Francisco Ochoa tips back a cold can of Tecate Beer, its beading condensation dripping onto the dust of this desperado town on Mexico's border with Arizona.
With its cattle trucks packed with illegal migrants, armed narco-traffickers shotgunning loads across the border and surrounded by a nearly lawless Sonoran Desert, this little town has become a thorn in the side of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and a haven for migrant smuggling, a $1.5 billion a year industry in Arizona alone.
Using little more than two-way radios, a reputation for ruthlessness and a savvy for the fastest routes past U.S. defenses, it is small-time migrant smugglers like Ochoa who most damage the infrastructure of the United States' largest federal agency, whose budget now tops $50 billion a year.
Ochoa is one of a new wave of migrant smugglers, people who've come up from other parts of Mexico, tried crossing illegally a few times, then saw an opportunity for running groups of migrants themselves at $100 a head.
A few hundred yards north lies a shining new border wall, a tall steel fence stretching for miles to the east and west, part of an integration of technology and good old-fashioned fencing that's intended to stop the Ochoas of the border from crossing their loads into the country.
To the west of here, the government uses crisscrossed steel Normandy fence; to the east, walls of vertical poles set inches apart. Out near California, a triple barrier runs 20-feet high and $1 million a mile.
But for all the walls, steel and concrete, the United States still hasn't been able to come up with a solution for what happens after those walls are breached.
In the past three years, DHS has turned toward technology to apprehend the illegal migrants. The results have cost millions and haven't proven very successful.
"I don't care what they put up," Ochoa says, maybe a little cocky, maybe showing a bit of bravado while he's talking to a reporter.
"There's always a way around these things. They haven't stopped me yet," he says.
He'll say no more, his eyes deadening at further questions, going silent while he drinks his beer.
His methods are tried and true, mostly primitive, and sometimes fatal. Among the questions he won't answer is how many people he's left behind to die in the desert. But overall, his methods are effective.Past border strategies
Every year, the U.S. Border Patrol makes approximately 1 million arrests on the Mexican border, the majority of those arrested are simply repeat border crossers who've been deported — voluntarily repatriated, in the vernacular of bureaucracy — and attempted crossing again. The U.S. Border Patrol has never released statistics on how many people actually make it into the United States, though agents track the footprints of those who got away.
In the 1990s, the strategy against smugglers included walls and manpower; but it proved inefficient, mostly because the illegal migrant traffic simply went around them, a "Maginot Wall" on the United States's southern border. The result: the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector has led the nation in apprehensions since 2004, with little reduction in the hundreds of thousands of people who cross the border every year.
This time, U.S. Customs and Border Protection says it's going to be different, a view that not all public policy analysts agree with, and one that, for the past two years at least, has proven to be overly ambitious.Project 28
Last fall, Customs and Border Protection unveiled what it deemed the most advanced capability it's ever had in border control — nine towers standing 100 feet in the air, bristling with antennae and camera lenses that together, would oversee 28 miles of Arizona's border with Mexico. The effort was dubbed Project 28.
The system, at an original cost of $67 million, was the brainchild of Boeing Corp., which did not return numerous phone calls for this story. The system seemed simple enough, relying on existing technology and a wireless network. When illegal immigrants activated sensors on the ground, the radar system on the tower was supposed to identify the location and send the information by wireless network to laptops in a Border Patrol agent's vehicle.
Project 28 became the vaunted goal of DHS; a virtual fence that would once and for all close the door on little Sasabe, a small town situated along the popular corridor used to cross undetected into the United States.
Hopes ran high.
"Project 28 is being carried out along 28 miles of border flanking the Sasabe, Arizona, port of entry," U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress six months into the project. "It will demonstrate the SBInet system's capabilities by deploying sensor towers, unattended ground systems and upgrades to existing Border Patrol vehicles and communications systems. Project 28's completion date is set for June 2007."Project 28's shortcomings
Then the problems began — a sequence of events which showed that what worked well in the design room couldn't negotiate the tricky desert where even commercial-grade cell towers often won't work.
Some of the problems, like the Border Patrol agents' laptops, were easily fixed. The computers were originally equipped with stylus pens, which proved impossible to use while driving, and the first mounts used to attach computers to patrol vehicles, failed.
Other problems lacked such a simple fix. Residents of Arivaca, Arizona, a small town where the Project 28 towers were located, wanted to know why camera towers with a 9-mile capability were placed 12 miles from the border. Border Patrol officials explained that placing the towers closer to the border limited their ability because of the hills. Then the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted that the original price tag could soar as high as $10 to $30 billion if the towers were set all along the border.
The radar and ground sensors used also proved to be too sensitive, sometimes confusing raindrops for people, other times, bushes waving in the breeze would set them off. And, the terrain, lava fields, thick mesquite, and hilly land cobwebbed with washes, defeated the network's wireless system.
