Securing The Yuma Sector

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How Border Patrol’s Yuma Sector faces border security challenges and stops drug smugglers, human traffickers, and transnational terrorists.

By Steve Melito and George Jagels

In Washington, D.C. the debate over immigration reform continues. Resolution seems no more likely after the November 2014 elections than it does today. Meanwhile, U.S. borders must be secured, an immense task under the best of circumstances. The Southwest Border, however, rarely offers easy days or simple decisions.

Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents combat drug and human trafficking, the smuggling of contraband, and terrorism. Their job requires dynamism and an acceptance of great risk. By examining how a small but important Border Patrol sector operates, S&BP puts political posturing aside and considers the real-world challenges of border security in the U.S. Southwest.

Diverse Desert Terrain

Straddling the Mexican border for 126 miles, Yuma Sector is neither a highly populated area like El Paso-Juarez, nor an extremely rural region like the border sector between North Dakota and Manitoba. With a population of 95,500, Yuma, AZ, is the largest city in the sector. The Border Patrol, part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at the Department of Homeland Security, maintains a station there, along with stations in Blythe, CA, and Wellton, AZ. Yuma Sector is also responsible for all of Nevada.

Within this region of responsibility, Yuma Sector agents cover a diverse desert terrain. To the east, the jagged Gila Mountains are reminiscent of the most picturesque Southwestern landscapes. To the west, the Imperial Sand Dunes are a different type of desert, popular with recreational vehicle enthusiasts. The sector also contains the ever-changing Colorado River, the rocky Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife refuge, the border city of San Luis, significant agricultural acreage, and busy roadways (Interstate 8 passes through Yuma). In addition, there are large and active military installations. The Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range is a 1.7 million acre bombing range, and Marine Corps Air Station Yuma is home to multiple squadrons.

The beauty of the land and the variety of human activity do not change the harsh realities of desert life. Extreme heat is the norm during summer months, with temperatures as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Unlike travelers on Interstate 8 or local residents in their homes, Border Patrol agents aren’t immersed in air conditioned comfort throughout the day. Such high temperature conditions also challenge those who would enter the U.S. illegally.

Yuma Border Patrol Smuggling

An abandoned truck retrofitted to assist vehicles illegally cross the border into the United States. (CBP)

Stopping Illicit Activity

Over the past eight years, Yuma Sector has seen a remarkable decline in illicit activity. In FY 2005, agents conducted 138,438 illegal alien apprehensions, or almost 13 percent of all CBP apprehensions that year. By last year, however, that percentage had gradually fallen to 1.5 percent, or just 6,106 apprehensions. Given recent media coverage of the Southwestern border, these numbers may seem surprising.

A number of factors account for the statistical changes. Although CBP staffing levels grew, the number of arrests fell—a pattern which suggests less illegal immigration overall. National Guard assistance, border security technology, and improved Agent T. David Lines told S&BP.

For example, during Yuma Sector’s busier years in the mid-2000s, agents worked closely with the National Guard to increase protection of the border. The Guard assisted with administrative duties as well as the repair of border fences and the maintenance of surveillance equipment.

Yet the Yuma Sector still faces three key challenges: drug trafficking, terrorism prevention, and stopping the entry of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Smugglers, Lines said, are always trying to find new ways to cross the border. In the past, transporting narcotics in vehicles was common. Today, Border Patrol agents are encountering “trekkers” who cross the desert with 50-pound backpacks full of marijuana.

“You get a group from five to ten people. Nine will have [marijuana-filled] backpacks and one will be in charge of carrying water for the group,” said Lines, who is based in the remote Wellton Station. “The nearest road in the desert can be from 20 to 80 miles away. People walking through the desert can be out there for a week or two. We’ll track them in our trucks, on ATVs, or on foot.” Smugglers still find ways to adapt. “They’ll try to hide their footprints in the sand by putting foam booties on their feet,” Lines said.

Smugglers also use the Yuma Sector’s military installations for cover. “Sometimes people walk right through [the ranges], day or night,” Lines said. “They know that if they do get on a range and jets are flying, it will be more difficult for us to go and apprehend them. You have to get clearance and it takes a little time.”

These methods are hardly the most desperate ones seen by Yuma Sector agents. Agent Douglas Choi, who is based at the station in Yuma, told S&BP that “people have tried to build ramps to get [vehicles] over the barrier,” a reference to fencing along the border. Choi also described how smugglers “built a pneumatic cannon shooting Folger cans stuffed with marijuana.” These tactics may seem humorous, but might also indicate how effective the agency’s interdiction efforts are.

