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Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A suspect is taken into custody at a coyote stash house in Edinburg, Texas.

‘Coyotes’ who smuggle people across U.S.-Mexico border mostly Americans seeking money, drugs

BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS — Roofer Sergio Elidoro Garcia never intended to become an American “coyote.”

But the construction industry collapsed in 2008 and the man who helped build homes became homeless.

Garcia, 32, scrambled to provide for his fiancée and three children, with one more baby on the way, by hauling undocumented immigrants across the U.S. border for $50 a head.

“As it is in Brownsville, there’s no job but in smuggling operations or drugs,” Garcia said in a telephone interview from a federal prison in Memphis, Tenn., where he’s serving a nine-year sentence for human smuggling.

An eight-month project by a reporter with the Tribune-Review’s investigations team found that it is largely America’s unemployed, the mentally ill, drug addicts and people looking to make an extra buck who become the coyotes who help smuggle immigrants into the United States. They perform a wide range of jobs, including guiding illegal immigrants around law enforcement checkpoints and transporting them to stash houses, where they’re hidden from the police during a long journey north.

Three out of five coyotes convicted of human smuggling in federal district courts along the Mexican border in 2013 and 2014 held American citizenship, a Trib investigations reporter found.

Human smuggling is a labor-intensive operation. The typical smuggler is a white male of Hispanic descent, about 34 years old, with little schooling. Half suffer from addiction and mental illnesses, a rate twice that of other American adults according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

A Trib analysis of 3,254 federal smuggling cases in southern Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and southern California determined U.S. citizens are a critical element to success. Most were the drivers transporting the human cargo, or the “chequedores” scouting ahead for Border Patrol and law enforcement.

American drivers and guides are the primary means for smuggling the children and the elderly — immigrants unlikely to survive long walks across harsh terrain — through U.S. ports of entry.

Critics of American immigration policy contend undocumented immigrants are flouting U.S. visa laws to steal jobs, hiking taxpayer costs for medical care and schools. Others argue that immigration can boost the economy and applaud a White House proposal to raise the number of temporary work permits for low-skilled workers who have migrated here without documentation, creating a potential path to citizenship for an estimated 11-12 million people already here. Texas has filed suit to block a Homeland Security proposal to allow adult parents here illegally to stay and get jobs.

Immigration has become an early hot topic among 2016 presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

As a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, protecting America from unlawful entry became a national security priority. Strategically, Homeland Security and other federal law enforcement agencies sought to stop illegal immigration at official ports of entry or across the long borders with Canada and Mexico.

Officials estimate that three of every five undocumented aliens use northern Mexico to cross into America.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A Hidalgo County Deputy Constable stands near his cruiser with two female illegal immigrants during a raid on a suspected stash house just outside of Edinburg, Texas.

Today, most of those entering America along the border with Mexico flow through south Texas, fording the Rio Grande River in sparsely populated places like Starr County, before homegrown coyotes drive them 50 to 100 miles east through a gauntlet of local, state and federal law enforcement.

In the dense urban tangle from McAllen to Brownsville, others in the smuggling chain help the newcomers blend in or, more often, store them in “stash houses” like two that Garcia’s crew operated. Then other coyotes sneak them in vehicles or on foot to Houston, the 21st century hub from which illegal immigrants fan out across America.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Hidalgo County Deputy Constable Raul Salinas approaches suspected undocumented aliens during a raid on a home in Elsa, Texas.

The United Nations estimates that undocumented immigrants attempting to jump the border hire coyotes 90 percent of the time. The fees charged by the smugglers vary widely based on expenses -- mostly for feeding and transporting immigrants -- and the risk the coyotes run of getting caught by Homeland Security agents, court records show.

Although a small portion of illegal immigrants, Chinese nationals smuggled by car pay the highest prices — $88,000 each into Arizona, $60,000 into California. The prices are way above what it would cost to hire a lawyer to obtain a visa, immigration experts said, indicating they are entering unlawfully because the quota for those immigrants was met or they were otherwise denied entry.

Undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America pay far less. To go from a Mexican border city to Houston, about 350 miles, costs the typical illegal traveler about $3,100; $800 more takes them to most other cities, according to a Trib investigations analysis of court documents.

Like herding livestock

The likelihood of detention has increased in step with the growth of Border Patrol, the agency tasked with policing the vast spaces between official ports of entry.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, Border Patrol doubled in size to nearly 21,000 agents, all but 3,000 of whom are stationed along the border with Mexico. That’s more than nine agents for every mile of border from Texas to California, and the agency contends it never has been more effective at capturing coyotes and the illegal immigrants they bring in.

Officials point to the declining number of illegal immigrants testing border security. Over the past 14 years, apprehensions of undocumented aliens along the southern border have slumped nearly 71 percent, a level of illegal immigration unseen since the 1970s.

With a higher level of border security, coyotes like Garcia have come to regard trafficking as part hide-and-seek and part livestock herding, which makes sense in a multibillion-dollar industry that calls the immigrants “pollos” and “chivos” – Spanish for chickens and goats.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A teenaged illegal immigrant from El Salvador sits in a Border Patrol vehicle after being apprehended in McAllen, Texas. Once processed, she was transported to Virginia to be united with her mother.

In early 2014, the ringleaders in a group of 16 smugglers made an offer a homeless man like Garcia couldn’t refuse: live in a stash house for free with the pollos and collect fees their relatives wired to fund their stay and the next phase of their journey, a long hike around the Border Patrol outpost in Falfurrias, Texas, nearly 100 miles north.

To Garcia’s bosses, it made perfect business sense. Armed with a valid driver’s license and other identification, U.S. citizens can open bank accounts, buy groceries, collect wire payments and ferry human cargo with less risk of cops detecting them.

Classified criminal intelligence reports obtained by a Trib investigations reporter, along with reams of court documents analyzed by the newspaper, show that most smuggling cells operating on the U.S. side of the border are small, independent operations run by racially white but ethnically Hispanic bosses, who work with Mexican cartels and domestic street gangs.

In Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, intelligence reports indicate that 72 human smuggling organizations operate in the 50 miles separating the riverbank towns of Roma and Mission. Five gangs remain active near the Falfurrias checkpoint.

The typical smuggling ring operating on American soil allots one coyote for every three unlawful immigrants being smuggled, according to the Trib investigations analysis.

Coyote crews usually include an American driver or two to quickly overcome the vast distances of the American West before cops catch up; a stash house caretaker to feed the illegal immigrants when hiding out; a guide, usually Mexican, to navigate them on foot around checkpoints; and an American scout to watch for law enforcement along the routes.

An American driver gets paid about $840 per head to smuggle immigrants hidden in a vehicle through a Border Patrol checkpoint. Other American drivers shuttling immigrants from the border to stash houses or drop-off points near checkpoints make about $300 per person, the investigations team’s analysis of court documents showed.

A scout riding ahead earns about $450 per person and the stash house operator gets $250 for every alien that successfully makes it past Border Patrol, the same wage paid to the typical brush guide from Mexico.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Ruben Garza Jr., a Supervisory Border Patrol Agent, comforts two children as a bus they were traveling on was searched at the checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas.

‘Suicide loads’

Recruitment of American coyotes often turns on what law enforcement authorities call “the lure,” a pitch promising fast money or drugs for little effort.

“It was an acquaintance of an acquaintance. I had a driver’s license and debit card. I was asked, ‘Do you want to make a little money?’ I’d rent a car or fly to Texas and pick up some people,” said Pamela Joane Brill, 58, a widowed grandmother from Bullhead, Ariz., who was arrested in April near La Gloria, in the western stretch of the Rio Grande Valley.

Her lure: $3,700 to drive a van full of immigrants about 250 miles from the border to Ganado, Texas.

“They were already across the border. I didn’t think it was illegal to drive them once they were across.” Brill said. “When I got to prison I heard from people who are real smugglers. They told me that I was the decoy. That I was set up. But that’s not the way the prosecutors made it sound. They were trying to say that I was the mastermind.”

Called “suicide loads” because ringleaders count on cops to swarm these vehicles, the tactic allows a different shipment – sometimes narcotics – to drive past the dragnet in the confusion.

About a third of American coyotes caught along the border are women, based on the Trib investigations analysis of court records, but only 18 percent of the convicted ringleaders are female.

April Marie McBride, 28, a single mother from Austin, Texas, was a full-time student in 2013 when she was arrested “doing a favor for a friend” for $500.

“He didn’t tell me the risk. He just told me to go and pick up a few people for him — which wasn’t supposed to be 10 — and bring them back and he would give me a little money,” McBride said. “... I was in a tight spot at the moment, trying to move, and being a full-time student I figured it was worth it.”

Ronald Duane Tucker, 53, a diehard Cubs’ fan from Chicago’s North Side, went west to become a cowboy. Instead, he got hooked on cocaine in Tucson, Ariz.

“I needed work. A man offered me between $500 and $1,000 per head (to smuggle immigrants). It seemed like a fast way to get off the street,” Tucker said.

Ronald D. Tucker, an admitted coyote and cocaine addict who got arrested in 2013.

Two years ago and fresh out of drug rehab, his 1998 Lexus blew a tire near Rio Rico, Ariz., a 15-minute drive from the border. An Arizona Highway Patrol trooper pulled up behind him. Tucker had two Mexicans in the trunk.

“I lost my car. I lost two years of my life. I lost everything,” said Tucker, who is finishing a 20-month sentence in a Tucson, Ariz., halfway house.

Convicted in May as a coyote working a smuggling corridor in west Texas and New Mexico, Wilson Ivan Melgar-Marin, 34, was a Mexican roofer who illegally crossed the border to live with his wife, Angelica Rojas Medina, a citizen, and their children in El Paso, Texas. Her stepfather ran a human trafficking ring in neighboring Ciudad Juarez, according to federal court documents.

Speaking from federal prison in Mississippi, Melgar-Marin told the Trib that he and his wife became slaves to the organization.

“I was threatened to be killed,” he said, adding that his father-in-law “had us all monitored. He would tell my wife that if she would try to get away, he would take it out on me.”

Melgar-Marin said he didn’t have access to the money the operation took in. His father-in-law “would pay me whatever was convenient for him — $20 per person. And with that I don’t think I would’ve become a millionaire.”

The Ciudad-based cartel’s boss – unnamed in court documents — died in a Mexican prison in 2012. Serving a 77-month term, Melgar-Marin fears the dead patrone’s henchmen will kill him when he’s deported to Mexico, so he’s appealing the sentence.

Garcia, the coyote serving time in a Memphis prison, agrees with Melgar-Marin that smuggling kingpins often get sweetheart deals while lower-ranking coyotes incur long sentences. The bosses have information to trade with prosecutors and the pawns don’t, he and dozens of past and present smugglers told the .

“They tried to make me say something, to get a reduced sentence, but I couldn’t give them anything. I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even know their real names. All I had were nicknames,” he said.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A Border Patrol agent stands with a K-9 searching for smuggled illegal immigrants in a lane for tractor-trailers at the checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas.

Trade pact aided illegal immigrant smugglers

SARITA, Texas — Jaime Noe Vela nosed his tractor-trailer truck into the primary inspection lane of the Border Patrol station here, about an hour’s drive north of the Mexican city of Matamoros.

Sensing that the shipping seal slapped across the trailer doors was bogus, U.S. Border Patrol agents ordered the Houston-bound truck to the “X-ray” lot, where a mammoth machine scanned Vela’s rig.

Vela, 37, told a Tribune-Review investigative reporter that he was as shocked as Border Patrol to find who was huddling for warmth behind the refrigerator compressors on this Dec. 6, 2013, stop: 18 Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Mexicans, including a woman who was nine months pregnant, and a 9-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy, both unaccompanied by adults.

“You never know who’s entering the truck. You never see them,” Vela said.

The passengers paid coyotes $2,000 to $4,000 each for the chance to nearly freeze to death in a rig operated by Vela, a former member of the prison gang Syndicato Tejan who was fighting a losing battle with drug addiction.

Vela isn’t alone. In 2013 and 2014, federal courts from south Texas to Southern California convicted him and 93 other commercial truck drivers of human smuggling, a Trib investigations team reporter found. Seventy-five of those truckers were U.S. citizens. Most were white, middle-aged men living in Texas or small towns across the South, Illinois and Kansas.

When arrested, more than half were mentally ill or drug addicted, court documents show.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Border patrol agents search a tractor-trailer at the checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas.

Regulatory changes resulting from the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement slowly loosened restrictions on foreign, over-the-road truckers, allowing an increasing number from Mexico to transport goods into the United States and Canada. NAFTA also allows American drivers to pick up freight south of the border and haul it north, often with humans hidden in the cargo.

Federal investigators, anti-trafficking advocates and major shipping fleets are concerned about the growing role big-rig operators have in human smuggling. Experts worry many immigrants are bound for modern-day slavery: debt peonage, the sex trade, and other forced jobs.

Vela and the other drivers analyzed by a Trib investigations team reporter comprise only a sliver of the 3.6 million licensed truckers plying America’s highways, but federal law enforcement officials know that they play an oversized part in the trafficking of illegal immigrants.

