'World News' on the Border: Inside Look at Drug and Human Smuggling

Cold daylight breaks over one desert, two nations and three men, nervously walking north.

They are underdressed for the freezing temperature, their shoulders hunched beneath frayed backpacks and their eyes scan the horizon for movement. At the same moment, the Americans who will spend the day trying to catch them are assembled for their morning muster.

"We're going to continue to send bodies to Tucson detention for Operation Streamline," an officer announces to the 50 men in the room. Border Patrol refers to illegal crossers as "bodies," and on average the Nogales station catches more than 1,000 a day. They also seized more than 450 tons of marijuana last year, making this the busiest 32-mile stretch for the Border Patrol on the entire southern border.


At 9:30 a.m., Kevin Carlos crouches beside a trail of faint footprints that zigzag across the sand. He is one of the Shadow Wolves, a small unit of American Indian Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers who use age-old techniques to track border jumpers and drug runners crossing the Tohono O'odham Nation.

From the tracks he can tell there are eight footsore men carrying bales of marijuana toward the nearby mountains.

"In the last two miles they've rested eight times," he says. "Nobody rests that much unless they're tired. And when they stop they're setting down packs." These mules didn't bother with the common practice of tying scraps of carpet to their feet to confuse the trackers and the footprints eventually lead to 350 pounds of marijuana. The smugglers will be gone.

This reservation is the size of Connecticut, straddling both sides of the border. The Tohono O'odham lived here centuries before Mexico and the United States existed, but if the Shadow Wolves see the irony, they won't admit it.

"We think about it," says Ortega. "But we've got a job to do."

It is just after noon on the Mexican side and a car full of people creeps toward the border. "They are going to go chest to the ground," says the driver, "so they aren't caught by the cameras and sensors." The driver is a coyote, a professional people smuggler who works out of the village of Alter, about 60 miles south. He charges $2,000; $500 up front and $1,500 if his customers make it across.

The group climbs out of the car and jogs toward a nearby ravine. "Hide, hide right now," the coyote yells from the driver's window. "The other guide is coming and is going to take you under. I'm going back for another trip."

Moving people and drugs north is now a billion-dollar-a-year business in this corner of the desert and the multibillion-dollar effort to stop it is becoming more evident in Arizona, including communities well north of the border.

Roger Beal owns the grocery in the tiny town of Arivaca, 12 miles north of Mexico. He points out the bus parked at the end of town ready to take detainees away, the helicopter buzzing overhead and the new high-tech surveillance tower that dominates the skyline.

"We're for the Border Patrol doing their job," he says. "But the way it's being done it feels like we're south of the border here."

"Set the Border Patrol on the border, and tell [the immigrants] 'go home. If you come back, we'll lock you up.' Maybe they'll stay south of the border. But without legislation, nothing's going to stop these people."

It is late afternoon on the Mexican side and two women and a young girl are getting water and a lecture from Enrique Palafox.

"Everything has a cost," he says. "But don't pay with your life." Palafox is an agent for Grupo Beta, a government-funded humanitarian group and the closest thing Mexico has to a border patrol, armed only with water jugs and pamphlets that describe how hundreds are scorched, stung or shot to death in the desert each year.

"I don't know if you know anything about the new law that went into effect the first day of January," he tells them. "They aren't going to give jobs in all of Arizona to people that are illegal."

The women listen in silence then continue north. They are hoping to find work in Phoenix. At the same time, just a mile away, Luis Jimenez is being deported. He made it across three weeks ago and even found work fixing washing machines in Tucson. But he was caught in the crackdown on employers who hire illegals.

"Understand that we are not terrorists or drug traffickers or anything like that," Jimenez says. "We are people coming to work, to earn, to have a little more than we have in Mexico."

It is another busy afternoon at the Nogales Port of Entry. More people enter the country here than through the biggest airports in New York and Los Angeles combined. The lines will get even longer on Jan. 31 when new laws go into effect requiring all U.S. citizens to reenter with passports or proof of citizenship.

The challenge of screening 17 million people a year is illustrated in a conference room on the second floor, where thousands of forms of identification are laid out on tables.

"All of these documents are counterfeit, altered or fantasy documents," says one officer. "For example, I can get you a lovely United States of America identification card." He points out the more ridiculous examples — an American Social Security card embossed with the Mexican flag — but the better counterfeits are almost impossible to spot.

Those smugglers who can't make it through this port have been known to go under it. "A couple months back one of our officers heard some sounds under ground," says Brian Levin. "Smugglers were digging underneath us … and they broke through the asphalt right here and as soon as they broke through the asphalt they realized that wasn't going to work. As we become more successful, we are driving them underground. Literally."

It's dinnertime and a group of illegal immigrants are brought to the Nogales detention center for processing. One says he has a job waiting at a restaurant in Alabama. Luis was hoping to work the fields in California but this is the second time he's been caught.

"It was really tough," he says. "But it was a risk I was willing to take because there is no work where I live and I have five children. If I had a good job, I wouldn't try this."

At dusk, Border Patrol choppers take off from Tucson and head south for the night shift. Pilot Ted Lubbe says he is constantly amazed by the tenacity of the people below.

"The worst one was the guy who had a burlap sack over his back. It was a 1½-, maybe 2-year-old baby in the burlap sack in 120-degree weather. He was alive luckily, but it's just amazing to see what they'll do to try and come across."

The chopper crew uses spotlights and night vision to assists the patrols on the ground. Between arrests, a flash of white appears in the darkness below. It is the border. No fence, just a stone marker. But Lubbe says a wall wouldn't make much difference anyway.

"If you put a fence up, they'll just use a stepladder or something on the south side to climb right over it."

Back on the ground, Border Patrol Officer Mike Scioli agrees. "We know a wall is not going to stop them. What we're looking at with a fence or a wall is we're looking to slow them down or deter them. If we get them on foot out [in rural areas], we got hours to days to catch them. Here we've only got seconds to minutes before they get into a house, or a business or even a vehicle."

It's 1 a.m. Scioli and partner Rich Barela are rolling through the streets of Nogales. They drive past the new section of wall, tightly spaced pillars of steel and concrete that provide a line of sight into the neighboring country. On the Arizona side this is a town of 60,000, but just over the wall are 400,000 Mexicans living below the poverty level.

A few moments later, the radio announces a group of 10 are about to cross through the scrub brush on the east side of town. They spend three hours hunting the darkness, guided all the while by agents scanning the terrain with night-vision cameras. But just as they close in, the group is nabbed by another patrol. They sit huddled in the dirt, men and women, among them the sick and young.

On the off chance any of them are criminals, they will be held in Tucson. Central Americans are flown back to their home countries. But more than 90 percent of the people captured in and around Nogales are fingerprinted, driven back to the port of entry and released.

"I'll see you tomorrow!" says one detainee as he walks back into Mexico and another day begins.