The Other Story

Different means to trespass border tell another tale

When border security comes to mind, people typically think of long lines at border crossing stations, fence lines, and the reported apprehension of illegal immigrants. Although those quintesssential images accurately depict daily life at the border, they certainly don’t tell the whole story.

During the 1990s in the San Diego area, a morning southbound commute toward the border routinely met with the sight of hundreds of illegal aliens walking north. Today, a person taking the same commute would be hard-pressed to see any illegal foot traffic.

Along with the increased number of agents, the 60- mile stretch of near-impervious border fence has dramatically stemmed the flow of illegal traffic into the San Diego area.

No doubt, the successes in the San Diego area should be celebrated, and many residents, no longer tackling the large influx, are doing just that. However, this same success has caused both the bad and good guys to change their tactics. It has prompted smugglers to operate in fewer, more-remote areas, use violence and engage in more elaborate strategies.

On Dec. 14, 2010, U.S. Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry was killed in southern Arizona by five armed bandits. According to agency statistics, Terry was the third agent killed in the line of duty this past year; 34 have been killed in the past 15 years.

Terry was assigned to a specialized unit of the CBP to counter cartel-related smuggling operations of people and drugs, and bandit activity where criminal elements are taking advantage of migrants and smugglers alike. So, both Terry’s mission and passing at the hands of bandits are an icon of the evolving and violent aspects of the border. Below are examples of smuggling activities on the rise.

Vehicle concealments. A traditional method but an increasingly risky one for smugglers, concealing contraband and illegal passengers is still par for the course. To mitigate the risk, smugglers are continuously changing how and where they place the contraband. Smugglers are placing migrants in unimaginable locations, such as engine compartments, dashboards or faux walls of tractor trailers. Narcotics are typically concealed in these areas, too, but they also are stored in anything from car tires and fuel tanks to undercarriage components.

Tunnels. Another way cartels are circumventing border security efforts is tunneling. From fiscal 2008 to 2009, the number of tunnels crossing the border increased 62 percent, according to the Department of Justice. No solid estimates exist to determine the value of these tunnels to the cartels, but it’s clear that they provide easy entrance to the United States for thousands of undocumented immigrants and millions of dollars in smuggled narcotics.

By sea. A scenario once common only to southern Florida, abandoned boats are now popping up on the shoreline of southern California. In other cases where the boats are being recovered, people are taking U.S. boats across the border under the guise of fishing trips only to leave the boat with cartel members and then later meet it with its cargo at a California boat ramp.

Interior foot traffic. Another improvement for border security is interior border checks on major thoroughfares.

These checkpoints are proving successful at nabbing loads of contraband. However, crafty smugglers are unloading migrants at predetermined drop-off locations just prior to the checkpoints. The migrants then travel on foot to a pickup point for retrieval by the smugglers.

Bribes and blackmail. In much the same way intelligence agents operated during the Cold War, cartels do their homework by identifying proper agents responsible for key points of entry. They later seek out how they might bribe or even blackmail the agents for cooperation. Similar to the cartels, an inside asset means easy traveling for the cartels.

Intelligence. In addition to securing and using inside information, some cartel members’ sole function is to gather intelligence on border security operations.

Some forms of intelligence-gathering can be as simple as monitoring points of entry and feeding to smugglers real-time information about the best lanes to use. Others include diligent efforts to identify undercover vehicles, habits and agency capabilities.

Staging houses. Once inside the border, smugglers will stage both contraband and migrants. The smugglers’ preferred buildings are normal, everyday houses in quiet neighborhoods.

Kidnapping and threats. Especially in southern Arizona, cartels are kidnapping people at rates estimated as high as one per day. Cartels are using victims for the purpose of demanding straight cash payments from relatives and also for conscripting the relatives’ service in smuggling operations. Sometimes, in lieu of kidnapping, cartels will simply threaten violence against a person’s family members to gain their service.

As with mob operations, members of cartels are not released from service and continually operate with the knowledge that they or their family members will be killed for leaving.

Gaps exploited. Just 37 miles east of San Diego is the Carrizo Gorge Railway, which runs north and south and handles both passenger trains and cargo crossing to and from Mexico. The railway’s border crossing is accomplished via a tunnel. To allow for normal passage of trains, this tunnel is unsecured, which makes for an easy point of entry for the smugglers.

On the southern side of the fence, this tunnel is considered property of the local controlling cartel, which guards the tunnel with armed members to keep out competing cartels. Migrants wishing to make passage must first seek permission and pay a fee.