When Border Patrol agents bust a semi driver, for example, the average load has 14 undocumented aliens onboard -- three times the size of the typical haul in a coyote’s car or pickup truck, a Trib investigative analysis of federal documents found.

In early 2014, Border Patrol agents in Laredo, Texas, freed 89 Mexicans, Ecuadorans and Dominicans after spotting a truck with fake license plates, weight inspection forms and bills of lading.

Twice before 2013, Vela had been caught with illegal immigrants onboard, and he went free. That’s because Border Patrol and other federal law enforcement agencies face what they call “prosecution thresholds.”

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Doyle E. Amidon, the Patrol Agent in Charge of Border Patrol's Falfurrias, Texas station.
In 2013 and 2014 throughout much of southern Texas, a trucker wouldn’t draw smuggling charges unless caught transporting six to nine adults — a number that shifts depending on the prosecutors’ caseload and the amount of federal detention space for undocumented aliens, said Doyle E. Amidon, 45, patrol agent in charge of Border Patrol’s Falfurrias, Texas, station.

“If he has five, he walks out the back door,” Amidon said. “He’ll be treated as an administrative smuggling case.”

Squeezing three illegal aliens inside the wind deflector above the cab or the rear sleeping compartment carries less risk of prosecution, but that’s changing in Texas. In Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Sector, for example, prosecutors add up all the immigrants a driver was transporting over the span of several incidents to reach the magic number for charges.

Over the past two years, Amidon’s Falfurrias station averaged a successful coyote trucker conviction every seven weeks, one of the highest prosecution tallies along the border.

Laredo’s coyote trucker conviction rate is even three times higher and stems from the city’s unique spot on the map: It links Mexico’s busy Federal Highway 85 with San Antonio, Dallas and Kansas City on a 1,568-mile journey north to Minneapolis, making it a preferred drug-and-human smuggling corridor.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Border Patrol agents at a checkpoint along I-10 west in Las Cruces, N.M.

A smuggling conviction can kill the careers of Texas truckers. The state’s “Texas Hold ’Em” law, begun in 2008, can permanently strip commercial operator licenses from convicted human or drug smugglers. The Texas Department of Public Safety and Gov. Greg Abbot’s office declined to comment on whether the initiative has deterred smuggling or to estimate how many licenses had been rescinded since the program began.

“I think I’m going to lose my license,” said Vela, who is serving his five-year sentence at a federal prison in Indiana. He said he thinks it’s an unfair hand to deal to ex-inmates trying to transition to life outside prison, especially those dogged by the addictions that drove them to commit crimes in the first place.

After a previous arrest, Texas temporarily revoked his license and ordered him to pay for substance abuse counseling.

“I had to go to classes. But I had no job. How do I pay for classes?” Vela asked.

“Finally, I got the money to pay. I went to the classes. All (the instructor) did was talk about deer hunting.”

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Hidalgo County Deputy Constable Michael Anzaldua assists in searching for a suspected stash house near Edinburg, Texas.

Illegal immigrants stashed in houses in U.S. hubs

HOUSTON – Northleaf Drive runs through a suburban neighborhood where residents manicure their lawns and hedges.

American flags flap near their front doors.

Kids ride bikes in a loop along roads called Heather Hills, Winding Trace and Cactus Flower.

To residents, the squat ranch on Northleaf Drive in northwest Houston seemed to fit in. True, no one seemed to know the names of the four men who lived there, off and on. But neighbors told a Tribune-Review investigations reporter that they were still shocked when, eight days before Christmas 2012, police surrounded the home, guns drawn.

“We got inside and locked the door, like they told us to do,” said Jim Gomez, 21. “We’d seen the guys there, but we never talked to them. We saw no one parked there. We saw no one coming or going but those guys.”

Inside the 1,700-square-foot house, officers found 43 undocumented Honduran and Salvadoran immigrants clad only in underwear, a tactic used by some stash house operators to keep illegal immigrants from fleeing atrocious living conditions or bolting before relatives can wire the final installment of their smuggling fees – what smugglers call the “buyout.”

Other smugglers rely on threats of being caught and deported to keep undocumented immigrants in line.

Police found one unescorted 5-year-old boy clutching a scrap of paper scrawled with his mom’s cell phone number, the only way to reach her.

The quartet of coyotes — an American enforcer who kept house discipline with a baseball bat; another American who gathered the wire transfers; a pair of cooks, from Mexico and Honduras – were heavily armed.

Stash house operators know that their human cargo usually can’t escape. And even if they do, they rarely go to the police because they’ll probably be deported. Ratting out smugglers for fraud, violence or sex crimes committed against illegal aliens can trigger similar reprisals on relatives back home, so they keep mum.

“But we don’t want Houston to become a hunting ground for the predators,” said Capt. H.D. “Dan” Harris, director of the Houston Police Department’s vice division and its new anti-trafficking task force.

The nation’s fourth largest city, Houston is about 350 miles north of the Mexico border. It’s become the top destination for illegal immigrants trafficked nationwide after entering the United States and a hub for moving people and money across the hemisphere, often using stash houses.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Hidalgo County Constable Sgt. Aaron Moreno walks through a stash house in Edinburg, Texas.

Detectives traced the Northleaf Drive ring to a criminal syndicate in Reynosa, a Mexican city along the Rio Grande River. Rival cartels, Los Zetas and Cártel del Golfo, split that city’s underworld. The immigrants freed by the police had been smuggled into the United States near Rio Grande City, Texas, transported from stash house to stash house across a jumble of towns to the east, and then taken north around Falfurrias, where Border Patrol mans a large highway checkpoint midway between Houston and the border.

In the Rio Grande Valley, stash house operations are becoming more violent, authorities say, with traffickers now stealing at gunpoint crowds of illegal immigrants being housed by rival gangs. Then they ransom off the people.

That tactic has yet to arrive in Houston but the number of traffickers employing fraud, coercion, starvation and force on illegal immigrants has become so bad that the city’s police in March launched a special squad of detectives to crack down.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, if you’re a victim, the Houston Police Department wants to know about that,” Harris said.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A woman, suspected of being an undocumented immigrant, holds a child as Border Patrol and constables search a home where she was residing in Elsa, Texas.

A Trib investigative analysis of 3,254 human smuggling convictions in federal courts that oversee the border from Houston to San Diego shows what Harris and his vice cops are up against.

The analysis found 82 coyotes in 2013 and 2014 who were found guilty of ransoming off immigrants. Fifteen others were alleged to have raped female immigrants inside stash houses.

Of those 97 convicted coyotes, 44 were arrested in the Rio Grande Valley, 29 in Houston, and eight in Falfurrias — the midway point, showing how stash houses work in the smuggling corridors and beyond.

A Trib investigations reporter followed local police and U.S. Homeland Security agents on stash house surveillance missions and raids across southern Texas, including a Dec. 10 roundup along Doolittle Road in Edinburg. Inside, cops found a dozen undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Illegal immigrants from Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador wait to be moved upon being discovered in a stash house by Border Patrol, Homeland Security and constables.

None was stripped to undergarments, but a woman alleged to officers that one of the coyotes had raped her.

Municipal detectives uncover sexual assaults and sex slavery frequently, often by tracing crimes reported to agencies far away from Texas stash houses.

Houston officers, for example, shuttered a Beechnut Street stash house after detectives in New Jersey contacted them to report an illegal alien in the sex trade. The officers then realized that the house had been used to shuttle illegal immigrants to West Virginia and Tennessee, too.

Houston cops most often start their surveillance after getting tips from relatives of the illegal immigrants who are being shaken down for more money. That’s how they discovered an Alameda School Road stash house and caught a crew of heavily armed coyotes trying to ransom a mother and her two children for $13,000.

The detectives rescued them and 112 other undocumented immigrants, according to court documents.

“The bad guys monitor what their neighbors do and all the traffic on the outside. They know what everyone’s patterns are. So they’ll bring their van in at night or when they know everyone’s not home,” said Houston Police Lt. Terry Horton.

To help identify stash houses, Horton said residents should look for windows that are boarded up, painted black or covered with towels. Smugglers often use video cameras to monitor outside traffic, and top their high fences with barbed wire. They cut down on trips to the grocery – and neighbors seeing their movements – by keeping gardens and chickens.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A room in a stash house that was holding 12 undocumented aliens in Edinburg, Texas.

American coyotes interviewed by the Trib investigations team said some stash house operators are vicious, but added that illegal immigrants have incentive to lie about conditions as a ploy to curry sympathy with authorities, staving off deportation or obtaining permanent visas.

Arrested in 2013, American coyote Jisel Emery Cruz, 32, calls her 46-month sentence for conspiracy in human smuggling “totally unfair.” An immigrant told authorities that Cruz’s two brothers kidnapped him from a rival stash house and fed him one egg daily, but Cruz said the immigrants dined on pizza, chicken and other fast food and weren’t being ransomed.

Rather, the coyotes were awaiting cash they were owed to transport them to Houston. Too often, she said, prosecutors believe the aliens over U.S. citizens, a complaint echoed in several interviews with incarcerated coyotes.

“I don’t know why the illegals claimed what they did. I saw them a couple of times alone and they never told me anything was wrong,” Cruz said. “They were treated decently.”

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Juan E. Gonzalez (left), 52, helps pull a ferry across the Rio Grande River from Los Ebanos, Texas.

Response mixed to stringent security along border

LOS EBANOS, TEXAS – It takes only a few tugs to go from Texas to the outskirts of the Mexican city of Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, but a phalanx of federal and state cops watch every foot the boat travels.

Juan E. Gonzalez, 52, and seven of his fellow ferrymen are yanking on a rope to pull the barge across the Rio Grande River, back toward Los Ebanos, population about 300.

“Remember what I told you: Stay away from Mexico,” Gonzalez said, nodding south.

Launched in 1852, the ferry can hold three cars and maybe a dozen pedestrians.

The trip lasts two minutes and is overseen by two Texas Department of Public Safety gunboats, a U.S. Border Patrol helicopter and, atop the bluff on the U.S. side, federal Customs inspectors.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
The ferry across the Rio Grande River at Los Ebanos, Texas

Standing on the southern shore, a Mexican soldier grips a rifle, his body clad in bullet-proof armor. Behind him are more federal soldiers and, behind them, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz — population about 12,000. It’s contested by the central government in Mexico City and assassins from Comando Zetas, a wing of the larger Los Zetas smuggling syndicate.

“It’s good. You feel safe here,” said Armando Acosta, 28, an ex-Mexican citizen who married an American and now lives near the San Miguel ArcAngel cathedral, a Los Ebanos icon. He is a legal permanent U.S. citizen and a farm worker.

“Life is better here. Better opportunities, better jobs. In Mexico, you can work for a whole day to make what you get in an hour here.”

A heavy presence of local, state and federal law enforcement has sparked concerns among residents elsewhere across the Rio Grande Valley about ethnic profiling, police brutality and official corruption. But there’s strong support here for police and Border Patrol. On the state highway leading toward Los Ebanos, a black-and-white handmade sign thanks Texas troopers for helping to secure the town.

Critics contend that while increasingly robust border security triggered plummeting numbers of illegal immigrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico line, it also inadvertently enriched criminal networks like Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel.

“Here’s the problem: No matter what you put on the border, those on the other side will respond with counter-resources to get drugs and people here,” said Vicki B. Gaubeca, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico’s Regional Center for Border Rights.

Gaubeca advocates working closely with Mexico to identify and credential individuals seeking to come to the United States to work and to set up a better guest worker visa system that stems illegal smuggling by cutting out the cartels.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A woman rides the ferry across the Rio Grande River from Los Ebanos, Texas, to the Mexican state of Tamaulipas.

The United Nations estimates that immigrants attempting to sneak into the United States hire coyotes 90 percent of the time – partly because, as Gaubeca said, criminal networks are smuggling drugs and other contraband, and partly because they use violence and intimidation against undocumented people, increasingly from Central America, arriving in northern Mexico.

It’s a problem exacerbated by some Mexican police, who supplement their paltry salaries with bribes and often look the other way.

Sitting on a park bench in McAllen, Texas, a homeless Luis Marven, 33, used one word to describe the Mexican cops he encountered in his nine-month illegal journey in 2014 across more than 2,400 miles from Ecuador to Texas: “bandits.”

The ex-welder told a Tribune-Review investigative reporter that he would stop in a village, work odd jobs for cash, then pay the Mexican police to continue along the way north.

The Mexican secretariat of the Interior’s Migration Policy Unit detained 86,298 illegal immigrants in 2013, mostly from Central American nations.

Smugglers, illegal aliens and U.S. officials agreed that undocumented immigrants like Marven often fall prey to smuggling cartels, who will kidnap them until relatives wire money to free them or transport them north into Texas.

Marven said that Gulf operatives tore his toenails out with pliers, trying to make him divulge the names of family who could send the “payout” sum. They didn’t believe he was an orphan.

Although a Trib investigative reporter could not independently confirm his story, blood was squishing out of his sneakers during the interview and the laces were untied because his feet had swollen. He later bandaged his mangled toes after soaking them in disinfectant.

