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.
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.
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.
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.