The cartel’s use of the Carrizo Gorge tunnel includes foot traffic as well as “rail speeders” that allow for deep and quick interior penetration. These rail speeders are constructed using material such as bed frames, lawn tractor wheels and engines. Rail speeders can operate to speeds beyond 50 mph and as they launch at night leave little opportunity for border security agents to know the passage occurred or apprehend them. The use of rail speeders is yet another sign of how innovative and determined smugglers are in finding alternate means to traffic their goods.

The response. Given the progression in the smugglers’ tactics, agencies tasked with securing the border are evolving as well.

No longer are agencies limited to uniformed officers creating a visible deterrent and a reactionary force. Agencies are developing unique attributes and taking the best of notes from other law enforcement agencies and the military.

Investigations. A little-known but more notable change in recent years is the increased use of investigation teams. These teams are conducting interdiction and denial activities similar to the way the DEA fights drug rings and the FBI undermines organized criminal elements.

Seeking to eradicate cartel assets and other large illegal enterprises in the interior, CBP has formed investigative branches such as the Smuggling Interdiction Group. Operations include undercover missions, monitoring interstate traffic, locating drop-off points and stage houses, and stemming the flow of southbound cash and weapons.

Airborne operations. In 2005, CBP commissioned the Office of Air and Marine, which included 260 aircraft. Today, the OAM operates 290 unique aircraft modified not only to meet the security needs but also for the medical aid of injured migrants in remote areas. Taking benefits of airborne enforcement one step further, CBP is now using one of the military’s favorite tools, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The UAV is delivering the benefits of force multiplication with long loiter capability, stealthy operation and high-end thermal imaging. CBP is operating seven UAVs, and trends indicate future purchases.

Marine operations. In addition to intercepting the illegal flow of undocumented migrants and narcotics, CBP plays a vital role in providing a strong defense against terrorism. The agency employs 250 vessels from 80 locations throughout the world. In 2009, it increased investments by establishing 11 new marine units.

SWAT operations. CBP has continued to increase its tactical capabilities through its SWAT team known as BORTAC, which has been in existence since the 1980s. BORTAC team members fulfill the role of a typical SWAT team by conducting raids and providing specialized assistance to mass disturbances. With their specialized training and many members having experience in military special operations, the teams also are used for long-duration field surveillance and enforcement of critical traffic zones.

Politically speaking, it’s probably safe to say that no one has the answer. Will border fence construction continue? Will additional agents and vital funding be added? Will there be a relaxed immigration policy?

What is clear is that no matter the course, there will be a continued drive toward using technology-borne forcemultiplication tools that drive costs down and increase the flow of information and response.

Thermal. Already seeing use in border security operations, thermal imaging devices will likely experience an even greater use. In recent years, the cost of thermal imaging technology has dropped significantly, while costs for resolution, optics, storage features and durability have increased. Just a few years ago, handheld imagers retailed at $11,000 per unit, but today they’re available for nearly half that price.

A single handheld imager in the hands of an agent tremendously shifts the odds of spotting smugglers. Unlike other technologies, handheld imagers do not require that the target move in order to detect it. A target under view of a thermal device puts off a far greater heat signature than normal environments do, leaving little chance of successful concealment.

In many environments, thermal imagers are so sensitive that fleeing suspects’ footprints and discarded contraband are plainly visible.

Intelligent video surveillance. The mere presence of surveillance cameras delivers force multiplication on its own by allowing one person to monitor multiple sites quickly. However, progressive businesses and institutions worldwide are now harnessing the power of video analytics, which seems to be a viable tool for border security operations.

Unlike traditional sensing devices, video analytics devices are able to discern between benign and nefarious activity using programmed thresholds.

Such devices have already proven invaluable in Israeli border operations.

With analytic devices in place, agents’ attention can be devoted to alarms, rather than serving as the detector.

Wireless infrastructure. During the recent decade, several border surveillance initiatives and projects did not live out their full potential. One of the weak areas in an initiative of that scale is developing and maintaining a reliable, standalone wireless network.

Also during the recent decade, commercially available wireless infrastructure has become prolific, secure and reliable.

Additionally, wireless networks have transformed from simply carrying voice to now providing data for mobile computing.

Law enforcement across the country is quickly embracing the ease of access to commercial wireless networks. It allows even small enforcement teams to deploy surveillance platforms both overtly and covertly to monitor in realtime from anywhere.

It’s a tough job allowing the flow of legitimate traffic while keeping the border secure, being in the political crosshairs and keeping pace with evolving targets. It is necessary for readers to become informed about the increasing needs of border security and how they might lend assistance through ideas and technology.

After all, everyone is affected by border security, whether they know it or not.

This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue of Security Today.

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