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Media gets realistic BP experience
We could hear the vehicle approaching us slowly in the dark desert night from where we were hiding just off the trail, but we couldn't see it.
The drug smugglers were driving without headlights and had covered all the windows on the vehicle in an attempt to avoid being detected by Yuma Sector Border Patrol agents.
Despite their best efforts, Yuma Sector Border Patrol agents spotted the drug smugglers from a Skybox that had just been set up near Jackrabbit Pass earlier in the day.
As we waited, we knew the vehicle was almost at our position because the creaks it was making due to the rocky and uneven washes it was being driven down and the sounds of scratching bushes against metal was getting louder.
When the vehicle eventually got to our position, it ran over a spike strip, deflating its tires. At that moment the Border Patrol agents who had been accompanying us throughout the night sprang into action, arresting the drug smugglers following a short foot pursuit.
Inside the back of the vehicle, agents found several bundles of what could have been marijuana, had what just happened been real and not a simulation.
Border Patrol agents from the Yuma Sector's public affairs office put on the feigned arrest of two drug smugglers who were attempting to sneak a load of fake marijuana into the country through the desert as part of the media academy hosted by the Yuma Sector to give reporters a better understanding of what it takes to serve and protect our country's newsmaking border.
All the participants in Wednesday night's simulation were portrayed by agents from the public affairs office and their load of "marijuana" was actually boxes they had wrapped and marked with their initials.
The simulated drug bust allowed us to see first-hand the danger and variety of lawbreaking activity experienced here by agents on a daily basis and some of the conditions in which they often work.
But before I go any further about last night, I just wanted to thank the Yuma Sector and its agents for holding the academy, and everything they have done to make it as exciting and realistic as possible.
Our first stop on Wednesday night was the processing center at Sector Headquarters, the place where everyone the Border Patrol arrests is brought.
Inside, we were met by Roy Browning, Patrol Agent in Charge of Intel, who spoke with us about the automated fingerprint identification system the agency uses known as the IDENT/IAFIS.
The IDENT/IAFIS system, Browning explained, is a collaboration between the Federal Bureau of Investigation's IAFlS and the Department of Homeland Security's IDENT, which is a national database for collecting and storing biographical information.
The system is used by the the Customs and Border Security to share alien immigration history, criminal history, and terrorist information based on positive identification of the individual.
Instead of waiting hours for an identification like they used to, agents now get that information back within moments.
"Law enforcement has gone from the Flintstones to the Jetsons in technological capability. It has taken the guesswork out of who we have in custody," Browning said. "This has created a centralized repository of information and we are able to identify individuals much quicker."
Nationwide, 10 to 12 percent of the individuals apprehended by the Border Patrol have a criminal record of some type in the United States, Browning said, adding "many of those offenses are immigration related."
Here in the Yuma Sector, that percentage rate is currently much higher this fiscal year, with 37 percent of the individuals the agency apprehends having some sort of criminal record in the U.S.
"It doesn't mean there are more bad guys here," Browning said. "It means we are catching and able to identify more of the ones we are catching now."
There is also a three percent recidivism rate among illegal aliens who have been arrested and prosecuted and tried to re-enter the country through the Yuma Sector at some later point.
The processing looks similar to many contemporary jails these days with an agent manning a control room. Temporary holding cells separate adult males, adult females and children who are awaiting a decision on their immigration case or who are waiting to be returned to their own country.
There were even a few illegal aliens in some of the cells during our visit.
Later that evening we toured the border, actually encountering some illegal alien activity at our very first stop, which was at the crossing cable over the Colorado River.
The crossing cable is located at the Colorado River where Arizona, California and Mexico all meet. As we pulled up to the river, we spotted three individuals standing on a hill on the opposite shore of the river and they all were carrying life preservers. One of the individuals was actually wet as well.
"In all likelihood they were going to attempt to make a river crossing,' Vik said. "But we will have agents here soon to keep an eye on them."
Our guide, agent Ben Vik, of the Yuma Sector Border Patrol, radioed the communication center about the incident. From there we traveled to San Luis where we got to see the border fencing in the area.
While there we were there, we were also taken into the enforcement zone, which is the area between the primary and secondary fencing, and observed an agent parked underneath a metal awning, monitoring the area for any activity, using night vision equipment.
Vik told us that agents often get rocked in the area and, interestingly enough, there were lots rocks on the roof of the awning the agent was parked beneath. Some makeshift ladders agents had confiscated were also visible.
From there we went back to the Yuma Sector headquarters where we were taught about the art of signcutting and tracking.
"Signcutting is detecting any evidence of change on an area due to passage of a person," Vik said. "Tracking is locating and following impressions that have been left on the ground."
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, Vik said it is actually easier to track someone at night because you are using light and shadows.
"You are basically looking for the way the light reflects off the contours of the track on the ground," Vik said. "When you are tracking during the day you want to track into the sun."
After explaining some of the tactics drug and human smugglers try to use to avoid detection, such as dusting tracks and wearing deflective items on their feet, Vik spoke about methods agents use to track people such as step by step and leap frogging.
Click on the links below to read more on this media academy series:
James Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6854.