Searches for migrants, drugs divert resources
Luke Turf, Tucson Citizen, Feb. 18
CORONADO NATIONAL MEMORIAL-Violence in the Huachuca Mountains has National Park Service rangers here spending more time chasing drug smugglers and illegal immigrants and less time with taxpaying park visitors, the rangers say.
And it’s dangerous work.
The threat of smugglers willing to resort to violence to escape run-ins with law enforcement is becoming all too familiar.
Three times in the past two weeks federal officers along the border have fired at suspects, including one case where a suspected smuggler pulled a gun on a ranger.
On Feb. 6, a ranger here opened fire when an immigrant smuggler pulled a gun. The suspect fled and wasn’t hit or captured, said FBI spokeswoman Susan Herskovits.
On Saturday, a Border Patrol agent shot a Mexican man after he had crossed the border illegally in Douglas she said. Someone had been throwing rocks at the agent, she said. The man is recovering in Agua Prieta, Son.
And yesterday, an agent fired at a drug smuggling suspect who was spotted in Bisbee and chased down and captured near Naco.
Park rangers who might otherwise help picnickers or hikers are spending their nights waiting in the darkness for smugglers.
Coronado Chief Ranger Thane Weigand said his rangers are the police force on Park Service land, and are trained to enforce all federal laws.
“We have a responsibility to provide homeland security,” he said. “Being on the border, we don’t have a choice.”
On one recent night, Ranger Joe Larson said he hoped to run in to the smuggler who aimed a gun at a ranger Feb. 6.
Larson leads three rangers up a narrow, winding path-all of them carrying AR-15s, sidearms, flashlights and blankets-as sunset turns the sky purple.
All of them wear bullet-proof vests.
Only two rangers were working when the smuggler pulled the gun, Larson said. This shift has four, two sent from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in response to the gun-toting smuggler.
Organ Pipe rangers know the threat as well as anyone. It was there in August 2002 that a smuggler killed Ranger Kris Eggle. Since then Organ Pipe has received more staffing and supplies and started construction of a vehicle barrier to keep smugglers out.
“The agencies are usually proactive after somebody dies. Is that what it’s going to take? I don’t know,” Larson said. “We need a lot more manpower, I’d like to see 10.”
Just two rangers and a chief ranger guard the memorial, which shares 3.5 miles of border with Mexico, Larson said.
On a saddle high in the Huachuca Mountains Larson tells his camouflaged crew to wait for darkness. It’s still light enough for a scout higher in the mountains to see his crew and warn the smugglers to take a different route, Larson said.
Dope and immigrant smugglers frequent these hills trying to get their loads down to Highway 92. Technical surveillance picked up on a group heading this way on this night.
But the smugglers’ equipment often rivals that of the rangers, Larson said. Besides radios and cell phones, some are carrying guns.
Darkness falls, and the only light comes from a star-sprayed sky. The reddish color of the trail is no longer visible as the rangers creep up the rest of the hill, hidden from smugglers by the brush and darkness. The lights of Bisbee and Douglas shine in the distance as the temperature drops quickly. Patches of snow are still around. The wind carries a chill. Larson hides along a trail, while two of his crew hide in a cave around the bend and another hides farther up the hill.
One hour, two hours, two and a half hours of silence, stillness. The cold numbs everyone’s toes as they sit waiting, watching.
Suddenly, commotion. One of the rangers with Larson flips the switch on his million-candle power flashlight, temporarily blinding some of the 15 illegal immigrants they were waiting for. Shouts in Spanish include “Stop” and “Hands up.”
Adan Meja is surprised. The 29-year-old from Hidalgo, Mexico, was on his way to California, where his wife, two American-born children and a restaurant job await.
Meja runs. He stumbles and slams onto the trail, scurrying off of it in a last-ditch attempt to escape. But the rangers are right above him on the trail, rather, he’s right below the flashlight on a ranger’s gun.
Meja has nowhere to go.
“Yeah, they got us,” Meja said. “I’ll try again, my kids are here.”
Vicente Martinez is in the same group. He’s bound for Phoenix for the first time to work in the fields because there’s no work in his home state of Queretaro, Mexico, Martinez said.
Martinez knew he was caught when he saw the light.
“Where could I have gone?” Martinez, 30, asked.
The group of Mexican men agreed to pay $1,500 each for a trip from Naco, Son., over the Huachucas to Phoenix, where some would stay, Martinez said. Others were going as far as Georgia and New York.
Since they didn’t make it they won’t have to pay. That’s the deal.
No dope in the backpacks tonight. And none of the 15 men in the group carries a flashlight. But one has a camera and the group poses as Larson snaps a shot for them. Illegal border crossers likely wouldn’t stumble upon this Park Service trail high in the Huachucas, so one of them must be the smuggler, Larson said.
He suspects it’s the man who was in front, who now claims he was second in line. He’s carrying a Super Mario Brothers backpack and wearing an adidas cap. Someone else is carrying a cell phone.
Larson and his crew turn the men over to the U.S. Border Patrol, which will try to determine if the man in the adidas cap is the guide.
After the commotion, the migrants warm up to the rangers and joke a bit. Before they march single file down the trail they’re warned that if one person tries to run, the rangers will take everyone’s shoes.
No one runs.
And so another shift comes to an end for the four rangers.
Another shift without interacting with people who have come to visit the park, not sneak through it.
AT A GLANCE:
- More than 9,200 illegal immigrants caught by rangers in the memorial.
- More than 24,700 pounds of marijuana seized in or near the memorial.
- February 1-14, 2004
- 160 illegal immigrants caught in the memorial.
- No drug seizures in 2004