Marven said the torn and rancid rags he wore were better than a boy’s outfit he stole from a clothesline after escaping the Gulf stash house and swimming the Rio Grande.

Cracking down on cartels

Started in 2009, the Alliance to Combat Transnational Threats lassoed the U.S. and Mexico governments, plus the states and Indian tribes on both sides of the border, into a coalition to take down the Gulf Cartel and other criminal networks, with an emphasis in Arizona, New Mexico and west Texas.

A Trib investigative reporter accompanied Border Patrol agents and Mexican federal police on a joint patrol along “no-man’s land” dividing the Five Points section of the west Texas city of El Paso from the Mexican city of Ciudad Juárez. Along the way, they met Alfredo Figueroa, 50, director of a Mexican border museum commemorating the Battle of Ciudad Juárez.

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and the rapid fortification along the U.S. side of the border, his museum attracted 20,000 American visitors annually – 10 times more than today, he said.

Pointing south, Figueroa said the joint policing protects citizens from both countries from “bad people” who “try to come from these mountains” – rugged drug- and human-smuggling routes fought over by two Mexican criminal gangs, the Cártel de Sinaloa and La Línea, the enforcement arm of rival Cártel de Juárez.

But that’s the problem, said Shura Wallin, 73, a cofounder of Green Valley Los Samaritanos, a humanitarian group in the Tucson, Ariz., suburbs that tries to rescue undocumented immigrants with serious medical issues on their clandestine journeys north.

Shura Wallin is a cofounder of Green Valley Los Samaritanos, a Tucson-area humanitarian group that leaves water for and tries to rescue undocumented immigrants with serious medical issues on their journeys.
As security on the U.S. side rapidly escalated, Wallin said, the cartels and the coyote organizations shifted to the only remaining routes to circumvent U.S. Border Patrol: mountains and deserts.

“It’s tantamount to murder,” Wallin said. “There are many decent agents at Border Patrol, but the strategy of walls and increased law enforcement is pushing desperate people into places where they die from exposure.”

Federal officials declined comment on law enforcement strategies but pointed to the proliferation of “panic poles” — emergency beacons that contain jugs of water and that can summon agents to rescue immigrants dying from exposure.

U.S. officials concede the solar-powered beacons can be counted only in the dozens along a border that stretches 1,933 miles from south Texas to San Diego. That’s why Wallin and others put out unauthorized stashes of food and water for undocumented walkers.

If Wallin had her way, the thousands of illegal immigrants she meets annually at El Comedor in the Mexican city of Heroica Nogales wouldn’t try to come to the United States. Run by the Roman Catholic Church’s Missionary Sisters of the Eucharist and the Jesuits, El Comedor is the last waystation before entering the U.S. portion of the Sonora Desert.

Wallin shows the people about to cross the border a “map of death” marked with locations where illegal immigrants have died on a foot journey that typically takes a week.

Between 1998 and 2014, more than 6,100 undocumented immigrants — an average of 381 a year — died during the passage from Mexico to the United States, according to Border Patrol.

“Many people in this community don’t realize that others are dying 40 seconds from their homes,” said Wallin.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
An old sign points visitors to Los Ebanos Ferry junction store along Flores Street in Los Ebanos, Texas.

AP
Former Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino walks past members of the media with his attorney, Robert Yzaguirre, after leaving the federal courthouse in McAllen, Texas. He pleaded guilty April 14, 2014, to money laundering and received a five-year sentence in prison.

Enforcers caught in corruption of ‘dirty’ Texas towns

EDINBURG, Texas – When it comes to corrupt public officials aiding the smugglers of drugs and illegal immigrants, this is the dirtiest town, in the most crooked county, in the most bribable state along the U.S.-Mexico border, court records show.

Federal prosecutors convicted 206 defendants on public corruption charges in the border counties of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California in 2013 and 2014 — 52 people who offered bribes, and 154 local, county, state and federal employees who pocketed those or smuggled people or narcotics.

Texas had 166 convictions, 34 in Hidalgo County alone, with a dozen cases linked to government agencies headquartered in Edinburg, the county seat.

It’s the epicenter of a “mordida,” or pay-to-play culture revved up by revenues tied to smuggling orchestrated by Mexican criminal cartels, according to court documents analyzed by a Tribune-Review investigations reporter.

The most bribable government employees worked at the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department, where Sheriff Guadalupe Treviño pleaded guilty in 2014 to accepting campaign contributions from a notorious drug gang. He was sentenced to five years in a minimum security federal prison camp in Pensacola, Fla.

His son, Jonathan, a Mission, Texas, police officer and leader of the county’s anti-drug trafficking “Panama Unit” — named after a strain of marijuana — is in prison. Federal authorities caught him and other rogue cops escorting narcotics for criminals, laundering money and stealing dope.

Over the past two years, 13 members of the Hidalgo County sheriff’s department landed in prison on public corruption charges tied to smuggling. The department employs about 430 sworn officers.

Few residents are shocked when new indictments are filed, but the fall of Treviño surprised and saddened even those with long careers in local law enforcement and the courts.

“When we first heard about the allegations, we thought it can’t be true. Can’t be. Then he stood there and pleaded guilty,” said Atanacio “J.R.” Gaitan, 51, the elected constable for the county’s 4th Precinct.

Allegations of widespread corruption in south Texas are a simmering statewide political issue. During his victorious gubernatorial campaign last year, Republican Greg Abbott roiled Hidalgo County voters by comparing the level of graft across the Rio Grande Valley to what’s seen in the Third World.

Abbott, then the state’s outgoing attorney general, vowed to clean up the borderland region as governor.

But a Trib analysis found some of the worst corruption along the Texas border with Mexico originated within state government — 27 men and women in the state’s judiciary, prisons, law enforcement or National Guard who got caught aiding smuggling operations.

In fact, along the 1,933 miles of U.S.-Mexico border, the only employees of any state government convicted on federal corruption charges in 2013 and 2014 belonged to Texas.

The FBI turned up arguably the state’s most egregious case: a narcotics ring that ended in the convictions of 15 employees at the Texas correctional institution in Beeville for working with the white supremacist Aryan Circle Gang, the Raza Unida jail syndicate, and drug smugglers across the border — the very criminals they were supposed to keep away from the public.

Twenty-nine convicted municipal and county law enforcement officers worked at departments receiving “Border Star” grants to supplement federal efforts in the state’s southern counties and overseen by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The governor’s office declined comment; Public Safety officials disregarded numerous requests for comment.

Three out of five federal corruption cases found by a Trib investigations reporter involved law enforcement officers. Most belonged to county or municipal departments.

Sixty-nine percent of the corrupt cops worked for departments receiving “Operation Stonegarden” grants from the Department of Homeland Security. Those federal funds are designed to unite local and Native American law enforcement into a federally supervised, anti-trafficking mission targeting people, drugs and guns.

This year, Homeland Security will dispense $55 million in Stonegarden grants, with much of the spending overseen by elected county sheriffs including, until his indictment, Treviño.

That has triggered criticism from community leaders such as Ruben Villarreal, the former Republican mayor of Rio Grande City who recently stepped down and is considering a run for Congress.

He said too little federal funding trickles down to municipal police, allowing sheriffs along the border to “pick and choose” recipients. The sheriffs often reward political allies or squirrel away money for “overtime to supplement their payroll,” he said.

Over the past two years, three Starr County sheriff’s deputies were convicted of public corruption. Two aided drug traffickers in Villareal’s city and tipped off illegal gambling dens about police raids. The third deputy was nabbed transporting pot in nearby Jim Hogg County.

On Dec. 18, 2013, Homeland Security agents shuttered a Rio Grande City stash house on East Mirasoles Street that was located directly behind the city’s municipal office complex and surrounded by a city parking lot. It had daily been shipping 15 illegal immigrants nationwide, according to court documents.

To understand how police could miss a large smuggling operation only feet from their office, a Trib investigations reporter repeatedly sought interviews with Byron “Dutch” Piper, the police chief at the time of the raid, and and acting chief Noe Castillo. Both ignored repeated requests.

While a Trib investigations reporter was tracking Piper, so was the FBI. On June 22, federal prosecutors charged him with submitting fraudulent overtime vouchers for up to $44,000 through the Operation Stonegarden program designed to reimburse local police for helping Border Patrol.

In his confession, Piper 63, said he defrauded the program over five years because he was “lazy and stupid” and his actions were “another stain on law enforcement.”

The next day, June 23, Piper was found shot to death in his car in his driveway in what authorities said was an apparent suicide

Juan Rodriguez, Starr County’s representative at the Laredo-based office of Texas Association of Regional Councils — a liaison between local, state and federal agencies involved — said corruption often isn’t the most pressing problem communities along the border face.

Many border towns cannot generate enough cash from tiny tax bases to provide adequate police protection for their residents, yet alone the many thousands of Mexicans who work and shop in their communities daily, Rodriguez said.

Starr is the poorest county in Texas, Rodriguez said, the fifth poorest nationwide. Nearby Zapata County, reeling from crashing natural gas prices, is down to two patrol officers at any time.

Federal officials declined comment, but say their own corruption-busting efforts are working.

Federal follies

The feds insist they’ve finally gotten control over their own corruption problem that worsened after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and increasing pressure from Congress to control the southern border.

During the growth of Customs and Border Patrol between 2006 and 2011, investigations of potentially crooked officers leapt 42 percent, according to congressional testimony.

A glut of nearly 19,000 cases formed, not only probes into allegations of misconduct but deep-background reviews and reinvestigations of workers that involved about one out of four personnel at Customs or Border Patrol.

A Trib investigations reporter turned up 20 Customs inspectors and 16 Border Patrol agents convicted in 2013 and 2014 for corruption linked to smuggling along the southern border.

Doyle E. Amidon, 45, patrol agent in charge of Border Patrol’s large station in Falfurrias, Texas, told a Trib investigations reporter that reforms enacted by the agency with the help of Congress have professionalized the force. He pointed to the increasing use of lie detector tests on new and existing employees.

Polygraph results bar about three out of five candidates for Border Patrol, largely by screening for prior drug abuse or other criminality.

Higher pay allowed Border Patrol to attract and retain better agents, especially young men and women discharged from the military, and they’re reinvestigated every five years. Starting wages now run about $50,000 per year, usually higher than similar state and municipal law enforcement jobs.

Recruits aren’t allowed to serve initially in their hometowns to keep them from affiliating with friends, and surveillance cameras are as likely to be trained on agents as suspected aliens.

In the checkpoints, supervisors change the contraband-sniffing canines and their handlers every 15 minutes, and agents never know which lane they’ll be assigned or when they’ll be moved to another location. When undocumented immigrants are caught north of the checkpoint station, supervisors review tape to see what went wrong, Amidon said.

Customs follows similar procedures in ports of entry.

Nearly as many corrupt officials and contractors performing government work were tied to agencies outside of Customs and Border Protection. For example, nine active-duty members of the Army and Marine Corps were among those convicted of trafficking guns, ammo, illegal aliens or narcotics in 2013 and 2014, the Trib investigative analysis found. Most were linked to human smuggling rings operating out of Fort Bliss and Fort Hood in Texas. The military members relied on their uniforms and special Department of Defense vehicle tags when trying to bring illegal aliens through Border Patrol checkpoints.

Perhaps the most disturbing cases, however, involved agents in Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General and those in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigations and intelligence divisions. These are the federal employees who are supposed to probe employee misconduct at Customs and Border Protection or to analyze highly classified data tied to terrorism or the cartels.

In McAllen, Texas, two Inspector General agents were convicted of falsifying reports on drug and human smuggling. In Arizona, an ICE investigator got caught using computer information to aid Mexican traffickers. And a probe into an intelligence unit in Texas and Arizona nabbed four federal workers and a contractor who were defrauding the government.

“The last thing that you want is to work next to another officer who is doing the wrong thing,” said Bob Hood, assistant director at Customs’ San Ysidro Port of Entry near San Diego, one of the busiest border processing stations on Earth.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
An illegal immigrant from El Salvador sits in the back of a police cruiser after being apprehended while fleeing police along Route 281 north of Edinburg, Texas.

Controversial grants fund local officers pursuing illegal immigrants, smugglers

LINN, Texas – Bleary-eyed Aaron Luis Moreno squints at a steel pretzel 120 feet long which once served as the Capadonna Ranch’s cattle fence.

Patrolling alone in the vast stretches of ranchland north of the Rio Grande River on behalf of Precinct 4 of the Hidalgo County Constable, Sgt. Moreno is accustomed to going without sleep.

But he’s not accustomed to lacking enough poles to fix a busted fence, something motorists want him to do before cows lumber onto the highway.

It’s the second time in as many nights he’s been called out. Both times human smugglers “went dark” with their headlights, desperate to shake Border Patrol agents and Texas troopers in hot pursuit. They then speared their vehicles through fences until trees and high grass snagged them to a stop.

It’s a common tactic of “coyotes” smuggling undocumented aliens through Hidalgo County. They know that cops can’t catch everyone.

