Saturday, August 27, 2011

Incomplete smuggling tunnel found in vacant Calexico store

Imperial Valley Press
August 27, 2011

CALEXICO — Patrons went about their normal business Friday in the old Vons shopping center on Second Street, unaware that Mexico’s pervasive drug business had set up shop in their midst.

A large piece of drilling equipment and an incomplete drug-smuggling tunnel were discovered Thursday afternoon inside the long-closed supermarket, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced.

The tunnel didn’t yet reach into Mexico, whose border fence is easily visible from the store’s front entrance.

Calexico residents working at the neighboring businesses in the shopping center said they hadn’t seen any unusual activity recently.

Some businesses were asked by authorities to close Thursday as the investigation continued.

Rocio Perez of Calexico said in Spanish that normally it’s very peaceful in that shopping center. Knowing that activity like this was occurring nearby makes it seem more dangerous, she said.

Bernardo Mendoza of Brawley was shopping in the center Friday. He said in Spanish he wasn’t surprised about the tunnel and that it often happens near the border.

Calexico resident Melissa Villalobos speculated that it would be easy to construct the tunnel at night since all the shopping center’s stores close after 7 p.m. or 8 p.m.

Signs on the vacant store say “Baja Bikes” and “Coming soon.”

The 4-inch diameter tunnel found inside the store extends about 100 yards.

“The use of pipeline tunnels is one of the newest approaches being employed by drug-smuggling organizations,” an ICE press release stated. “The narrow passages are lined with PVC pipe, and the drugs are smuggled through.”

The agency’s Homeland Security Investigations agents were still gathering evidence Friday.

The tunnel was found after a city of Calexico hazardous materials unit responded to reports of a possible gas leak at the location, the ICE press release explained.

After discovering the equipment and tunnel, local authorities told U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations agents. Mexican law enforcement was also notified.

“This discovery again shows the Mexican cartels’ growing desperation in the face of heightened border security,” El Centro ICE HIS Assistant Special Agent in Charge Ricardo Sandoval said.

“Frustrated by our defenses, they’re literally going underground, but we’re thwarting them there as well,” Sandoval said. “That’s owing to the extraordinary ongoing enforcement efforts involving the agencies here and in Mexico.”

Authorities have found more than 10 smuggling tunnels in the area around Calexico and Mexicali during the last four years, according to ICE.,0,4212105.story

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Southern Ariz. community helps populate Coronado Memorial with agave plants

Sierra Vista Herald
August 25, 2011
by Jacob Petersen

SIERRA VISTA, Ariz. — After the construction of the border wall resulted in the death of thousands of agave plants, there was concern among many at the Coronado National Memorial for the lesser long-nosed bat species, which use agave nectar as food.

It was thought replacing the lost agave plants would fix the problem for the bats, which use the park as a foraging area while traveling between South America in the winter and the Southern U.S. in the summer.

Mother Nature, however, had different plans, killing half of the 1,600 agave plants planted last year by freezing them in February. Not to be outdone by ice, flames killed half again as the Monument Fire tore through in June.

But the volunteers who helped lay the groundwork last year brought along some friends this year, as more than 120 people crowded a parking lot at the entrance of the memorial on a recent Saturday morning intent on outdoing the damage done by both man and Mother Nature.

In its second of five years, the Agave Restoration Project was in full swing as more than a half dozen park rangers, biologists and specialists led the team in planting nearly 1,100 agave plants.

"I'm very pleased," said Dean Schlicting with a huge smile. A biologist with the National Park Service, Schlicting recently inherited command of the project due to his expertise in area plants and experience with another project regarding agave plants of Fort Huachuca.

The Coronado Memorial project, he said, was designed "to mitigate the loss of agave during the construction of the border fence and the fire."

But it is not only the lesser long-nosed bats that would be affected if it weren't for the volunteers, Schlicting said.

"They are a keystone species," he said of the bats. "They pollinate the crops. It is a very important piece of the system."

