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On tighter US border with Mexico, violence rises

US law officers and illegal border-crossers are under increased attack, as beefed-up patrols cut into smugglers' illicit trade.

By Faye BowersStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 24, 2007


The harder it gets to sneak illicit cargo – immigrants or drugs or other contraband – into the US, the more violence-prone the border has become, not only for border-crossers but also for law officers trying to halt the smuggling.

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The escalation in violent crime is most pronounced here in Arizona, where border-tightening measures have put a clamp on the preferred route of "coyotes" and smuggling rings. During the first three months of the year, roaming bandits, heavily armed and looking to hijack valuable payloads, waged at least eight attacks on illicit shipments of people or drugs traversing Arizona. Though no US border patrol agents have been killed, they've been assaulted more often by illegal immigrants this year – 112 attacks, an 18 percent jump – in the state, compared with the same three-month period a year ago. Along the entire US-Mexico border, there's been a 3 percent increase in such attacks.

Recent federal raids at drop houses in metropolitan Phoenix, say officials with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), have also turned up bigger and more sophisticated weapons caches, along with people suspected of illegal entry.

"It is an unintended consequence of the hardening of the border," says Alonzo Peña, special agent in charge of ICE for Arizona. "Because of stronger border patrol, it's harder for the smugglers to get their commodity – whether drugs or aliens – across. It's costing [the smugglers] more, so the value for that commodity goes up, as does the level of protection, usually through violence."

The law-enforcement agencies that track crime along the border – county sheriffs' offices, ICE, the border patrol – report an uptick in almost every category of crime in recent months, a period corresponding to the US border crackdown. Few are surprised, however.

"It is a lucrative underground business sector that no doubt is generating millions of dollars in profits, and some see this as worth fighting for, and even killing for," says Nestor Rodriguez, an expert on immigration issues, at the University of Houston.

Yuma County Sheriff Ralph Ogden says his officers are responding to and investigating a rising number of violent crimes related to border trafficking. His office tallies crimes reported by nine law-enforcement agencies that operate within county boundaries. In 2006, for example, 215 strong-arm or weapon-related robberies were committed against undocumented immigrants, according to Yuma County statistics. In 2005, there were 30 such robberies. In 2006, there were 199 assaults against undocumented immigrants, compared with 22 in 2005.

Law-enforcement officials suggest that several attacks on illegal immigrants this year were perpetrated either by drug smugglers trying to rip off their rivals or by bajadores – bandits – trying to hijack shipments of people with the intent of holding them hostage to extort money from their families. Sometimes the attacks are a botched mix of both, resulting in the deaths of apparently unsuspecting immigrants who had hoped to buy their way to a better life.

In February, for example, on at least five occasions armed men attacked vehicles along Interstate 10, the freeway leading north from Tucson, that were allegedly transporting undocumented immigrants to the Phoenix metro area. One of the most brazen occurred in Ahwatukee Foothills, a suburb south of Phoenix. Gunmen commandeered a van at a stoplight and kidnapped five passengers.

Officials and outside experts say the crime spike is part of the so-called balloon effect that occurs during border clampdowns. When the government puts the squeeze on one problem area, border-crossers and smugglers shift elsewhere – usually to desolate, unguarded places, such as the Arizona desert.