Securing the nation's BORDERS

Virtual border project hits snags, but receives an injection of support from DHS to begin anew


     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.

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