Sgt. Aaron Moreno, a deputy constable with Texas Department of Public Safety, Precinct 4.
“The coyotes tell them to wear dark clothing. If they have to bail out, they’re told to hug a tree and stay hidden,” said Moreno, 48, known to ranchers as the “cop to the cowboys.”

The U.S. Constitution gives the federal government the duty to enforce immigration laws. But local police like Moreno end up doing a lot of it, too.

In 2013 and 2014, in a zone running 1,933 miles from south Texas to San Diego, municipal, county and state law enforcers were instrumental in the conviction of one out of every four coyotes prosecuted, a Tribune-Review investigations reporter found.

Hidalgo County is the coyote capital of America. Over the past two years, federal prosecutors have convicted 506 human smugglers nabbed within its 1,600 square miles — tops for any county nationwide, with Moreno’s tiny team of deputies the busiest here, a Trib investigations reporter found.

To help ensure ongoing cooperation, this year the U.S. Department of Homeland Security will dole out $55 million in “Operation Stonegarden” grants to police departments along the border with Mexico.

It’s been a controversial program.

Critics contend that lax federal oversight enables local law agencies – some corrupted by drug and human smuggling cartels – to misuse federal funds, lard their payrolls and splurge on glitzy equipment without doing much to prove they cut trafficking.

But Moreno and the 15 other officers of Precinct 4 say they’re proud of what they’ve accomplished.

In Hidalgo County in 2013 and 2014, the four precincts led by four elected constables tallied 59 coyote convictions.

Precinct 4 led the pack with 34 convictions, plus 611 undocumented aliens detained and deported.

Except for the much larger statewide contingent of highway patrolmen at the Texas Department of Public Safety, Precinct 4’s anti-trafficking arrests led all non-federal law enforcement nationwide.

To put Precinct 4’s work into perspective, it helped put more coyotes behind bars than all the state, county, tribal and municipal police agencies in California and New Mexico combined.

The deputy constables, except supervisor Moreno, mostly serve court papers and oversee evictions. Homeland Security agents will summon them to tail a speeding smuggler or to do a “knock and talk” at a suspected stash house loaded with illegal immigrants. Sometimes Precinct 4 joins raids on smuggling operations, always led by the feds, after weeks of surveillance.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Hidalgo County Deputy Constable Michael Anzaldua searches a suspected coyote scout on Route 281 north of Edinburg, Texas.

But most of the coyote arrests stem from Moreno and deputy constables who work overtime through Stonegarden grants.

Precinct 4’s Stonegarden slice: $128,956 in 2014, about $50,000 less than the cost to field one Border Patrol agent annually, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

“We could ask for $200,000, but would we use it?” asked Precinct 4 Constable Atanacio “J.R.” Gaitan, 50, of Edinburg. “We only have so many people who can work so much overtime.”

How the game works

To reach Houston, a hub for shipping illegal immigrants nationwide, undocumented immigrants first ford the Rio Grande River in rural stretches of Starr and Hidalgo counties in south Texas.

They then must evade a gauntlet of federal, state and local law enforcement to reach McAllen, Brownsville or other cities in the toe of Texas, holding up in stash houses until drivers can speed them north to largely unpopulated ranchlands like Linn.

Guides then herd the undocumented aliens for days through thick vegetation in an effort to skirt roving Border Patrol agents operating out of a large station near Falfurrias, about 45 miles north of here.

A top job for American coyotes is ferrying food out to the illegal immigrants hiding from police, often in orchards or pastures. So state and federal officials ordered Precinct 4’s deputies to prowl for stash house operators and suspicious drivers.

“They told me to go where no one is patrolling for smugglers,” said Moreno, rattling off a list of north country roads, many little more than dirt tracks.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A makeshift stash house in the woods near Edinburg, Texas.

Precinct 4’s efforts have gone largely unnoticed in Hidalgo County, where trust in law enforcement has reached an all-time low.

Since 2011, 13 members of the Sheriff’s Office have been convicted on public corruption charges, including the previous sheriff, Guadalupe Trevino. Cops in the cities of Sullivan, McAllen, Pharr and Mission also landed in prison because of ties to Mexican drug cartels and their American affiliates — the very people they received federal funds to stop.

With 433 full-time deputies, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office is 24 times larger than Precinct 4’s staff. Yet that office accounted for only half as many coyote convictions over the past two years while overseeing $3.1 million in Stonegarden funds for itself and 16 other local agencies, according to Homeland Security and federal court records.

County officials did not return messages seeking comment.

Money woes

A U.S. Navy veteran who once managed a maquiladora, a U.S.-owned factory in the free-trade zone near the Mexican city of Reynosa, Moreno began his law enforcement career as a county emergency dispatcher. He pinned on a sheriff’s deputy badge in 1999, then kept the rank of sergeant when he became a constable supervisor.

At Moreno’s Edinburg Precinct headquarters, Chief Deputy Horaldo Sanchez, 46, ground his fingers into his brow while planning an interdiction patrol with Moreno.

The county’s dirt and gravel roads murder tires. While 40 percent of Stonegarden funds help maintain the deputies’ cruisers, the feds don’t reimburse for spare radials. He cautioned a deputy over the phone to “try not to drive too much.”

Rattling in the back of Moreno’s truck are T-bars used to fix smuggler-shredded fences, bottles of Pedialite supplement and cans of Spam, which he uses to save immigrant stragglers abandoned in the brush by their coyote guides.

Rancher Jim McAllen donated the patching gear — Hidalgo County’s largest city is named after his family — and Moreno took the food from stash houses and squatters’ camps abandoned by illegal immigrants.

Precinct 4’s only financial solace came from the 57 vehicles parked in the county lot – impounded from smugglers and slated for auction to benefit the department. Sometimes the highest bid arrives from the same criminal organization that once owned it, Moreno said.

Precinct 4 uses the proceeds for training, bullet-proof vests and stun guns, which the county does not issue because of budgetary restrictions.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Hidalgo County Deputy Constable Michael Anzaldua sits in his vehicle during an operation to find a suspect in a human-smuggling case near Edinburg, Texas.

The department’s bottom line has been boosted by a piggybacking on the federal Equitable Sharing program for civil forfeitures.

It allows municipal forces to pocket up to 80 percent of the sales of property used during the commission of a crime, usually vehicles like the ones coyotes plow into fences.

But about a quarter of that income stream is drying up at municipal agencies along the border. In January, the Department of Justice barred police forces nationwide from using the program to sell “adopted” property — cars and other assets seized during busts when federal agents were not present.

That pleased civil libertarians, who believe the federal auction program incentivized local cops to pull over motorists for minor infractions, turning traffic stops into treasure hunts for cash and cars, without much federal oversight.

Moreno told a Trib investigations reporter that most coyotes in Hidalgo County easily passed the probable-cause threshold for stops: They rarely can produce proper licenses, plates or proof of insurance, and they tend to speed down back roads.

But sometimes a cop catches and releases a suspected coyote, even if he’s convinced the driver is feeding a stash house full of undocumented immigrants nearby.

“You stop someone and he’s got two containers of water and 10 rotisserie chickens,” Moreno said. “I once had a guy with 200 tacos. Well, I can’t arrest a man for driving around with 200 tacos.”

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
National Guard soldiers keep watch near the border with Mexico in Mission, Texas. Former Gov. Rick Perry deployed a battalion of Guardsmen in August 2014, calling them the 'tip of the spear' in efforts to fight cartels trafficking drugs and illegal immigrants.

Texas border towns divided over deployment of Guard, state troopers

RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas – When then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry deployed a battalion of the state’s National Guard troops here last August, he called them the “tip of the spear” against Mexican cartels that trafficked dope and illegal immigrants.

Critics, especially here in the Rio Grande Valley, derided Perry’s decision as expensive political theater that “militarized” the border and antagonized Mexico.

Perry’s supporters defended the move as a long overdue “surge” of police and soldiers against an influx of tens of thousands of undocumented and unescorted juveniles, mostly from Central America, that would fill gaps in federal border security.

What’s divided Rio Grande City and nearby towns, however, was the second plank of Perry’s border security plan: stationing Department of Public Safety highway patrolmen on major roadways across much of the valley.

Critics say the state cops spend far more time writing traffic citations than they do collaring coyotes or drug mules. They call Perry’s deployment a job-killer, especially for young people in the hard-hit service sector. And they contend that innocent residents of Hispanic descent are ethnically profiled by cops who aren’t from the region.

Supporters of Perry — who has declared his candidacy for the GOP nomination for president — counter that the plan cut crime in cash-starved river communities by deterring cross-border smuggling.

“I have nothing against the National Guard and their mission to secure the border,” said Antonio Alcazar, 53, who helps run a Rio Grande City legal office. “The problem has been with the governor putting state troopers here. ... They intimidate everyone. Businesses are going broke. You lose your rights. They do whatever they want with you.”

“Someone had to help re-establish law and order, and immigration enforcement is the sole responsibility of the federal government,” said Ruben Villarreal, 52, Rio Grande City’s popular Republican mayor who stepped down and is exploring a run for Congress.

“The federal government has been ineffective. They’ve been very derelict in their duties.”

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A young boy walks along the Rio Grande River near a popular crossing point for illegal immigrants beneath the bluffs of Roma, Texas.

A Tribune-Review investigations reporter spent a week in the Rio Grande City area as part of a two-month, 1,933-mile journey along the U.S.-Mexico border, from towns in the toe of Texas like Rio Grande City all the way to San Diego.

Residents said outside pundits and politicos on both sides of the argument are pretty much wrong about the Guard’s mission here, the seat of rural Starr County.

Few residents really cared about the Guard because they say they hardly ever saw them; troops manned checkpoints along the river or at the junctures of rutted farm roads and spent off-duty hours at a motel.

But residents and visitors quickly noticed a lot of cops. Texas troopers armed with machine guns in fast-attack boats skittering up and down the river, in helicopters overhead, and in cruisers prowling through Hidalgo and Starr counties, joined U.S. Homeland Security agents watching the riverbank and alleys.

Trouble in river city

Across America’s southwestern states, a doubling of U.S. Border Patrol agents and a bitter economic recession beginning in 2008 helped to slash the number of arrests of undocumented immigrants to levels unseen in more than three decades – except in the agency’s Rio Grande sector, which includes Starr County.

A Trib investigative analysis of court records found that in 2013 and 2014, federal prosecutors convicted 76 coyotes caught inside the county — more than half of them nabbed within Rio Grande City itself.

Two of every three were U.S. citizens living along a 54-mile stretch from Roma, in far western Starr County, east to McAllen in Hildalgo County.

Records show the Texas Department of Public Safety helped to convict only one of these coyotes, a Mexican driver who plowed into a Rio Grande City house on June 11, 2014, while transporting 14 illegal immigrants.

Four of every five coyotes caught here did the same job: They drove illegal immigrants to stash houses in McAllen or neighboring cities to await the trip to Houston — often a week-long trek by foot and vehicles to circumvent Border Patrol.

At the Rio Billiards Pub downtown, barkeep Jesus Alaniz, 23, said last call used to be at 2 a.m.

During the normally bustling Christmas shopping season, however, last call came before midnight. He blamed the lost customers -- with revenues down an estimated 60 percent -- on a large state police presence that led patrons to bypass the town rather than risking traffic stops and possible citations.

“We’re trying to make a living. We’re trying to make something of ourselves, but we’re worrying about losing jobs. People are afraid to hang out now,” Alaniz said.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Rio Billiards Pub barkeep, Jesus Alaniz, 23, shoots pool on a quiet evening in the bar in Rio Grande City, Texas. Alaniz believes the police presence in the town has forced patrons away, cutting revenue 60 percent.

A September economic report issued by The Perryman Group, a Waco, Texas-based financial forecasting firm, confirmed Alaniz’s fears. Charting the impact of previous security surges in the Rio Grande Valley, the organization predicted nearly $542 million in business losses throughout the region and 7,830 job cuts. The economists traced the dip to military operations that discouraged new business investment, retail shopping and tourism -- all concerns echoed by residents interviewed by a Trib investigations reporter.

After adjourning on June 1, the Texas legislature sent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott a two-year budget that includes $811 million in border security spending over the next two years. The $310 million earmarked for next year includes enough funding to continue the Guard deployment along the Rio Grande River until state troopers take their place.

Profiling concerns

Alaniz and David Gonzales, 19, a South Texas College nursing student and part-time coffee shop manager, said Hispanic residents, especially young men, are tired of state troopers pulling them over “at every stop sign.”

David Gonzales, a South Texas College nursing student and part-time coffee shop manager

“We start to feel paranoid. We want to be able to travel from one part of the city to the other without being bothered,” Gonzales said.

The problem is that most troopers aren’t locals like Rio Grande City police or even a large number of National Guardsmen, residents said. Imported from statewide for Perry’s security push here, the highway patrolmen can’t tell the locals from coyotes or illegal immigrants, so everyone gets stopped, critics told a Trib investigations reporter.

“They look at us as if we’re illegals. They’re overzealous,” Alaniz said.

Texas officials declined comment.

