Big Bend Sector agents rely on technology, experience to safeguard huge swath of U.S.-Mexico border

Border Report

Strategically placed emergency beacons allow migrants lost in the desert call for help; highway checkpoints filter out drug loads

MARFA, Texas (Border Report) — Helicopters, horses, all-terrain vehicles and electronic sensors. Those are some of the tools federal agents in the Big Bend sector of Texas utilize to patrol one of the largest stretches of border between Mexico and the United States.

“We use a lot of technology in support of our mission of detecting and apprehending coming across the border. Some of those technologies are camera systems, remote unmanned aerial systems as well as emergency towers,” said Greg L. Davis, public affairs officer for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Big Bend Sector.

U.S. Border Patrol agents display an emergency tower during an open house at Big Bend Sector headquarters in Marfa, Texas. (Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

The emergency towers are new 20-foot-plus solar-powered devices with drawings and instructions in English and Spanish so that migrants who get lost in the desert or left behind by smugglers can call for help. Those in need of help are instructed to press a red button and sit to wait to be rescued by the Border Patrol.

Other technologies include truck-mounted digital cameras, drones and buried ground sensors that alert agents to foot traffic in remote areas in the Big Bend, which includes 517 miles of border.

But when it comes to rescues, Border Patrol often calls in the cavalry — literally.

“The terrain around Presidio (Texas) is very harsh. It’s very hot. Just doing our regular duties always turns into a rescue of some sort,” said Supervisory Agent Joshua Guerrero, a member of the Border Patrol mounted unit.

Guerrero and other members of the mounted unit this week located and rendered aid to 23 migrants between Presidio and Marfa. “The people that we find out there usually aren’t in very good condition,” he said.

Children pet a horse that is part of the Border Patrol’s mounted unit in Marfa, Texas. (photo by Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

And while the Border Patrol is best known for its enforcement of U.S. immigration laws, the role they play in stemming the flow of drugs into America is just as strategic.

Presidio is not just the busiest commercial port of entry in Big Bend, but it sits across the Rio Grande from Ojinaga, Mexico, where La Linea and the Sinaloa cartel operate, according to U.S. private security experts. Both transnational criminal organizations often infiltrate drug couriers among groups of migrants who cross the border illegally into the United States, officials said.

CBP statistics show that the overwhelming number of drug seizures in the Big Bend sector involve marijuana.

CBP’s Davis said the Border Patrol has to constantly adjust to changes in routes and methods employed by the drug cartels. He said the cartels, too, have learned to adjust and even mentioned their use of “counterintelligence” — the tracking of U.S. law enforcement activities.

When smugglers on foot manage to evade capture, they often offload the drugs on the U.S. side so they can be transported into the interior of the United States in passenger vehicles or commercial trucks. That’s where the Border Patrol highway checkpoints come into play.

At the checkpoint on Highway 67 between Presidio and Marfa, agents stop every car and truck, ask passengers for citizenship and inspect the vehicles, often with the assistance of a drug-sniffing dog.

A U.S. Border Patrol agent questions the occupants of a truck at a highway checkpoint near Presidio, Texas. (Border Report photo)

It may be possible to avoid the checkpoints by carrying the drugs in backpacks through the desert, but it’s not easy.

“You’re looking at a good 30 miles from here to Ojinaga,” said a rancher opening the gate to his property off Highway 67. The man, who declined to identify himself, said he’s seen plenty of migrants come through his property in the past. However, he said this year he hasn’t seen as many.

“They don’t bother anymore. All they have to do is turn themselves in and ask for asylum or what have you,” he said.

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