Arriving between 7 and 7:30 a.m., the volunteers were given a briefing on the purpose of the project before getting a short talk by Dr. Joel Diamond, a contractor with Arizona Fish and Game, about the bats they would be helping.

Following a safety lecture and a few minutes spent organizing into teams, the volunteers set out, digging a shallow hole before planting the inch-tall plants and covering them with chicken wire to keep the animals out.

For Bob Scott and his three grandkids, Chase Archer, 7, Even Archer, 11, and Anthony Wagner, 13, the project offered a "chance to get the kids off the computer and out of the house," Scott said.

Scott, who lives near the Mesquite Tree restaurant and was evacuated during the Monument Fire, also encouraged a number of colleagues from his work to come along and was happy to do anything he could to help the recovery effort.

"They weren't too happy when they had to go to bed early," he said of his grandkids with a smile. "But I haven't heard them complain. They're doing good."

With hundreds of chicken wire domes covering a wide swath of land near the mouth of the park, the only issue volunteers really faced was the ability to transport water for the plants as fast as they were being planted.

"Water!" was the common call of the day as the sun got higher and volunteers, making quick work of the task at hand, needed but a final boost to get their plants ready to grow.

"Are we out of plants?" asked one park ranger as another pointed in multi directions and mumbled something about running low.

With only 700 plants in the ground by noon on planting day last year, many of those in charge were stunned to be nearly finished with 1,100 plants by 9:30 a.m.

When asked what he thought about the situation, Schelicting, who only moments later seemed a bit concerned at the influx of radio calls, was obviously happy.

"We are very excited about that," he said of the success.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

USACE Galveston awards contract for environmental monitoring at border fence construction project

by Isidro Reyna

GALVESTON, Texas -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Galveston District, awarded a contract to Gulf South Research Corporation, an 8(a) small business, in the amount of $1,112,777 for environmental monitoring of gate construction for the Department of Homeland Security.

The contract allows for the continuation of environmental monitoring of the border fence construction in the Del Rio and Rio Grande Valley sectors, as well as monitoring of gate construction.

“This contract will provide for monitors to be present to oversee border fence construction in order to identify, avoid, and minimize any adverse impacts to biological or cultural resources that may be caused by construction,” said Mark Garza, a biologist with USACE Galveston’s Environmental Section.

According to Garza, environmental monitoring has occurred since border fence construction was initiated as part of an environmental stewardship plan prepared by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“This plan contains efforts to avoid potential environmental impacts and also outlines the best management practices developed to avoid or minimize adverse impacts resulting from border fence construction,” said Garza.

Border Fence Could Harm Environment, Expert Says

August 22, 2011

Nogales – The federal government should take action to prevent environmental damage from floods related to the new barrier on the Arizona-Mexico border, an expert said.

"We believe we're beginning to see evidence of the consequences of ignoring environmental laws in building the fence along the border," Jenny Neeley, director of conservation policy at the Tucson-based Sky Island Alliance, told Efe.

Early this month, a 40-foot stretch of the barrier collapsed because of the heavy rains.

The part that came down was a segment of a 5.2 mile fence built between 2007 and 2009 within the confines of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

"This part of the border fence was built after Congress gave special powers to the Department of Homeland Security in 2006 to ignore environmental protection laws," Neeley said.

Parts of the fence were built without respecting the standards established under federal laws protecting the environment, and even ignoring the specific warnings of the National Park Service.

Lee Baiza, superintendent of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, told media that the border fence acted like a dam behind which water collected, and the higher the water rose, the stronger it got, until it knocked the fence down.

"The DHS not only doesn't help protect the border, it also causes significant damage to the ecosystem, creating a problem that could easily have been avoided if they had followed the established rules," Neeley said.

She said that this is not the first time such problems have arisen with the border fence - back in 2009 the management of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument reported that the Lukeville Port of Entry and other parts of the park were being flooded due to drainage problems caused by the fence.

"Construction like this causes massive erosion by blocking the natural flow of rainwater, so the water is forced into other areas, causing great damage to the region," Neeley said.