But Mayor Villarreal argued that most constituent complaints about state cops stem from vigorous enforcement of traffic citations, especially in school zones, not ethnic profiling.

He urged residents to remain patient while the border plan plays out.

“It didn’t get this way in a matter of months. It won’t be fixed in a matter of months,” he said.

Abbott seems to agree with Villarreal. Abbott is mulling a $735 million border security package that includes both National Guard and increased state law enforcement personnel – double current spending — while slashing taxes $4.2 billion. He has said he wants to pass on the Texas bill to federal taxpayers.

Contacted by a Trib investigations reporter, Abbott’s office referred questions to the state’s Department of Public Safety, which did not return dozens of telephone and email messages.

Texas Military Forces – parent agency for the state’s National Guard — says the deployment, overall, has succeeded.

Lt. Col. Joanne E. McGregor, spokeswoman for the agency, said state leaders authorized 1,000 slots for Guard members and 2,200 volunteered. Costs in the peak months of the tour hovered between $10 million and $12 million, but commanders were pleased with the unit’s rapid deployment to help secure a border she called “porous.”

McGregor said that when commanders planned the deployment, they crafted operations to allay “concerns about militarization of the border” and tailored tactics to target only the “criminal element” trying to bring in guns and illegal immigrants.

Armed and muddy soldiers found in the field by a Trib investigations reporter said they were proud of their mission – which mostly involved radioing law enforcement agencies about anything suspicious.

Soldiers received 10 days of special training before deploying, including courses on the distinct culture of the Rio Grande Valley. They quickly adapted to the mission, partly because many were Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and had prior experience working with civilian authorities.

A trickier task, McGregor conceded, is determining the cost-effectiveness of military deployments when addressing immigration and smuggling problems.

“There’s no simple solution,” she said.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Much of rural west Texas remains uninhabited.

Border agents only authorities in some areas of west Texas

LANGTRY, Texas – When fabled hanging-judge Roy Bean held court in his saloon here 132 years ago, he declared himself the “Law West of the Pecos.”

Today, when it comes to security along the U.S.-Mexico border, there’s a lot of law west of the Pecos — mostly U.S. Border Patrol.

There’s just not many people in Langtry, population 14, or much of the rest of rural west Texas.

Portions of west Texas are witnessing population declines unseen since the Dust Bowl. Several factors contribute to that: technology making farmhands redundant; aging populations dying off with few births to replace them; and a lack of good jobs to anchor younger generations.

It’s similar south of the border, where Mexicans call stretches of the Chihuahua Desert running toward the Pecos and Rio Grande rivers “despoblado” — unpopulated.

That population drop runs in stark contrast to the growth of Border Patrol since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Stations in West Texas, from Del Rio to El Paso, reported 5,844 agents on staff in October — more than doubled since 9/11.

Langtry doesn’t have a police department, but there’s a pretty constant Border Patrol presence. Though there to enforce federal anti-smuggling laws, they can intervene in certain serious situations.

A Tribune-Review investigations reporter watched one day as a border agent spent hours “sign cutting”: looking for crimps in the soap bush, breaks in the black willow, and footprints in the white caliche dirt leading toward a church truck with north Texas plates.

The truck was parked between a museum devoted to Judge Bean, a staple of western pulp novels and films, and the Wagon Wheel Café Store, pretty much the only place in Langtry that’s regularly open, except for the post office.

Radios won’t work where the road dips into Eagle Pass, so an agent has to drive up a cliff to contact his partner. The other agent is 15 miles away, dragging a set of tires covered in chains behind his truck to create dusty furrows that will betray the footsteps of undocumented immigrants who try to reach Highway 90 from the river.

Neither agent has anything to report.

In Rio Grande City and other southeastern Texas towns, many residents told a Trib investigations reporter that they are sick of so many police stationed to watch the border. But in Langtry and other tiny towns, citizens welcome the post-9/11 federal presence.

“You have to live here to understand it,” said lifetime resident Sharon Cash, 72. “It’s not just people, but drugs. Everything moves through here.”

The good news for West Texans is that less seems to be moving through, at least when it comes to illegal immigrants.

In the fiscal year that ended shortly before the 9/11 attacks, Border Patrol sectors in El Paso, Big Bend, Laredo and Del Rio arrested a total of 395,536 undocumented immigrants, according to annual federal reports.

Last year, they detained 84,739.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
U.S. Border Patrol agent Yesenia Leon, right, stands near International Boundary Marker No. 1, as agent Giovanni Cisneros, center, talks to a Mexican police officer with the international border separating them in El Paso, Texas.

Checkpoints frustrating to some, effective to others

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Sometimes when out-of-state visitors roll up on U.S. Border Patrol agent Yesenia Leon’s checkpoint, they panic.

“A lot of people think that they’re entering Mexico,” Leon, 32, said with a laugh.

You can’t blame them. Up north, near Canada, only one Border Patrol checkpoint is permanently manned. Border Patrol staffs 24/7 this facility straddling I-10, plus 34 similar stations in New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and California.

The I-10 Las Cruces checkpoint is about 60 miles north of Mexico. To the Border Patrol, the “border” isn’t just a line on a map.

It’s a zone up to 100 miles north of Mexico, cut into three tiers of enforcement: observation posts along the Mexico border, roving dragnets to catch anyone who got past the initial border security, and checkpoints many miles inland where agents screen vehicles for illegal aliens and narcotics.

Only about 4 percent of Border Patrol’s 18,000 agents are stationed at these interior checkpoints, but in recent years they’ve accounted for more than a third of all the agency’s drug seizures.

In the southwestern borderlands, they also netted one of every four coyotes trying to smuggle in undocumented immigrants in 2013 and 2104, a Tribune-Review investigation found.

“Imagine all the stuff that we’re catching. What if we weren’t here?” said Doyle E. Amidon, 43, Patrol Agent-in-Charge in Falfurrias, Texas, including a checkpoint that’s about an hour’s drive north of the Mexico border.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
The border fence stretches out across the horizon, separating Sunland Park, N.M., at left, from Juarez, Mexico.

Critics contend that Border Patrol checkpoints treat law-abiding U.S. citizens in ways that northerners don’t understand. They allege that Hispanics are ethnically profiled, detained without warrants, searched illegally, interrogated without cause and, sometimes, unlawfully arrested or beaten.

“Something Washington always seems to forget is that people live here and we’ve got to live with the decisions that they make, no matter how divorced they are from reality,” said Vicki B. Gaubeca, 53, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico’s Regional Center for Border Rights in Las Cruces.

Numerous civil lawsuits have been filed along the border over these issues. To plaintiffs and their supporters, federal checkpoints are symptoms of lost civil rights because of an ongoing “militarization” of the border.

Border Patrol agents cite special powers provided nearly four decades ago to checkpoint officers by the U.S. Supreme Court.

They can legally stop and briefly question all drivers and passengers, even if there’s no suspicion that they are undocumented immigrants. They’re also granted wide latitude to visually inspect vehicles, have trained canines sniff them for contraband or people, and scan them with gadgets that function much like an X-ray machine.

“A K-9 isn’t racist. He doesn’t care what you look like,” Leon said, “He alerts to drugs and people.”

A tale of two checkpoints

On paper, two types of Border Patrol checkpoints exist: the 35 permanent stations like the I-10 post near Las Cruces, and 175 “tactical” operations sprinkled along secondary roads to catch drivers attempting to circumvent the larger checkpoints. Citing security concerns, Border Patrol declined to release the exact locations of the tactical facilities.

Agents, however, said many of the tactical posts are not manned around the clock, lack holding cells, and move around – something spotters working for the smuggling gangs track, alerting coyote drivers when the checkpoints go down.

Most checkposts encountered by a Trib investigations reporter across the border region, especially in Arizona, appeared to be permanent stations, even if federal agents did not call them that.

Carl Prine | Trib Total Media
Vicki B. Gaubeca, ACLU of N.M.
Gaubeca said that problems followed the construction of the I-10 checkpoint and nearby stations in Truth or Consequences, Alamogordo and Deming, N.M.

The ring of checkpoints effectively created a “bubble” of undocumented immigrants stuck inside Las Cruces, she said, afraid to leave because they might get caught.

Other critics point to economic losses triggered by checkpoint construction.

A 2012 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security found that a permanent Border Patrol checkpoint near the Tucson suburb of Green Valley, Ariz., cut the value of residential real estate about $2,700 per house or condo. It blamed the drop on unpredictable wait times, traffic jams, problems getting goods and tourists through inspection lanes, and perceptions that the existence of a checkpoint indicated an area that is unsafe.

Border Patrol’s Leon said securing the homeland comes with tradeoffs. A checkpoint might frustrate commuters and truckers, she said, but it also is a highly effective means of catching coyotes as well as scofflaws who have committed all sorts of crimes, from drunk drivers to pedophiles identified in Amber Alerts.

“It’s for their own safety,” Leon said. “Let’s talk about children. You get kidnapped children through here.”

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A man shops in The Mercantile, a general store in Arivaca, Ariz. With a population of about 700, Arivaca sits just four miles north of the border and 20 miles west of the Border Patrol's Arivaca Road checkpoint. More than 600 residents signed a petition calling for the removal of the checkpoint.

Communities divided

To understand how opinions over checkpoints could vary so dramatically, one need only go from one business to another inside the strip mall at 615 E. Lohman Ave. in Las Cruces.

Suite C belongs to Unbreakable Tattoo Studio, where owner Adam Cedillo, 33, said he believes checkpoint agents routinely violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms by seizing lawfully-owned weapons possessed by Hispanics suspected of being smugglers.

Carl Prine | Trib Total Media
Adam Cedillo, owner of Unbreakable Tattoo Studio in Las Cruces, N.M.

“I’ve had my whole family pulled out. There I was in a big truck – a Suburban – and they ordered all of us out of it,” Cedillo said. “It was embarrassing because everyone thinks you’ve done something wrong, but you haven’t!

“They were mad about the fact that I had a concealed-carry license and had tattoos. I try to be as respectful as possible when they do that, but what they’re doing is wrong.”

Next door in Suite A is Milo’s barber shop, where Daniel Tarango, 24, of nearby Silver City, told a Trib investigations reporter that Border Patrol agents at checkpoints are unfailingly polite and professional. He’s never been profiled and he’s glad that they’re present to protect him.

“They’ve never bothered me. And I have family members who are in Border Patrol. I know that they’re just doing their job,” he said.

The Arivaca Road checkpoint squats near the Amado Exit of I-19. A` Trib investigations reporter found that 28 drivers were convicted in 2013 and 2014 after trying to smuggle illegal aliens through it.

All but one of the coyotes were U.S. citizens; nearly 70 percent had substance addiction problems, court records show.

The village of Arivaca, population about 700, is 20 miles west of the checkpoint and four miles north of the border.

When a Trib investigations reporter arrived in town, a Border Patrol truck had pulled over a pair of elderly birdwatchers, the Southern Baptist Church’s Sunday services were ending, a laconic row of cowboys sipped beers in the nearby tavern and, across the street, a shirtless man spent the better part of an hour throwing a rock, blankly chasing it as it skittered through the dust.

More than 600 residents from the village and surrounding areas have signed a petition calling for the removal of the checkpoint that opened three years ago.

While Border Patrol watches the town, the town watches Border Patrol. Since 2012, volunteers have monitored agents and kept pressure on Washington, holding frequent protests at the post and carrying on a campaign against it on social media.

Supporters have responded by erecting a sign telling drivers that Arivaca and nearby towns actually embrace the checkpoint.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Don Nusbaum of Moyza, Ariz., stands in front of the Arivaca Humanitarian Aid Office in Arivaca, Ariz. Nausbaum, a Bell System Labs retiree, wants the Border Patrol to shutter its Arivaca area checkpoint.

Don Nusbaum, 79, a Bell System Labs retiree who helped found the nearby unincorporated settlement of Moyza, said opposition or support for the checkpoint defies easy labels. He considers himself pragmatic, politically independent with a conservative streak, and yet he wants the feds to shutter the checkpoint.

His opposition stems partly from concerns that checkpoints waste taxpayer money.

“Get (the agents) out of Arivaca and put them on the border where they belong,” he said.

“Welcome to Arivaca! Now fold up the Constitution and put it in your back pocket, because everything we do now is based on fear,” said John Warren, 55 who organizes dissent against the checkpoint.

Other residents told a Trib investigations reporter that fears of federal persecution are overblown.

“I’ve had no problem. They don’t harass me,” countered Carol Robson, 56.

“You used to see 10 to 15 people running through. We don’t see that as much now,” said Darrin Hendrix, 46, wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, a major part of the cottage economy here. “You see a lot of Border Patrol.”

Interestingly, Robson, Hendrix and Warren work together at Arivaca’s general store, The Mercantile, and consider each other friends.

“There’s been a lot less discord than people would imagine,” Warren said.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
The U.S.-Mexico border fence cuts through the landscape and stretches into the distance in this view from Montezuma's Pass overlook in the Coronado National Forest south of Sierra Vista, Ariz. Mexico is at top of photo.

