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Backstory: Inside 'Border Patrol, Inc.'

With ATVs, sensors, and drones, US agents fight illegal crossings, often in vain.

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In another room, the walls are decorated with photos of confiscated items - knives, shotguns, 4,391 pounds of cocaine from a bust. Here, junior agents attend classes in Spanish and immigration law one day a week for 10 months. They're tested twice. If they fail, they lose their job. The lessons are a follow-up to the 19 weeks the agents spend at an academy that includes the equivalent of three years of college Spanish. Jim Hawkins, a senior agent, says the border patrol receives 40,000 applications a year. Only 2,000 to 3,000 survive screening and training.

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Another room in the building is reserved for confiscated drugs. On this day, agents have loaded some 5,000 pounds of marijuana into two Penske moving vans and sent it north to Tucson for burning, which happens once a week.


To stem illegal entries in Nogales, the agency is trying a "defense in depth" strategy. It involves blocking smuggling routes through the town with the lit up "iron curtain" - and pushing the traffickers farther out in the desert, where agents have two or three days to track them. The idea is also to avoid shootouts in populated areas.

On the ground, the agency is bolstering surveillance with a new "scope truck." It looks like a Chevy camper. But the roof has been cut out and a large infrared camera sits in the back like a periscope. Controlling it with a joy stick, agents can see illegals at night as far as six miles away.

We leave headquarters and bump along a road for several miles that follows a border ridge through the Coronado National Forest. Only three strings of barbed wire separate the US from Mexico here. The Mexico side is on high ground - rolling hills dotted with oak and walnut trees that provide cover for smugglers. Although no people are crossing, worn paths littered with empty water jugs wind across the border at frequent intervals.

We circle back west and head through the city, where houses are painted in pastels. Hawkins points out what he calls the most troublesome drug-smuggling neighborhood in Nogales. A supposed drug lord's large hacienda sits among scores of shanties.

Farther east we reach Hamburger Hill, a notorious smuggling route. Below, the welders repair the fence. Their truck is fortified with mesh cages to protect the windows from the rock throwers. Sometimes the stoning is just a diversion, Hawkins says: While the youths throw, a smuggler crosses a short distance away.

"Manpower alone is not going" to stop this, says Rodolfo Espino, a political scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe. "As long as there's a pull for employees on this side of the border, there will be a constant push to enter from the Mexican side."

Driving back through Nogales, the agents note other ways illegals gain entry. Underneath two dry washes, which the border patrol filled in to prevent crossings, the immigrants crawl through a metal drainage culvert. To stop this, agents fabricated a steel door for the pipe. The smugglers retaliated with hydraulic jacks. The agents responded with sensors, cameras, and flood lights. It's keeping the smugglers at bay, for now.

"It's a game of constant adjustments," sighs Hawkins.