The federal government tried to ease the problem by installing sluicegates to drain off the water, but for that strategy to work, according to Neeley, federal agents would have to know exactly when it is going to rain and where the water will be concentrated.

"Anybody who has lived more than one rainy season in Arizona knows perfectly well that you just can't tell where it's going to rain," the expert said.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Friendship Park marks 40th anniversary

Sign on San Diego
August 20, 2011
by Debbi Baker

Dozens of people gathered on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border Saturday to celebrate the 40th anniversary of historic Friendship Park.

The small piece of land, part of Border Field State Park in the Tijuana River Valley adjacent to the Pacific Ocean, was dedicated Aug. 18, 1971, by then-first lady Pat Nixon.

It was long a place where families came together to meet, greet and touch each other through holes in the fence. That ended in 2009 when the Department of Homeland Security built a wrought-iron barrier and strictly limited access.

Enrique Morones, founder and president of the immigrant rights organization Border Angels — who wants to see the area returned to the way it used to be — addressed the crowd in English and in Spanish.

He pointed to a large picture of Nixon affixed to the fence that was also adorned with sunflowers. The first lady is smiling and reaching over the border shaking hands with a man holding a small boy

“As you can see, when Pat Nixon was saying hello, there was no fence, there was no wall,” said Morones, who advocates for an open border. “And one thing she said was, ‘May there never be a wall between these two great countries.’ ”

Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, who also addressed the assembly, gestured toward the deep blue ocean and said the beauty of the area was juxtaposed by the ugliness of the metal barrier.

“We have to get rid of this so we can touch each other, so we can see each other, so we can sing to each other, so we can dance with each other,” said Filner, a candidate for San Diego mayor.

“I want to quote another president in a different context, ‘Mr. President, tear down this wall,’” the congressman said to loud applause, echoing Ronald Reagan’s famous speech at the Berlin Wall.

History professor Christine Moore, who grew up in Imperial Beach, said she remembered when families would sit by the fence and have picnics.

“I’d like to see the park come back to life, Moore said.

The issue became particularly personal to her when one of her most promising students was deported four years ago. She said the girl came to the country with her family when she was 2 and that she considered herself an American.

Carlos Santos, another speaker at the event, immigrated legally to the country 10 years ago with his wife and oldest son.

He turned toward the people in Mexico who peered through the mesh of the fence and told the story of how he came to the park a few years ago and was able to hug his mother for the first time in years. He said that moment meant everything to him.

“Don’t give up hope,” he said. “Someday people will be able to do that again.”

The celebration included salsa dancing, remarks by Tijuana Councilwoman Maria Luisa Sanchez and other Mexican officials and a moment of silence to commemorate those who have died crossing the border.

A tree was planted in the same spot where Nixon had planted one 40 years ago that was now long gone.

Morones said he was working with the Border Patrol to make the area less restrictive and that the two groups had made some positive progress.

“We believe friendship has no border,” Morones said.

Perry calls idea of U.S.-Mexico border wall 'ridiculous'

August 17
by Sarah Blackwill, Domenico Montanaro, and Jo Ling Kent

Rick Perry called the idea of a wall across the entire U.S.-Mexico border “ridiculous” today in a stop in New Hampshire.

“You got strategic fencing in some of the metropolitan areas – it’s very helpful,” the Texas governor said. “But the idea that you’re going to build a wall from Brownsville to El Paso is just -- it’s ridiculous on its face.”

That was in the context of Perry saying how he'd asked Washington for 1,000 National Guard troops and how current efforts at border security are ineffective.

Perry swatted at the Obama administration’s assertion that the “border is safer than it’s ever been.”

“Six week ago, the president went to El Paso and sai the border is safer than it’s ever been,” Perry began. “I have no idea, maybe he was talking about the Canadian border. I will assure you one thing, if I’m president of the United States, the border will be secure.”