Smuggling people over federal lands can be deadly

SAN VICENTE CROSSING, Texas — From atop a crag here on the southern cusp of Big Bend National Park, a hiker can gaze for miles.

There’s the Rio Grande River cleaving Mexico from the United States. And running to its lip is the lone road to Mexico’s San Vicente, a hardscrabble hamlet without electricity.

On the American side, it’s been closed by the U.S. government. It’s lined with cameras and motion detectors to make sure no one steps on it. Which feels strange because before it was a road it was a path, and for centuries Comanche warriors and soldiers from the United States and Mexico traveled it.

Today, its only commuters are drug mules and coyotes — the smugglers who bring in illegal immigrants.

Big Bend park is no different from much of the border, where one of every three miles fronts a federal park, nature preserve, monument or forest. These public lands tantalize traffickers because the isolation gives them a head start over law enforcement.

In 2013 and 2014, federal prosecutors convicted 13 coyotes operating in national parks on or near the Mexico border, from Padre Island National Seashore in east Texas to the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve near San Diego.

Here in Big Bend, federal officials insist the odds are on their side — partly due to a doubling of the sector’s U.S. Border Patrol workforce to about 600 agents since the 2001 terror attacks and partly because the rugged conditions and lack of water on federal lands act as a powerful brake on illegal immigration.

Although the sector sprawls across 165,154 square miles of mostly wilderness, the bulk of law enforcement operations are aimed at or near the 510 miles of the Rio Grande River it patrols.

“Because of the remoteness and vastness of this area, we have more time to track and apprehend groups that have illegally entered,” said Martin B. Valenzuela, Border Patrol supervisory agent for the Big Bend sector. “With limited infrastructure available to smugglers and those entering illegally, we have days, not hours, to detect and apprehend groups.”

On Sept. 6, 2013, agents found the body of Alvaro Antonio Navarro-Perez, a Mexican from a tiny village in the state of Coahuila. He forded the river at San Vicente Crossing but, dozens of miles into the journey, began to struggle.

The coyote brush guides abandoned him with two jugs of water, according to court documents.

Six illegal immigrants died within this smuggling corridor last year and Border Patrol rescued 62 more.

Other federal parks are deadlier.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona has claimed 120 lives since 2001, mostly due to exposure, according to the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Graves of unidentified, undocumented immigrants who died during their journey into the United States are marked with small wooden crosses in a section of Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, Calif.

Despite the risks, a dinghy hidden in the Rio Grande river cane and the boot prints tracked by a Tribune-Review investigations reporter along the cattle trails paralleling San Vicente Road show that La Línea, the ruthless enforcement wing of the Juarez criminal cartel, continues to operate there. It smuggles people, drugs and more 150 miles across the Chihuahua Desert, through the park, and around patrol stations at Marathon and Fort Stockton, Texas, according to Border Patrol.

Battling parkland damage

Federal officials told a Trib investigations reporter that their focus in parks traditionally has been on arresting coyotes and traffickers and protecting the lives of tourists and illegal immigrants.

Over the last two decades, however, federal agencies have been forced to repair or mitigate the damage coyotes and unlawful immigration cause to fragile park habitats.

Government counter-smuggling operations damage ecosystems – especially the pedestrian border fences that block the natural migrations of many animals, wildlife activists say.

But that often pales in comparison to what millions of feet and tires did over the past four decades.

Signs at Padre Island National Seashore warn visitors about 'coyotes' smuggling people and drugs.
Mountains of garbage and abandoned vehicles, illegal roads and trails that erode soil, the vandalizing of sacred spots for Native Americans and archaeological sites, intentional damage to border barriers that allow Mexican cattle to stray into parklands, and the spread of invasive plant species are all part of the impact, according to numerous reports filed by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“Let’s say that (smugglers) start a fire (to stay warm) and it gets away from them,” said Mark Spier, superintendent of Padre Island along the east Texas coast, a 37-year veteran of the National Park Service and the former chief ranger at Big Bend.

A series of blazes ignited along the southern border in 2011 consumed 33 acres of the Guadalupe Canyon Outstanding Natural Area, part of an important bird sanctuary straddling New Mexico and Arizona.

So far, Spier said, that hasn’t happened on Padre Island, the globe’s longest stretch of undeveloped barrier islands and home to Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, one of the planet’s most endangered reptiles.

Unlike Big Bend and Organ Pipe parks, traffickers can’t walk from Mexico onto Padre Island. Like the Tijuana River preserve, they must use boats or jet skis to drop off illegal immigrants.

On Padre Island, most smugglers beach at Mansfield Cut, a navigational channel on the southern tip of the island.

Walking from there to Corpus Christi means stumbling over 60 miles of dunes whipped high by sea winds and vast expanses of partridge pea, pennywort, camphorweed and manatee grass.

There’s almost no standing water to drink, so most of the illegal immigrants pay for rides from U.S. smuggling rings operating out of Corpus Christi, court records show.

Carl Prine | Trib Total Media
Federal park rangers provide the bulk of anti-smuggling enforcement on Padre Island National Seashore, although Coast Guard, Border Patrol and Texas cops help out.

The coyotes get a hand from Texas law, which treats all seashores — even those abutting this federal parkland — as public highways.

Most days, it takes three to five hours to drive from the Mansfield Cut channel to the park’s exit. But during a visit by a Trib investigations reporter, sand packed as hard as asphalt allowed smugglers to make the trip in an hour, if they paid no attention to posted speed limits and rangers in sport utility vehicles pulling over traffic scofflaws.

If the rangers missed any suspected smugglers motoring along the beach, a long row of cameras charts every vehicle that enters and leaves the park. Corpus Christi Police, U.S. Coast Guard and Border Patrol routinely and quickly make arrests after a call from the ranger station.

“If you come out with more people than you went in with, we can do the math,” said Spier.

Carl Prine | Trib Total Media
Rancher Melissa Owen

Ranchers endure fear, damage from ‘coyotes’

SASABE, Ariz. – Melissa Owen heard the tear of a blade across a screen, then the boom of a boot as two smugglers kicked in the door of her Altar Valley ranch house.

Home alone, Owen, 66, did what any Texas transplant living four miles from Arizona’s border with Mexico would do.

“I hope one is still picking birdshot out of his butt,” she said of the 2005 incident during a tour of her Sierra Vista Ranch, 640 acres of rolling Sonora Desert that has become a major smuggling corridor for narcotics and illegal immigrants.

From Texas to California, U.S. ranchers deal with sticky-fingered, “dead-heading” drug mules or coyotes returning from dropping off pot or people.

Isolated and often alone, ranchers and their belongings make tantalizing targets, they told a Tribune-Review investigations reporter during a two-month journey along the Mexico-United States border.

“It’s unsettling, but I don’t scare easily,” said Owen. “It’s one thing to have 40 or 50 people at the gates, with starving babies. You empathize with them. But the demographic is changing. They’re being replaced with hard-core criminals.”

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Peter Dean of Sahuarita, Ariz., a member of the Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans humanitarian group, picks up a blanket that was likely used by illegal immigrants near Amado, Ariz.

In the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Owen watched U.S. Border Patrol double its staff in the Altar Valley. The agency erected a three-strand barbed-wire fence, finally blocking the smugglers from driving stolen trucks onto her ranch and abandoning them.

At the time, the political will in Washington seemed to be changing course on illegal immigration, Owen and other ranchers said, giving them hope that their lives and economic enterprises would be protected.

But Owen, other ranchers and the Border Patrol then began to fret that the increasing security would be ruined by a major natural gas line.

Pipe dreams

Roger San Martin, the patrol agent in charge of Border Patrol’s Tucson Station, wrote to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington in 2012 stating that he feared a planned Kinder Morgan natural gas pipeline to Sasabe bisecting the Sierra Vista would act much like a superhighway, sparking “a more robust smuggling infrastructure, a higher crime rate” for communities in both nations.

Owen said she and other ranchers assumed that the feds would listen to Border Patrol’s concerns and nix the project. At the very least, she figured the commission would divert the pipeline toward Nogales, a border community that wanted it.

On July 1, 2014 , however, the commission green-lighted the $200 million pipeline through Sasabe to the Mexican interior. By October, the gas was flowing — and so were coyotes with their illegal immigrants along a trail as wide as a street that had been made for the pipeline over the Sierra Vista, she said.

Owen said the process highlights the hypocrisy in Washington, where even conservative legislators who talk tough about controlling illegal immigration seem to back away when big corporate interests are concerned.

“They defiled pristine habitat ... They didn’t care about the jaguar or any of the eight endangered species. They didn’t care that Nogales was begging for the pipeline. They didn’t care that they were building a superhighway for drug smugglers and illegal immigrants,” Owen said.

When contacted by a Trib investigations reporter, commission officials reiterated the agency’s findings in its final impact statement and orders. Those documents conceded that smugglers in Texas exploit pipelines, railroads, transmission lines and access road right-of-ways to bypass Border Patrol checkpoints.

To prevent that in the Altar Valley, Kinder Morgan would build “deterrents” along the route to thwart traffickers, and Border Patrol had enough resources to handle any rise in crime, according to FERC’s findings.

Kinder Morgan said the corporation worked closely with federal law enforcement for two years to come up with a border security plan but could not discuss sensitive details. Most of the pipeline traverses state land, not private, and the project met all government guidelines, company spokesman Richard N. Wheatley said in an email.

The few affected ranchers were “compensated very well” for easements necessary to build the pipeline, he said, and the project benefitted scores of other Americans by hiring hundreds of workers and continuing to send gas south along a “cheaper, safer and cleaner” pipeline, compared to alternatives.

Owen said she held out against the project but eventually had to settle with Kinder Morgan or risk losing a portion of her land to eminent domain. She told a Trib investigations reporter that she’s not allowed to discuss the terms of the deal, but believes no amount of money was worth it.

“I’m still a little raw about this,” Owen said.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Richard Osburn of Sahuarita, Ariz., a member of the Green Valley/Sahuarita Samaritans humanitarian group that works with illegal immigrants in the desert, empties water bottles that were opened. The humanitarian group leaves water in the desert along trails used by undocumented aliens. If bottles are found opened, the remaining water is emptied to protect against tampering.

Myths about immigration

Along the 1,933 miles of border separating the United States from Mexico, ranchers repeatedly told a Trib investigations reporter that they feel marginalized in the larger national debates over immigration and drug enforcement policies.

Their views are hardly uniform, however.

Owen, for example, favors decriminalizing most marijuana laws to hurt the Mexican drug cartels. She thinks “right-wing and left-wing goofballs” in Congress have impeded immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for many immigrant families.

Although she’s generally a supporter of President Barack Obama, Owen called on the president and the First Family to vacation at her ranch for a week to better understand border security issues and the problems ranchers face.

“If a drug cartel took over Pittsburgh, there would be a nationwide outcry to do something. Well, what do you think happened here in my valley?” Owen said.

About 40 miles north of Sasabe — and on the other side of the political spectrum — Pat King runs the 50,000-acre Anvil Ranch with her husband, John. She echoes Owen when describing how the Altar Valley has changed over the past 25 years, especially the rise in violence caused by smugglers.

Carl Prine | Trib Total Media
Rancher Pat King

A cowboy’s worst fear today, she said, is riding up on a “rip crew.”

Operating out of Mexico and often dressed in camouflage and brandishing military-grade rifles, these gangs of criminals often hide near water troughs to ambush the human caravans toting bags of marijuana north.

“You pretend that you don’t see them and you go the other way. You don’t reach for anything. Not a phone, not a gun,” King, 71, said. “You just turn around slowly and hope that one of them doesn’t put a bullet in your back.”

King’s Anvil Ranch has a full-time security guard because illegal immigrants repeatedly tried to loot their home. She said she was shocked when smugglers threw clothing, dirt and manure into the water to vandalize cattle tanks, preventing thirsty immigrants from drinking and putting livestock at risk, too.

“I think what most people don’t realize is how destructive they can be,” she said.

Owen echoed King when she decried “the saintly myth of the illegal immigrant.” Each immigrant dumps onto the Sierra Vista between nine and 12 pounds of garbage, she said, and the constant smuggling traffic through the valley decimates a fragile desert ecosystem, especially at the nearby Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.

King said the federal government could help more by maintaining ranch roads and fences damaged by smugglers and the Border Patrol agents who chase them, but emphasized the first order of business is sealing off the valley from illegal traffic. She wants the government to deploy active-duty combat troops to southern Arizona but doesn’t expect to see them because politicians don’t care.

“I live in no-man’s land. I don’t become a U.S. citizen until April 15th,” she said.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
The Arizona desert near Amado, where illegal immigrants travel.

Strangers on their own land

The Valdez family has owned a ranch in Puerto Rico, Texas, for 75 years. Eddie Valdez, 50, told a Trib investigations reporter that too often Americans forget that many citizens living north of Mexico are descendants of ranchers with Spanish land grants.

In 1848, after surrendering to invading U.S. forces, the government of Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and ceded more than half of the nation’s territory, including Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California, to the United States.

Sometimes, he said, Congress needs to do less — not more — and occasionally listen to Mexican-American families who have owned land along the border for generations.