"The long and short of it is that Boeing was given $20.6 million to begin testing and fielding their new system," says Richard Stana, director of the GAO's Homeland Security and Justice Issues, the agency that documented the errors on behalf of Congress.
After DHS rejected the original plan, Boeing absorbed much of the cost of repairing its faulty systems, spending twice as much as it had earned to try and repair the broken system.New plans arise
"Now, they're not going to replicate Project 28. But they are moving toward a similar installation," Stana says.
The newest program is supposed to begin in 2009 in the Tucson Sector but won't be completed along the southwest border until 2011.
For its part, Customs and Border Protection has backed away from its energetic embrace of Project 28, now saying it was merely a prototype for future projects. "It was widely reported that Project 28 was a failure," says Customs and Border Protection spokesman Barry Morrissey. "It was a success, but no one wanted to believe it."
The newest plan is the installation of two systems in the Tucson Sector, one in the central Arizona desert, AJO-1, and one near Sasabe, TUS-1, a cluster of 57 of the same type of towers throughout the desert.
Despite the problems with Project 28, the first $55.7 million contract was awarded to Boeing Corp. on June 26 and work was scheduled to begin soon, Morrissey says. However, land-use issues may delay the project until at least January 2009, possibly longer.
The second half of the contract, which includes technology, cameras, radar and ground sensors, has not yet been awarded. "It's safe to say it will also go to Boeing," he says.
Morrissey won't discuss the type of radar used or the focal length on the cameras that will be mounted, but says the agency is comfortable that the wireless hotspot issues have been resolved.Caution ahead
The GAO remains cautious about the project.
"Will the fixes to be done by Boeing be enough to fix it?" Stana asks. "No one knows yet."
The other question is whether the new set of towers, provided they work, are enough to bring any kind of control to the border — a question whose answer so far has been no. "It's a virtual fence, it doesn't mean it will stop people," Stana says. "A physical fence may slow them; a virtual fence may identify them. But you still need people on the ground to make arrests."
Dave Stoddard, a former Border Patrol agent living in Arizona, also watches this new system with a skeptical eye.
In 2005, a federal auditor questioned whether the contractor paid by Border Patrol officials for work never performed was overcharging a network of pole cameras set up along the border.
The $239 million Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System's pole cameras in Naco, Arizona, were found simply lying on the ground outside a storage shed. There was also some question as to whether the daughter of a Texas Congressman employed by the contractor was involved in the project.
"I think that certain powers that be are pushing it," Stoddard says.
"No. 1, there's a whole lot of money coming in. And No. 2, the open-borders bunch sense that the virtual fence isn't going to work so they're happy to push for it."Realistic expectations
Dan Wirth, a Tucson-based leader of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association and border security coordinator for the U.S. Department of the Interior, was among the first federal officials in Arizona to begin pushing for vehicle barriers to replace the rusting strands of barbed wire that run along most of Arizona's border with Mexico.
He remains optimistic about the latest plans. "At the first Boeing presentation, they were talking about logarithm software and it may have worked in the office, but the system wasn't working out in the field," he explains. "There's been a lot of moderation from what Boeing originally said they'd do. It's not so pie in the sky now."
Expectations need to be kept realistic. "It's definitely going to enhance border security but you'll never secure the border at 100 percent," says Wirth about the project.
Bringing it closer to that 100-percent figure will require more agents. "Detecting movement is great but then you have to have someone respond to those incidences," Wirth says.
To that end, DHS has been aggressively recruiting more agents, trying to reach 18,000 by the end of the year, more than twice the number from before the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. Last January, the agency started a minority recruitment campaign in the Deep South, specifically targeting African Americans for $40,000-a-year jobs with the Border Patrol. It has also reduced basic training time from five months to 95 days.Another day
For migrant smugglers like Ochoa, it's business as usual — whether or not the project moves forward.
Ochoa finishes his Tecate, flinging the red empty into the bushes. A van lumbers slowly up the road, a plume of white dust building behind it as it negotiates the final stretch.
Fourteen people are stuffed inside, sitting on metal benches where someone has ripped out the seats to pack in more migrants. A milk crate is shoved between the front seats so one more can fit. At $10 a head for the driver, every inch counts.
The people move quickly, clambering out of the van, shifting backpacks and plastic bags, eyes down, avoiding the scrutiny of others. Some have obviously made this trip before, walking straight toward a small grocery store where they can pick up gallons of water and electrolytes for the long walk.
Ochoa talks quietly with the driver, readying for a new day. His cut will be $100 a person, $1,400 for this group alone — if everyone makes it. A second van is already pulling away, heading south to pick up more people.
"If you'll excuse me," he says. "I have to get to work."
Michel Marizco is an organized crime reporter in Arizona and northern Mexico. He runs the news and intelligence Web site, BorderReporter.com, in Tucson. He can be reached at email@example.com