In June, the AP wrote of the border:

“It's one of the safest parts of America, and it's getting safer. … The four big cities in America with the lowest rates of violent crime are all in border states: San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso and Austin, according to a new FBI report. And an in-house Customs and Border Protection report shows that Border Patrol agents face far less danger than street cops in most U.S. cities. The Customs and Border Protection study, obtained with a Freedom of Information Act request, shows 3 percent of Border Patrol agents and officers were assaulted last year, mostly when assailants threw rocks at them. That compares with 11 percent of police officers and sheriff's deputies assaulted during the same period, usually with guns or knives. In addition, violent attacks against agents declined in 2009 along most of the border for the first time in seven years. So far this year assaults are slightly up, but data is incomplete.”

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Friendship Park At U.S.-Mexico Border Turns 40

August 18, 2011
by Jill Replogle

SAN DIEGO — On August 18, 1971, then-first lady Pat Nixon reached her hand toward a barbed wire fence separating the U.S.-Mexico border and greeted residents on the other side.

The event happened during the inauguration of Friendship Park, which butts up against the border fence south of San Diego. But in recent years, the park has become a subject of controversy.

A triple-layer fence — built in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks —now runs through the park, making cross-border handshakes impossible.

Jamie Gates, one of the founders of the organization Friends of Friendship Park, said the fence has ruined the bi-national nature of the park.

“In the process of building the new fence, they really destroyed what has for decades and decades and decades been a place where families have gathered,” Gates said.

The group is working with U.S. border officials on a redesign that would allow for cross-border gatherings without compromising security. The plan features a 60-foot retractable gate, which could be opened and closed by the U.S. Border Patrol.

Friends of Friendship Park will celebrate the park’s 40th anniversary on Saturday. Activities will include a cross-border salsa lesson, a bi-national music jam session, and testimonies from families who have used the park as a meeting place.

Finding the Lost: Thousands of immigrants trek through Brooks County; only some survive

The Monitor
August 20, 2011
by Naxiely Lopez

FALFURRIAS — Sergio Gaspar died a slow death in an area known as the desert of McAllen.

Workers at Cage Ranch found the partially-decomposed body of the Ecuadorian immigrant Monday — a day before his 35th birthday.

Half naked and already beginning to bloat, Gaspar was the 32nd victim of the violent heat and tough terrain in Brooks County this year. Deputies have counted at least 35 bodies found on the ranchlands this year.

The ranchlands, which cover 60 to 70 percent of the nearly 950-square-mile county, are known to many illegal immigrants as the desert of McAllen — even though the city is about 60 miles south of the region. The term derives in part from their lack of knowledge of the geography and also because of the sandy terrain that dominates the area.

Thousands trek the Brooks County wilderness for days at a time in an attempt to bypass the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint, where 8,074 immigrants had been caught and 251,001 pounds of narcotics had been seized as of Aug. 15.

The checkpoint is seen as one of the last hurdles for illegal immigrants heading north. Bypassing it is a daunting task.

It takes about an hour to walk a mile in the sand. With triple-digit heat and virtually no water supply, not everyone survives.

“I know them by numbers,” Maggie Saenz said of those who don’t.

Saenz, the secretary at the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office, helps keep track of the dead by keeping their individual files numbered within several binders. Pictures of corpses and human remains not intended for the weak-stomached fill the pages along with copies of other personal information.

The Sheriff’s Office must investigate every death outside of the Falfurrias Police Department’s jurisdiction, including those of illegal immigrants, said Daniel Davila, the department’s only investigator.

Border Patrol does not have the authority to investigate, said agency spokeswoman Rosalinda Huey. So the task of figuring out whose remains were found, how they died and how to notify their families falls upon the shoulders of a handful of people at the Sheriff’s Office.


“Right now it’s really hot,” Deputy Juan Aredondo said.

The 28-year-old, however, was not referring to the scorching temperatures outside of the gray 2009 Dodge pickup he uses to patrol the brush. Instead, he used the term ‘hot’ to describe the highly active season for drug and human trafficking.

Aredondo is one of two officers assigned to patrol the immense brush land of Brooks County. Aside from Davila and Sheriff Rey Rodriguez and a chief deputy, there are only eight deputies working at the office. One is stationed at the court house, while another is stationed at the school district.

