|BP Academy: Chasing suspects|
Agents with the U.S. Border Patrol reenact a typical chase through the desert for reporters attending a recent media academy.
|BP Academy: BORSTAR|
Members of BORTAC, the Border Patrol's the agency's national level tactical unit, show equipment used and Border Patrol's Search, Trauma and Rescue team (BORSTAR) demonstrate how to haul a patient up a cliff.
|Agent Thomas at work|
U.S. Border Patrol Agent Thomas shows off his skills in identifying cars with contraband - in this instance, a man in a trunk.
|Meet Agent Thomas|
U.S. Border Patrol Agent Thomas may have 4 feet and a tail, but his best asset in the line of duty is his nose.
|BP Academy: Sign cutting|
Border Patrol Agent Ben Vik explains the practice of sign cutting, or tracking signs of human passage that BP agents use to find smugglers in the desert.
|BP Academy: Tracking|
Agent Ben Vik explains how tracking sticks are used to find a trail.
|BP Academy: At the border|
The U.S. Border Patrol media academy took a trip down to the U.S./Mexico border to see what agents observe on a daily basis on the job.
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Dogs, nonlethal and automatic weapons in BP arsenal
While drug runners and human smugglers are always trying to find new and creative ways to get their loads into the country, not much gets past the Border Patrol's canine agents.
According to Wes Burch, special operations supervisor for the Border patrol's canine unit, there are more than 50 canine agents working in the Yuma Sector.
"It is a game to them," Burch said. "But it is still not enough for the work we do."
Burch said all the canine agents are trained at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, Texas, to detect odors of concealed humans or marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.
"Smugglers have unlimited resources. They try just about anything," Burch said. "Pretty much anywhere you can imagine trying to hide drugs to get it past the Border Patrol, we have found it."
Reporters got the opportunity to see the dogs in action on Thursday at the Border Patrol's checkpoint station on Interstate 8 near Telegraph Pass as part of a four-day media academy the sector was hosting for members of the local media.
In a pair of demonstrations, agent Mark Simms and his partner found a human hidden in the truck of a vehicle as it was being driven through the checkpoint both times.
Burch said illegal immigrants have been found in some very creative hiding places over the years. One smuggler, he said, used wooden boxes made to look like hay bales by covering them with glued-on hay. Another hollowed out campers to hide people in and then hitched it to a pickup to blend in with snowbird traffic.
Then there was another that hollowed out sections in a flatbed tractor trailer so that people could lay down inside while the rig was rolling down the highway, Burch said.
In addition to checkpoint operations, canine agents are also used to search the freight train yards, buildings and to find lost or trapped people. The canine agents are also available to assist other agencies, according to Burch.
Burch said since the canine agents are trained to detect odors of concealed humans, the dogs often assist with BORSTAR — the Border Patrol's Search, Trauma and Rescue team — operations.
"Because our dogs are trained to detect people they can also be used to track and locate someone," Burch said.
The Border Patrol usually gets their canine agents when they are about 2 years old, and works for about five years before retiring, Burch said.
"It depends on the type of environment the dog works in," Burch said.
On Friday, the last day of the media academy, we went to the Adair Range to observe a group of new agents qualifying on their weapons.
Every three months the agent must re-qualify with their semiautomatic pistols, HK-P2000, firing 72 rounds of ammunition from roughly 2 yards to 25 yards. Out of 360 points possible at the range the agent must attain 252 points.
"If the agents don't make the score they have to requalify, but that hardly ever happens," said Randy Ferguson, supervisory Border Patrol agent and lead firearm instructor.
Agents are also equipped with, and must qualify on, a Remington 870 shotgun and a M4A1 carbine/assault rifle, which I got to shoot.
Needles to say it was wicked fun because I had never fired an assault weapon before. Just hope my aim wasn't too bad. But it couldn't have been too bad because Ferguson, called the holographic scope on the weapon, the "rifle sight for the X-Box generation."
I actually found the M4A1 carbine/assault rifle easy to shoot, not to mention it had a very low recoil. It is also supposed to be accurate to 300 yards, which left me wondering if I could even hit something that far away.
After that we went back to the Yuma Sector headquarters for a lesson from Supervisory Patrol Agent Chris Van Wagenen about the use of force and how an agent determines the amount of force necessary in any given encounter.
"Here in Yuma, the trend shows that with fewer apprehensions occurring, the level of violence has been increasing," Van Wagenen said. "The criminal element is also more apparent. These are the people we are seeing more often."
In an encounter with a suspect, the agent modifies his or her actions along what is known as a Jeopardy Triangle, which helps them determine whether to escalate their use of force.
"As a Border Patrol agent, your life at some point will be in danger," said Van Wagenen, who is also a certified physical instructor. "It is just part of the job."
Before an agent can use lethal force there must be a threat on life or grievous bodily injury on the agent themselves or a third party or a fellow agent. And then the bad guy must have the actual ability to create that threat.
This leads me to the subject of rocks. One would think a rock wouldn't be considered a lethal force situation, but it actually is.
As it was explained a one pound rock can be thrown with as much energy as a 9mm bullet is shot with, which makes it just as lethal.
"When an agent is incapacitated, the subject will then have access to their weapons, which puts the agent's life at risk," Van Wagenen said.
As part of the use of force lessons, we got a demonstration on the use of pepper spray. It was the first time the Yuma Sector had ever publicly put on the demonstration.
Since agents are always at risk of coming into contact with the effects of their nonlethal devices, such as pepper spray, agents are trained to withstand it and still be able to apprehend someone. For the purpose of this demonstration, Agent Ben Vik, of the Yuma Sector public affairs office, volunteered to be sprayed in the face.
"It is still on my eyelashes and my face is burning," Vik said afterward. "This is an effective tool. I can tell you that."
In another demonstration, agent Mike Lowrie, also of Yuma public affairs, volunteered to be Tasered. Although Border Patrol agents don't carry Tasers, at some point in the future they will.
"It was hell," said Lowrie. "I couldn't move. It completely paralyzes you."
After seeing both of these demonstrations, I can safely say I would never want to be sprayed in the face with pepper spray or tasered.
We also spent time with agent Joe Preciado, who spoke about the types of gangs that operate along the border.
In closing I would like to thank Yuma Sector Chief Patrol Agent Paul Beeson and the entire staff for giving me the opportunity to participate in the media academy. It was fascinating and an unbelievable experience.
After this week I can without a doubt say the men and women of the U.S. Border Patrol have the most dangerous job in federal law enforcement.
Click on the links below to read more on this media academy series:
James Gilbertcan be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 539-6854.
Editor's Note: Yuma Sun Staff writer James Gilbert attended a media academy put on the Yuma Sector Border Patrol and is writing about his experiences. This is the final installment.