He points to the border fence being built across the southwestern states: A fabrication shop he runs got a federal contract for some of the steel barriers, but like most residents interviewed in the Trib investigation, Valdez said the federal project was little more than expensive political theater that didn’t stop illegal immigrants from walking through rancher property in his neck of Hidalgo County.

“They put the fence up and we had more activity. It channeled them and they came straight to us,” he said.

A flood of Border Patrol agents and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers also has been a headache. Many are young, he said, and don’t understand the Rio Grande Valley’s distinct Tejano culture. They repeatedly pull over American ranchers of Hispanic descent, believing they’re smugglers because they dress well and drive expensive trucks.

“I have a white hat and a black hat,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter which one I wear. They still stop me.”

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Ofelia Rivas, 59, walks along a vehicle barrier fence along the U.S.-Mexico border near her home in the village of Ali Chuk on the Tohono O'odham nation lands in Arizona. 'We've been under siege,' she says, speaking of the Border Patrol presence and the fence that cuts through the reservation.

Effective enforcement forces illegal immigrants onto tribal lands, badlands

ALI CHUK, Ariz. — Ofelia Rivas stepped between the guide cables of the vehicle barrier-style fence and stood just inside Mexico.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent drove down a ridge and parked about a football field away, watching to see what she would do next.

What Rivas did was illegal.

No American — not even this lady who lives in the last house, on the last rutted road in the last Tohono O’odham Indian reservation village on the American side — is allowed to cross the border onto U.S. soil without going through an officially designated port of entry.

But Rivas, demonstrating how easy it is to cross the border there, stepped back through to the American side.

The brief moment of civil disobedience occurred naturally to a woman who posts a sign outside her home, telling lawmen that they better have a warrant before they step onto her property.

“We want people to know that we’re one people on two sides of a border,” Rivas, 59, said of the Tohono O’odham tribe. “All we want to do is live in peace, but they’ve disrupted it. Everyday life is now a spiritual and psychological struggle.”

In the end, the Border Patrol agent didn’t do anything. Neither did the spotters along the ridgeline — men border agents say were likely low-level lookouts for Mexico’s Cártel de Sinaloa. Their job is to watch the border watchers and track the syndicate’s drug mules as they walk through the village.

Ali Chuk villagers told a Tribune-Review investigations reporter that they had seen these smugglers toting AK-47s moved past them. They’re so heavily armed because they fear bandits working in “rip crews” will ambush the caravans hauling marijuana, methamphetamines and other drugs through the valley.

Border Patrol agents try to match their firepower with M-4 military rifles and shotguns.

A Tribune-Review special investigation found 96 human coyotes smuggling undocumented immigrants were caught on Indian lands across the U.S. southern border and convicted during 2013 and 2014. Three each were arrested on the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo in Texas and in Arizona’s Gila Rier Indian Community. All the rest were detained on Tohono O’odham territory.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Ofelia Rivas stands in her home in the village of Ali Chuk on the Tohono O'odham nation in Arizona.

Only 27 of 96 coyotes caught on tribal land were American Indians, but nearly all the Indian smugglers had substance addiction problems, probation documents showed.

That problem is repeated across the borderlands as methamphetamine production shifts south of the border and cheap shipments of “Mexican Super Meth” flow north, U.S. Homeland Security officials told a Trib investigations reporter.

Eight of those American Indian coyotes lived in Ali Chuk, a village of 161 people within a Tohono O’odham tribe that counts about 27,000 members in the United States and several thousand more in Mexico.

Beyond rampant rates of substance addiction, the Tohono O’odham suffer high unemployment and increasing gang activity.

Tribal members concede they’re struggling with a smuggling problem and lack the ability to police all of their sovereign territory — four vast but non-contiguous slabs of the Sonora Desert in the United States that, if combined, would be the second largest American reservation and about the size of Connecticut.

Some elders and the tribal government in Sells, Ariz. — more than an hour’s drive north from here — favor a robust federal response to border incursions, overriding opposition like Rivas’ to a border fence, highway checkpoints, an influx of law officers patrolling the area and aerial drones.

Tribal officials didn’t respond to messages asking to discuss the issues.

Critics on the reservation have attacked the Tribal Council’s partnership with the federal drug and immigration agencies for “militarizing” the Tohono O’odham’s 75-mile-long border with Mexico.

Rivas and others on the reservation blame increasingly effective federal interdiction efforts in California, west Texas and Arizona cities such as Yuma and Nogales for pushing illegal immigration deeper into unpopulated badlands, including long stretches of mountain and desert in Tohono O’odham territory.

Cut off from water and shelter, undocumented aliens can die from thirst in the summer and cold in the winter.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A cross marks the location where an illegal immigrant perished just feet from a border fence in the village of Ali Chuk on the Tohono O'odham nation near Sells, Ariz.

Ali Chuk, Rivas points out, has a large lake, complete with its own mountain lion that sleeps in a grotto above the water. Bodies continue to be discovered nearby because thirsty immigrants are forced to circumvent a village filled with Border Patrol agents.

Border Patrol declined comment.

Border Patrol Nation

Mike Wilson, 65, a retired soldier, former Presbyterian lay minister and Tohono O’odham member, displays his Fort Bragg, N.C., memorabilia in his Tucson living room “just to mess with my liberal friends.”

He thinks conservatives advocating tight border control should realize that the ongoing flood of federal agents onto Indian land hasn’t been good for anyone.

“I understand their mission ... But that doesn’t deny the moral injuries and deaths that accompany those policies. That would be true anywhere in the U.S., but it’s especially true in Indian country,” he said.

For a decade, Wilson has left water jugs in the desert so illegal immigrants wouldn’t die during their passage — a humanitarian effort that drew sharp rebukes from tribal leaders. He said top tribal officials not only have become addicted to anti-poverty funding from Washington, but the cash spent to stop the drug and human trafficking.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Tohono O'odham tribe member Mike Wilson, a retired soldier and former Presbyterian lay minister, sits in his Tucson, Ariz., living room. For over a decade, Wilson has left water jugs to help prevent illegal immigrants from dying in the desert during their passage. Humanitarian efforts drew sharp rebukes from tribal leaders.

Beyond casino shifts, the only jobs in Tohono O’odham territory are in a federally funded government bureaucracy, Wilson said, and American taxpayers have unwittingly created an Indian “socialism on steroids.” All the free housing, anti-smuggling spending and bloated government combines to “buy silence,” he charges, not only from tribal members but liberals who refuse to take on tribal leadership.

“Because of political correctness, greater white society isn’t holding the (tribal) Nation accountable for what it’s doing,” Wilson said.

“This is especially true on the left. They’re politically against the Border Patrol policies. They take a high moral stance about immigrants dying in the desert. But when it comes to addressing the Tohono O’odham government’s complicity in that, they’re silent.

“To not hold me morally accountable tells me that I’m not your moral equal. That’s paternalistic and racist.”

Nation officials in Sells and their media representatives in Tucson didn’t return messages seeking comment.

Smaller footprint?

Some of the Tohono O’odham aren’t sitting silent on a joint plan by tribal elected leaders and the federal government to install a ring of integrated electronic towers designed to locate and shadow illegal immigrants – and residents — moving onto and through the reservation. Called a “virtual fence,” it buttresses a steel barrier built after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The surveillance towers will require generators in remote areas to power them, access roads to reach them, and federal agents to service the equipment and locate the suspects that they track.

Some of the proposed towers and trails encroach on sites sacred to the Tohono O’odham, said Rivas. But Border Patrol told tribal audiences that the project will slash the number of agents needed on Indian land.

“They like to give us promises. ‘The towers mean a smaller Border Patrol footprint.’...We always have heard promises like that,” said Rivas.

Border Patrol declined comment.

Wilson said these towers are merely symptoms of deeper problems – a Tohono O’odham community too divided or complacent to fight Washington for its own sovereignty, and a federal security state that uses fears of illegal immigration, narcotics and terrorism to justify the erosion of civil rights. He believes a precedent is being set that will be applied to other federally-recognized tribes.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Dylan Terrazes of Santa Barbara, Calif., touches his grandmother's fingers in a 'pinky kiss' through the border fence as she meets him for the first time at Friendship Park in Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach, Calif.

Former Pittsburgher preaches at border wall of pain, suffering and separation

IMPERIAL BEACH, Calif. — They can barely glimpse each other through the triple-meshed steel fence.

On the California side, about 12 miles south of San Diego, there’s the undocumented man who came from Seattle. On the other side of the fence, in Mexico’s Playas de Tijuana, is his 88-year-old mom.

They haven’t seen each other for 11 years.

She’s never met any of her grandchildren. Until now.

There’s another father — an American citizen – standing with his red-haired daughter, talking through the fence to his deported Mexican wife.

“El amor no tiene fronteras,” they like to say here. Love has no borders.

You can see that in the children poking fingers through the tiny metal squares, trying to give a repatriated parent on the other side what are called “pinky kisses.”

Carl Prine | Trib Total Media
Rev. Dermot Rodgers, at right, formerly of Pittsburgh, holds ecumenical services along the steel border wall.

“The only thing that fits through the hole is the pinky. I’m waiting for the day they stop that, too,” said the Rev. Dermot Rodgers, 52, nodding at the three Border Patrol agents circling the crowd, ready to pounce on anyone trying to scale the two-story wall or swim around its long jetty into the Pacific surf.

Ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1991 at St. Augustine Church in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood, Rodgers now is affiliated with the Evangelical Catholic Church in California, an organization not recognized by the Vatican.

Border Field State Park, established in 1972, was intended to be a place where Mexicans and Americans could congregate peacefully. All that’s left of the sentiment is the half-acre “Friendship Park,” a spit of pavement squeezed between the ocean and twin layers of razor wire. It looks a lot like much of the rest of a border that stretches 1,933 miles east, except that here federal agents allow people to congregate on both sides of the fence for a few hours every Saturday and Sunday.

Participants told a Tribune-Review investigations reporter that there’s probably more heartbreak here than anywhere else along the border.

Most on the Mexican side said they were deported for getting caught working illegally or committing minor crimes in the United States. Some were brought to America as toddlers by parents who were illegal immigrants. Some are U.S. military combat veterans. Some don’t even speak Spanish.

“Treat us like equals. If you were brought here illegally, that’s not your fault. Instead of deporting us, let us stay on the U.S. side of the border. I don’t know Mexico. I was raised as American,” said Marco Palma, 35, who said he grew up in California but was repatriated to Mexico after a theft conviction.

He said he’s working two jobs to survive in Tijuana and looks forward to reapplying for citizenship three years from now.

“It’s complicated. But something must be done to change things,” said his sister on the U.S. side, Diana Sanchez, 27. Pointing at the fence, she added, “This can’t be the answer.”

Divisions over Obama order

Because she’s one of the estimated 1.6 million law-abiding immigrants brought here as minors, the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, or DACA, temporarily bars Sanchez’s deportation. Established by presidential order by Barack Obama in 2012, the act allowed Sanchez to work legally, obtain a driver’s license and go to school. However, Congress or the next president can end the policy.

Disagreement within the GOP-controlled House of Representatives in 2013 stifled a controversial immigration overhaul bill that cleared the Democrat-held Senate.

Shortly after a landslide Republican victory in November’s midterm elections, President Obama used executive power to block from deportation nearly half of the estimated 11.5 million illegal aliens living in the United States — mostly the parents of childhood act kids.

A coalition of GOP-led states is challenging Obama’s order in court, and Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have vowed to stop its implementation.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
A family stands in the rain on the Mexican side of the border fence as they visit with family at Friendship Park in Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach, Calif. The park is the only place along the entire 1,933 miles of U.S. border with Mexico where families are allowed to congregate on both side of the fence to communicate.

In a two-month trek along the U.S. border with Mexico, residents who spoke with a Trib investigations reporter split on whether Obama’s proposal – called “amnesty” by critics – would spur more illegal immigration.

Doyle E. Amidon, 45, Patrol Agent in Charge of Border Patrol’s station in Falfurrias, Texas, about an hour’s drive north of Mexico, said that Obama’s announcement “could have some impact,” but not if the U.S. advertises overseas that the deal won’t apply to those who arrived after 2013.

Perceptions that the act allowed juveniles illegally crossing the border to become U.S. citizens helped drive 68,541 minors — many of them from Central America — into the southwestern states in the fiscal year that ended in October.

Since then, word of mouth from deported immigrants and U.S. ad campaigns south of the border sliced juvenile apprehensions from 36,280 minors in April 2014 to 18,919 at the same time this year, a 48 percent decline, according to the most recent Homeland Security report.

Border crossings are seasonal, rising as the weather warms, so apprehensions are expected to climb from April’s tally and tail off in autumn.

Perceptions that the act allowed juveniles illegally crossing the border to become U.S. citizens helped drive 68,541 minors — many of them from Central America — into the southwestern states in the fiscal year that ended in October.

Since then, word of mouth from deported immigrants and U.S. ad campaigns south of the border sliced juvenile apprehensions. Between Oct. 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014, federal officials had detained 57,478 juveniles unlawfully entering the United States without their parents.