Aredondo and his partner, Mo Saavedra, began venturing into the thicket in early 2009, when the newly-elected sheriff initiated the brush patrol program, said Davila, who’s worked for the department since 1994.

“At first we were only going to gather (intelligence) and not engage, but that quickly changed,” Davila said, adding that too much illegal activity forced them to take action. “It’s becoming our job.”

The sheriff’s office estimates nearly 65 percent of their workload stems from illegal border activity that manages to evade authorities along the Rio Grande.

“We spent many days just getting lost in the brush,” Aredondo said of his first months traveling through the ranches.

Slowly, however, they learned the lay of the land and began putting pressure on the traffickers. Their patrol unit soon earned the name “la troca gris” (the grey truck) among many of the small-town residents — some of whom are known traffickers.

“It’s a money-making business,” Davila said. “It seems like everybody is doing it.”

Human smuggling is especially lucrative as immigrants pay coyotes up to $5,000 to be smuggled.

“It’s an easy crime to commit because the evidence runs away with you,” Davila said about smuggling immigrants. “It’s ‘Keep up or die. Either way, I’ve got your money.’”


Gaspar stripped down to his blue boxers before he collapsed underneath a tree — a last attempt at cooling his body.

“It’s not uncommon to find naked bodies in the ranches,” Aredondo said. “The heat makes them delirious and they get desperate.”

Those who get lost or left behind are lucky to survive, the five-year veteran said. He always carries bottled water and candy as well as his pistol and M-4 in his truck in case he runs into a distressed immigrant. Some of them often carry cell phones and call for help.

Finding them, however, is another problem, but the officers use whatever tools they have available. Aredondo uses his truck’s siren and horn to guide himself through a search that resembles a game of Marco Polo. The deputy will emit a sound and the immigrant, who remains on the phone with a dispatcher, will notify authorities if he or she hears him nearing the location.

Some are saved; others aren’t. Some bodies are found; others aren’t.

There is a small window of opportunity to identify the bodies before the sun takes a toll on them, Davila said. The eyes are the first to go, then tattoos become unrecognizable as the body blackens and begins to bloat.

“Two days in the sun will cook (you) pretty quickly,” Davila said. “That’s if the animals don’t get to you first.”

Some people are buried and others are abandoned, Davila said. Some have been found half eaten by animals, while only a few bones are found for others. Investigators must rely on whatever personal effects are found with the remains in order to identify them as not all carry indentifying documentation.


If Saenz knows the dead by their assigned numbers, Nora Salinas knows them by heart.

Salinas, an administrative assistant at the sheriff’s office, takes calls from families whose loved ones have gone missing. She works closely with investigators to connect the bodies of those found in the brush with their families by communicating with other law enforcement agencies, funeral homes and consulates on a daily basis.

“Yeah, they’re not going to answer your calls,” Salinas said over the phone in Spanish to a family in Connecticut searching for a relative who was abandoned next to an antenna on U.S. Highway 281 — a seemingly needle in a haystack.

Smugglers stop taking calls or will threaten the families who try to reach them for information about the lost, Salinas explained to them as she jotted down the man’s date of birth, nationality and the day he started and stopped trekking — all crucial information for the search.

“Are we going to find him?” she asked rhetorically after the phone call ended. “Probably not.”

It’s a task that weighs on her as it is sometimes difficult to separate work from home. Salinas, who sometimes is jokingly referred to as a private investigator because of her workload, recalled last year’s Thanksgiving Day, in which she walked out of her home to take a call from a family in need.

“It’s tough,” she said. “You want to help everyone, but sometimes you can’t.”

And while she tries to help others with their problems, she must also deal with her own.

Salinas’ 86-year-old aunt was killed by an alleged human smuggler Aug. 6, when the suspect drove his Suburban through the woman’s home. Salinas’s aunt was dragged about 15 feet before she died from severe head trauma near the scene of the crash.

But Salinas is not the only person in the department touched by the criminal activity in the area. A local smuggler, upset that deputies continuously interdicted his loads, allegedly hired a hitman from the Zetas Cartel to kill two officers, including Saavedra.

