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.

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.

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.

Indeed, that's how the Arizona border became the busiest illegal entry point into the United States. After Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) declared a state of emergency in border counties in 2005, the US government moved to check trafficking there. It's doubling the number of border patrol agents and is installing fences, cameras, and sensors as well as deploying helicopters and unmanned drones. Of the 6,000 National Guard troops sent to the southwest border since last summer, 2,400 are posted in Arizona.

Those efforts are paying off, say border patrol officials. They note a decrease in apprehensions of undocumented immigrants, saying stepped-up vigilance is deterring large numbers of people from trying to cross. Between October and March, border patrol agents apprehended 68 percent fewer illegal immigrants in the Yuma sector (a 125-mile-wide swath of desert stretching from just inside California to westernmost Arizona) than they did in the corresponding six-month period a year before. Those in the Tucson sector, which abuts the Yuma sector at the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and stretches 261 miles east to New Mexico, caught 14 percent fewer illegal entrants. Apprehensions were down 29 percent across the entire Southwest border for the same period.

But as the border becomes less porous, smugglers are herded into narrower, more desolate crossing points, making their travel more dangerous and costly.

"We knew that as we began sealing the border that the violence would increase," says Gustavo Soto, supervisory border patrol agent in Tucson. "It's simply a frustration level. These smuggling organizations and narcotics groups have too much to give up. And as the risk goes up, so does the price."

Moreover, say officials in the US, the Mexican side of the border has experienced a huge spike in crime – usually over control of smuggling routes – that has sometimes spilled into the US.

Directly across from the Arizona border town of Douglas, for instance, in Agua Prieta, Mexico, gunmen kidnapped a Mexican reporter in front of the police station on April 16. So far, there has been neither a ransom demand nor information on the reporter. But investigators say the attack is similar to the assassination of Agua Prieta Police Chief Ramon Tacho Verdugo in February. Chief Tacho was the 12th police chief killed along that border in what investigators describe as drug-related violence.

"The violence is a tool [the drug smugglers] use to maintain discipline – through fear – within their own ranks, as a way to retaliate against rival organizations, and as a way to scare good-hearted citizens away from cooperating with law enforcement," says Steve Robertson, a special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Washington who spent 17 years working the Southwest border.

In the US, illegal immigrants are the easiest crime targets but not the only ones. Border patrol agents, too, have been victims of smugglers' wrath.

"We've really put a damper on their ability to do business," says Al Bosco, spokesman for the Yuma Sector Border Patrol. "They've become so frustrated that they lash out at our agents."

There have been 48 assaults on border patrol agents in the Yuma sector during the first three months of 2007, compared with 42 during the same period of 2006. Of those, 39 were rock-throwing incidents, six were physical assaults, two were vehicle assaults, and one was a shooting. None of the agents has been killed, but some have been seriously injured.

Next, what is being done to counteract rising border violence.

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