So far in the current federal fiscal year, they have tallied 26,685 arrests – down 54 percent.

Calculating apprehensions from the first half of the year, however, the estimated number of juveniles detained along the border likely will slump to around 39,000 minors for the year ending in October, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank in Washington dedicated to analysis of the movement of people worldwide.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Concepcion Salazar looks through the border fence from Tijuana, Mexico, into Friendship Park in Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach, Calif. She met her grandchildren for the first time and visited with her family, whom she hadn't seen in 20 years.

Vicki B. Gaubeca, 53, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Regional Center for Border Rights in Los Ebanos, N.M., said U.S. immigration policies lean too heavily on “prevention through deterrence” security and not enough on finding creative ways to provide entry visas and pathways to citizenship to foreign workers, and that’s only helped Mexican smuggling syndicates.

“You’re forcing these people into the hands of the cartels,” she said.

About 400,000 special work visas are now issued annually to temporary foreign workers and investors, according to the U.S. State Department. Most are designated for computer technicians and other skilled workers, however, and not for the less skilled workers coming from Mexico and Central American nations seeking work.

Legals became illegals

Homeland Security this year will begin removal actions against more than 600,000 foreigners living in the United States. That’s half the number of deportations only nine years ago, but the figure comes with an important asterisk. Two out of every five illegal immigrants did not jump the border to get here but entered legally and then overstayed their visas, according to a 2006 Homeland Security survey.

Those figures haven’t been updated and point to a problem neither expanded border security nor deportation efforts has fixed, despite higher congressional spending on Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the wing of Homeland Security tasked with repatriating those found living unlawfully in the American heartland.

Between 2003 and 2013, ICE’s budget grew 73 percent to nearly $6 billion and the number of agents deporting aliens doubled to more than 6,300 officers. But 11.5 million unlawful immigrants remain in the country, with 2.5 million in California alone.

In Friendship Park, families say the solution is temporary amnesty from deportation and a path to citizenship.

Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
The U.S.-Mexico border fence runs out into the Pacific Ocean near Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach, Calif. The area is heavily monitored by Border Patrol as well as the Coast Guard.

In Texas, former Rio Grande City mayor Ruben Villarreal told a Trib investigations reporter that it makes sense not only to raise the number of work permits for foreigners, but to crack down on those who stay here illegally. The well-liked Republican believes each childhood act kid should perform 4,000 hours of community service to stay in America: “Citizenship shouldn’t be free. It should be earned.”

He steadfastly supports more funding for Border Patrol and believes Congress should guide immigration policy, not presidential orders. In April, he stepped down as Rio Grande City mayor and announced that he was exploring a run for Congress.

Villarreal’s concerns appear to tap into the country’s mood. A poll released May 21 by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that 56 percent of Americans disapproved of how the president is handling unlawful immigration, triggering louder calls by critics for a brake on executive action.

“We’re totally opposed in every conceivable way to the president’s amnesty measures,” said Joe Guzzardi, 71, spokesman of the nonprofit Californians for Population Stabilization, which seeks to curb illegal and many forms of legal immigration from its headquarters in Santa Barbara, about 230 miles north of Friendship Park.

“If the program goes through, illegal aliens are going to be allowed to get Social Security numbers, apply for welfare benefits, compete for jobs, when they’re not even legal citizens. That’s not right,” said Guzzardi, who represents the California group from his home — in Bradford Woods, north of Pittsburgh.

“It’s the weirdest thing. You never hear anyone speak Spanish in the groceries here. But in California, you hear it all the time. Immigration transformed California, in a very short span of time, and not necessarily for the better.”

REUTERS
Supporters of the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix gathered for a 'Love is Stronger Than Hate' rally June 1, four days after more than 200 protesters demonstrated and berated Islam outside the mosque. Two gunmen who previously worshipped there opened fire outside an anti-Islam event in Texas featuring cartoon drawings of the Prophet Mohammed.

Muslim Americans have lived quietly on U.S. border for decades

CALEXICO, Calif. – If you stumble into El Vaquero Western Wear, you’re likely to find American and Mexican ranchers haggling with the manager over the deepest discount they can get on Stetson hats, cattlemen shirts and a gleaming row of black and brown cowboy boots.

Squeezed near the Wal-Mart Supercenter, El Vaquero smells of shoe leather and denim. The man at the register bounces machine gun-fast between Spanish, English and — when family stops by — Arabic.

Talab Rashid, 30, husband and father of two, was born in the United States, raised in Palestine, and now sells cowboy clothes to Mexicans.

“I feel American. I feel Palestinian. I feel Mexican,” joked Rashid with a grin that seems nearly as wide as the Yuha Desert spreading east and west around the town.

“Ha! They call me ‘The Mexican!’ They say I’m more Mexican than a Mexican.”

While some fret about Islamist terrorists crossing the border to attack the United States, more than a quarter-million Americans of Muslim faith already live quietly along the U.S. border — including about 150 here in the agriculturally rich Imperial Valley.

Many of their communities were established in the borderlands generations ago; they don’t like the demonization of their religion.

Media coverage of the May 3 armed assault on a cartoon exhibit of the Prophet Muhammad in Garland, Texas, refocused attention on Muslim Americans and the potential threat of “lone wolf” terrorists radicalized online. In an exchange of gunfire, police killed Elton Simpson, 30, and Nadir Soofi, 34, who drove to Texas from Phoenix, apparently to revenge what they felt was the desecration of a holy figure.

Carl Prine | Trib Total Media
Steel walls three stories high divide the California town of Calexico from the much larger city of Mexicali, Mexico. Even historic landmarks such as American border markers are now encased behind the mesh.

Rashid said that he and others in Calexico talk about illegal immigration and terrorism, but also about a wide range of other things, like the schools their children attend, healthcare and city planning, the lack of affordable housing and the inevitable battles over water rights for irrigation — all without resorting to stereotypes about Muslims.

Americans concerned about Muslims on the border “are looking at a picture, a stereotype. Noisy words trapped in their minds. We’re all the same,” said Rashid as a group of American cowboys nodded in agreement.

“Islam teaches us morality, ethics, how to care for your mind and body. Islam is part of America. We’re Americans. I get along with everyone because of Islam,” he said.

During a two-month, 1,933-mile journey along the U.S.-Mexico border from east Texas to Southern California, a Tribune-Review investigations reporter and photographer passed 151 mosques and a population of Muslim Americans estimated at more than 236,000 people, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives that’s housed at Pennsylvania State University.

Muslims constitute the seventh largest religious group along the border, far behind the 5.8 million Catholics, 3.6 million Evangelical Protestants and 660,000 Mormons, but nearly double the number of Presbyterians or Episcopalians.

About 150 Muslims live in the agriculturally rich Imperial Valley – about one of every 1,000 citizens – and an Islamic center is in nearby El Centro.

Border Patrol agents, Rashid said, do “a great job” and “keep us safe.” But he said Congress should consider expanding the number of temporary work visas for Mexican workers who want to reside lawfully in the United States.

Analyzing the 3,254 American coyotes convicted in federal courts in 2013 and 2014 for transporting or harboring undocumented immigrants in the borderlands, a Trib special investigation found only three smugglers of Arab descent using the federal government’s reporting codes on court cases. They involved an American and a Jordanian caught trying to bring Middle Eastern relatives through a Texas port of entry, and an Iraqi refugee here legally got nabbed driving two Mexicans in Arizona.

In late 2012, federal officials reported that a drug informer helped them to unravel an Iranian plot to pay Los Zetas, a Mexican cartel, to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States.

Supporters of violent Islamist groups have talked on social media about using the border to enter the United States.

In public statements and during testimony before Congress, Homeland Security officials insisted no credible evidence exists that the Islamic State, al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups have tried to enter from Mexico.

Sheikh Mustafa Umar
Those officials say they’re more worried about terrorists infiltrating through airports using valid visas, or homegrown militants radicalized over the Internet.

Homeland Security’s most recent statistical yearbook showed that, in 2013, the agency arrested 4,375 people nationwide from 35 “special-interest countries” — from Afghanistan and Iraq to the Philippines — who came here illegally. In the same year, the United States granted lawful permanent residency to 113,821 people from those nations, many of them refugees.

The lack of terrorists netted along the border hasn’t stopped Republicans and Democrats from using the issue to rally support.

During February’s battle over Homeland Security funding, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee used robo-calls to warn that “known terrorists are trying to sneak across the border.” The group later said it was echoing the concerns of GOP presidential hopeful and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who, like other candidates, continues to stoke concerns over the issue.

Muslims along the border said Washington demagoguery about wars in the Middle East, fears of new terror attacks and an ongoing debate over U.S. immigration policies have mixed together, producing stereotypes about Muslim Americans.

“I try to give people some context so that their misconceptions about us don’t spin out of control,” said Sheikh Mustafa Umar, 33, director of education and outreach at California’s Islamic Institute of Orange County.

Born and raised in Orange County, Umar said Muslim families live on both sides of the border. His father runs a shop that sells Mexican groceries. Two of Umar’s books on Islam have been translated into Spanish, and the institute makes regular visits to Tijuana to drop off religious materials.

“I think that if people came down to the border and met the Muslims there,” Umar said, “they would see ... we’re Americans.”

How we did it

One thing really does lead to another.

Carl Prine
Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine, researching a story on illegal immigration in Western Pennsylvania, found few deportations.

What he did find amid the court filings was a probation transfer order from the Southern U.S. District Court of California. On Oct. 27, 2008, federal Border Patrol officers at the San Ysidro Port of Entry south of San Diego nabbed Justin David Mitchell, a college student and Washington County, Pa. native for being a “coyote” — someone who smuggles undocumented people into the United States.

Mitchell was caught trying to sneak three Mexicans, hidden inside a Chevy Silverado truck, through the inspection lane. He spent 15 months in prison and returned to his parents’ home in Pennsylvania to serve his probation.

The United Nations estimated that 90 percent of all illegal immigrants entering the United States paid coyotes to smuggle them past increasing security. The Trib wanted to know how many Americans like Mitchell are involved in smuggling illegal immigrants from Mexico into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Answering that question wasn’t easy.

Using the online PACER system for federal court records, searching district by district for those charged with violating 8 U.S. Code 1324.F, Prine found that 92 percent of all convictions in the United States were tied to just the southernmost counties of four states along the Mexico border. Between Jan. 1, 2013, and Dec. 31, 2014, 3,254 smugglers were convicted.

Justin Merriman
To understand the illicit networks, the Trib pored through court records and built — keystroke by keystroke — a database containing the convicts’ identities, aliases, ages, hometowns, nationalities, connections to other smugglers and organized crime on both sides of the border, where they got caught, where they were arrested and by whom, where they were going, the number of illegal immigrants they were smuggling, where the migrants were from, how much the illegal immigrants paid to get into the United States, and much, much more.

Prine then crafted additional databases based on information gathered from probation or prison records, and federal intelligence on cartels that was leaked to the newspaper.

What the Trib learned was that three of every five coyotes caught in the southern borderlands were U.S. citizens who smuggled illegal immigrants in exchange for money, drugs or both. Americans play key roles in the smuggling operations, especially driving undocumented aliens across vast distances and interfacing with other Americans.

Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman then spent two months traveling more than 1,900 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, from the southern toe of Texas to the Pacific Ocean. Traveling by vehicle, boat, and on foot, they interviewed dozens of people along the way to document the impact of smuggling on human residents and communities there — and beyond.

This series presentation involved the teamwork of numerous Tribune-Review editors, copy desk editors, and other staffers.

Special acknowledgement goes to:

Senior designer: Elizabeth Kane Jackson

Web programmers: Randy Wright and Steve Segal

Chief of Photography: John Schisler

Chief of Graphics: Bob Newell

Investigations Team Editor: Jim Wilhelm

To see more work by the Tribune-Review investigations team, go to: http://triblive.com/investigative

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See what they saw

Here is a map showing the journey of more than 1,900 miles that Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman took across the southwest border of the United States from the southern toe of Texas to the Pacific Ocean to report on Americans who smuggle illegal immigrants into the United States and their impact. By clicking on the red dots along the route you will see photos that show what sights they saw there. Some places have multiple photos that can be viewed by clicking the > arrow.

About the Journalists

Carl Prine

Carl Prine
An investigative reporter, Prine, 48, joined the Tribune-Review in 2000 and has won numerous regional, state and national journalism awards for his work. He specializes in data-based reporting and complex stories about national security, crime and sports. An infantry veteran of the Marine Corps and Pennsylvania Army National Guard, his last tour of duty was in Iraq. He is married and lives in the North Hills.

Justin Merriman

Justin Merriman
Merriman, 37, a photojournalist, joined the Tribune-Review in 2002 after previously working at the Valley News Dispatch since 2000. He has won numerous regional, state, national and international awards for his photography, specializing in coverage of politics, wars, natural disasters and civil unrest. He has taken photographs everywhere from a bucket truck high above the Pittsburgh Marathon to conflicts in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and Crimea. He lives in Oakmont with his fiancée, Trib photographer Stephanie Strasburg.