.

Cordero says with a laugh that he has had people tell him that they want to accept voluntary return because they know they will be back in Cd. Juárez in a few hours and can try to cross to the US a few more times over the course of the day. Cordero has a good sense of humor about the fact that he and other agents frequently catch people only to have them come back a few hours later. He also recognizes that not all undocumented people apprehended in the US can be prosecuted due to crowded court and prison systems. Prosecution in illegal immigration cases is usually reserved for human traffickers or people with a prior US criminal record, he says.

Inside the detention center there are separate holding areas for men, women, and minors. These areas are built against the back wall of the facility and the front of the cells are made from thick pieces of a transparent plastic. In the middle of the room are desks for the agents that run the facility and IDENT machines that identify people by their fingerprints. The use of the IDENT system means that people cannot hide their identity by giving aliases to the agents as some did previously.

Cordero says that on average people might spend a couple of hours at the facility before a Mexican immigration official comes over the bridge to get them and take them back to Mexico. Back in Ciudad Juárez the people are questioned to make sure they are all truly Mexican citizens and if not the OTMs (Other Than Mexicans in Border Patrol lingo) are sent back to El Paso where they are again dealt with by US authorities. Cordero explains that even though non-Mexicans might have entered the US through Mexico they must be sent back to their country of origin by the US.

Unaccompanied minors detained in the US teleconference from a special room in the detention center with their consulate in El Paso and are advised of options available to them before they go back to Mexico. This is part of a program to assure that minors are not released into dangerous circumstances in Cd. Juárez.

In a cabinet to one side of the room Cordero points out shelves full of juice, granola bars, diapers and formula. These goods can be given to people that are dehydrated or hungry or have problems with their babies. Overall the detention center appears clean but well used–sort of like a 24-hour, chain restaurant.

Near the food-storage cabinet is the room where some of the sector’s cameras and sensors are monitored. Whenever a sensor is triggered an alarm beeps on a computer and an attendant must investigate. Television-like monitors ring half of the room and show whatever a camera is pointed at from atop the camera towers. The image from one camera can be brought on to a larger screen directly in front of one of the room’s two attendants and this image is recorded on a VCR-like machine. To give an example of the cameras’ resolution an attendant zooms in on a small stone near Border Marker Number 1. The rock can be seen in detail–even though it is located at least one hundred yards from the nearest camera tower.

End of Part I

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