Tunnel ilegal cross border Mexico U.S.

Tunnels are a common way to transport contraband, mostly narcotics, into the United States from Mexico. This one was discovered in Yuma Sector. (CBP)

Leveraging Technology

In addition to halting drug traffickers and human smugglers, the Border Patrol is responsible for stopping transnational criminals and terrorists who would enter the U.S. Stopping weapons of mass destruction is, of course, a high priority.

At border checkpoints, each agent carries a personal radiation detector (PRD) that resembles a pager. Any radiation passing through a checkpoint triggers the PRD. The closer an agent moves to the source of radiation, the higher the number on the display. Agents may also use a radiation isotope identification device (RIID), which analyzes the energy spectrum to determine which type of radioactive material is present.

In the backcountry, the Border Patrol maximizes manpower through simple but effective means. Ground sensors, similar to the trail cameras that hunters use, detect movement and alert agents to intruders. “There are ground sensors for vehicle traffic and foot traffic,” Lines explained. “Cameras are deployed in strategic places that send snapshots to cell phones to show exactly what went by.”

Since most illegal activity occurs at night, personal infrared technology is highly valued in Yuma Sector. The hand-held infrared system available to agents is mobile, and can be used to track suspected illegals or smugglers. Foam booties can hide tracks, but they can’t hide a person’s heat signature. The Yuma Sector has also made improvements in surveillance equipment such as the Mobile Surveillance System (MSS), an infrared radar system that allows agents to maintain enhanced surveillance of large areas of the border. “The MSS and its operator act as a force multiplier for agents in the field,” Lines told S&BP.

Night vision equipment and long arms are available at the armory. “I encouraged taking out a long arm at my musters [because] agents are isolated,” Lines said, “but if [agents] don’t want to take one out, they don’t have to.” When non-lethal force is required, Yuma Sector agents have access to the Fabrique National (FN) 303, a semi-automatic weapon capable of launching five different types of non-lethal projectiles up to 100 meters, as well as an electronic control weapon to enhance nonlethal force devices.

Equipment testing is not performed by agents themselves, and Choi noted that nothing used at Yuma is sector-specific. The CBP’s Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition, among others, handles the procurement of new equipment. Still, agents can and do offer feedback about what works best.

Given the remoteness of Yuma Sector, S&BP asked Choi and Lines if small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could help agents who patrol vast swaths of desert. (Yuma Sector does not have any drones, but CBP has around ten.) Inexpensive and relatively easy to operate, battery-powered planes and helicopters can be equipped with thermal cameras and night vision capabilities.

Conventional air units, Choi explained, “are very helpful [because] they can get places more quickly, especially if we’re on foot.” Yet neither Lines nor Choi were ready to endorse drones, at least in Yuma Sector. “A UAV could be useful,” Lines said, “but it depends on the Barry Goldwater Range. [There are] constantly planes up there [and] this might make UAV use challenging.” Choi added that crop dusters and other air traffic around the city of Yuma could also pose problems. Ultimately, considering the needs of neighbors remains on the sector’s radar.

Building Partnerships and Facing Challenges 

Today, Yuma Sector maintains extensive partnerships with state, local, tribal, and military organizations. This practice is “a vital segment of the strategy that has aided efforts to improve border security,” Lines explained.

In FY 2014, a Homeland Security Grant Program called Operation Stone Garden was allocated $55 million to bolster cooperation among local, state, tribal, and federal law enforcement in border areas around the U.S. The program funds agencies of Yuma and San Luis, as well as the Cocopah and Quechan tribal nations. “This provides incentive for their personnel to patrol areas of the border within their authorized areas and provide assistance to Border Patrol agents,” Lines contended.

During ongoing efforts to combat smuggling, terrorism, and other criminal activities, the Border Patrol is still confronted by what Lines described as a “well-funded and creative ‘enemy.’” Technology helps, but a flexible response is essential. Day-to-day and on the ground, challenges evolve but the story remains the same. “It really comes down to the agent being vigilant, knowing what’s going to be in his area, what types of people and traffic will be in his area at that time of the day,” Choi emphasized.

Lead art:  Across the Yuma Sector, CBP faces challenges on foot and in vehicles, and from underground, overs walls, and above fences. (CBP)

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Security & Border Protection.