Sunshine, Saguaros, and Smugglers

By John Wahala and John Wahala on March 14, 2012

In late February, the Center for Immigration Studies hosted its second tour of the southwest border. Last year we explored the eastern half of Arizona and this year we began just west of Yuma in the Imperial Valley of California. Led by Jerry Kammer, our group crisscrossed almost a thousand miles, from the dunes around Algodones to the eastern portions of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge near Tucson. We saw captivating landscapes and got invaluable insight on the human and drug cartels that operate in the area.

View more pictures from Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument


It does not take armed escorts to question whether the border is secure. That they are required on large swaths of federal land, however, does challenge the Washington notion that everything is under control. Almost 70 percent of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument’s 330,689 acres have been closed since 2002 after a ranger was fatally shot pursuing drug traffickers. The situation is similar to the east at Buenos Aires, where 3,500 acres have been restricted because the international border with Mexico has become increasingly violent.

View more pictures from the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge


The Mexican government has acknowledged that more than 47,000 people have been killed by drug violence in their country in just the past five years and the U.S. State Department identifies Mexico as one of the most dangerous countries in the world, warning U.S. citizens about traveling there. Longtime observers believe the conditions will continue to get worse.

Fortunately most of the carnage has stayed south of the border. Multibillion dollar cartels know it would be foolish to create chaos in the United States and risk rousing our political elite, who have long been ambivalent about securing the border. Therefore many residents are able to maintain normal lives insulated from the internecine violence a few miles away.

Violence does, however, occasionally erupt. Ranchers who own land valuable for smuggling have been threatened or killed, as have law enforcement agents who have tried to stop the incursions. One agent admitted that he has a bounty on his head. Before touring a restricted area, we were warned that our caravan would be under surveillance by lookouts who camp in the mountains, sometimes for weeks, to shepherd drugs or groups of illegal aliens to their desired destination. The terrain is so rugged and remote it is impossible for the small number of agents deployed on foot or horseback to stop these lookouts. Agents are prohibited from patrolling alone and employee housing on these lands goes unoccupied since it is too dangerous to live in desolate areas.

To some extent, this loss of control is also seen in more populated areas on the border. A young woman in Yuma whose husband is a Marine told me they were both instructed to stay on base as much as possible. After a fellow Marine was shot in Mexico, none of the soldiers are permitted to spend time there. Of the dozen or so officials we met, all but one said neither themselves nor their families venture south of the border. A retired anti-smuggling investigator claimed there is no way to determine how many people are crossing illegally, where they are from, or their motives. But he is certain they are still coming in large numbers. He showed us the trails around San Luis worn by illegal crossers and told us about the pursuits he initiated.

View more pictures from Yuma, Imperial Valley, and San Luis


The millions who come in search of work are ruthlessly exploited by the smugglers who control the traffic. They are charged exorbitant sums, repeatedly misled, and sometimes raped or left to die in the unforgiving desert. The routes have shifted to more remote areas after enforcement initiatives increased near cities that had grown weary of the constant traffic. This has made the journey more difficult — and more difficult to stop.

View more pictures from Ajo and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge


One group that has been hurt by the shift in illegal traffic is the Tohono O’odham Indian Nation. Located between Ajo and Tucson, their territory is roughly the size of Connecticut and extends into Mexico. But with only about 14,000 members on the northern side of the border, their sparsely inhabited land is a prime target for those wishing to avoid interdiction. Tribal leaders who value their sovereignty have increasingly sought federal protection. On a tour of their border, which has recently been fenced with vehicle barriers, we witnessed an attempted crossing disrupted by a U.S. helicopter patrol as a small plane mysteriously circled on the Mexican side. Further complicating enforcement is the reality that many tribal members have been lured into the drug trade by the astonishing profits. A well-informed journalist told me that half of the nation is on the take.

Before leaving Tohono O’odham we visited an abandoned layup site, a spot where illegal crossers are instructed to gather to await transport farther north. The area was littered with garbage because smugglers force their customers to abandon everything they are carrying so they can be stacked into vehicles as tightly as possible. We saw backpacks, clothing, shoes, and hygiene products, among other things. A group of workers slowly cleared the area. One man showed me an empty burlap sack, the kind that is used to carry large loads of marijuana. Black plastic water jugs, which are used to evade detection from air patrols, were strewn everywhere. We also saw knit slippers worn to cover tracks made through the sand. I found a tightly wound plastic bag of what looked like narcotic but was told it was salt, which is taken to prevent dehydration. A woman’s undergarment hung on a tree. Sometimes this is a sign of conquest.

View more pictures from the Tohono O'odham Nation


Many on the cleanup crew have been victimized by the illegal crossings. One man told us about coming home from work to find his house broken into by a desperate illegal alien who had bled all over his living room and stolen his belongings. The man was later apprehended with the purloined goods. Stories like that are common for people who live along certain sections of the border.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality also cleans up trash left behind. Two of their managers told us about a remote layup site discovered in Coronado National Monument that shocked even their most veteran employees. Tons of garbage were eventually removed from a ravine that had been used as a dumping ground by thousands of illegal aliens. Hundreds of sites of varying size have been found. Removing the garbage is dangerous because workers never know who they might encounter. Illegal crossings occur at all hours and we were told by law enforcement that many drug runners actually prefer the daylight. The work is also hazardous because the trash contains harmful waste such as hypodermic needles and has been known to carry tuberculosis and other diseases.

This was all part our recent glimpse of the southwest. It is a region of rugged natural beauty and sustained civic upheaval. Some residents are able to insulate themselves from the illegality, but many cannot. As the debate over what to do continues and people discuss things like more temporary work programs and legalizing drugs, one thing remains certain: A nation must have borders. Maintaining them will require several different approaches, but most importantly, it will require political will. This is what has been lacking. Although it is easy for distant Washington to minimize the problems of the southwest, they are of paramount importance.