Authorities, however, foiled the smuggler’s plans. He pleaded guilty to smuggling operation in U.S. District Court in May.

“Yes, it dangerous,” Davila said about the work they do. “But we’re not going to let up.”

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bachmann's swing through SC brings swipe at billionaire Buffett, calls for Mexico border wall

Associated Press
August 16, 2011
by Jim Davenport

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann on Tuesday called for a wall on the border with Mexico and suggested that billionaire Warren Buffett should write a big check to the government if he's eager for higher taxes on the wealthy.

The Minnesota Republican began a three-day swing through this early GOP primary state fresh off winning a narrow straw poll victory last week in Iowa over Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas.

Bachmann said lax enforcement of immigration laws was a threat to the nation's security. She agreed with a town hall questioner at a Greenville stop that U.S. troops should be redeployed from South Korea to south Texas.

"How do you solve it? You build a barrier, a fence, a wall — whatever you want to call it. You build it," Bachmann said. "As president of the United States, every mile, every yard, every foot, every inch will be covered on that southern border."

The "problem is not our laws on immigration," Bachmann said. "The problem has been in our unwillingness to enforce the laws that are on the books." South Carolina legislators this year passed one of the nation's toughest illegal immigration laws. It goes into effect in December.

Bachmann's first stop was at a popular burger joint in nearby Spartanburg where she was surrounded by a crowd of about 300 people baking in a black top parking lot.

Bachmann criticized President Barack Obama's call for the wealthy to pay higher taxes and Buffett's support of the idea.

"We do believe, unlike Warren Buffett, that taxes are high enough already," she said. "I have a suggestion: Mr. Buffett, write a big check today."

In a state where candidates are rarely heckled, Bachmann got an earful. A man in a black suit called out repeatedly: "Are you anti-gay marriage." During an interview Sunday, Bachmann was asked about her faith, same-sex marriage and whether she would appoint someone who was openly gay.

Bachmann noted the heckler and the interview questions. "I am not ashamed to say that I believe in God. We were founded on religious liberty and we are going to stand on religious liberty," Bachmann said. "And we believe in marriage between one man and one woman."

Bachmann was sharply critical of Obama's fiscal policies and job policies in a state with 10.5 percent unemployment — the highest among the nation's early primary states.

She called Obama "an anti-job president."

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Human error blamed for border fence failure in storm

Arizona Daily Star
August 11, 2011
by Brady McCombs

Storm gates that were supposed to be open on a section of border fence near Lukeville were not raised Sunday because of a "breakdown in internal communication," which resulted in about a 40-foot stretch of mesh fencing being knocked over by rainwater rushing through a wash, an official said.

"The issues that caused this breakdown are being addressed to ensure no similar issues occur in the future," Border Patrol spokesman Lloyd Easterling said in an email. The gates were installed as part of a $24 million drainage improvement project.

What's supposed to happen, Easterling said, is for the gates to be lifted before major predicted rainfall with heavy machinery and secured in place until the storm is over. Customs and Border Protection is responsible for raising them, he said.

"The goal of the gates is to allow the debris and vegetation that collects in the run-off to be passed through the fence so as to not disrupt the drainage," Easterling wrote in the email.

But that didn't occur Sunday when 1.5 to 2.5 inches of rain fell in the area upslope from the place where the fence failed, according to the National Weather Service. With debris stuck at its base, the fence acted as a dam, causing the water to pool up and gain force.

The 5.2-mile stretch of fence was built by Kiewit Western Co. for $21.3 million. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument officials warned Homeland Security before it was built that they were concerned that the fence design would impede the flow of floodwater across the border.

Sunday night's storm damage marked the first time any part of this 5.2-mile stretch of fence had been knocked down by floodwater since it was built in 2007-2008. However, the incident was the latest in a series of challenges for the barrier during rainstorms, said Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Superintendent Lee Baiza.

In July 2008, stormwater pooled behind the fence and flooded into the Lukeville Port of Entry and private businesses, causing damage.

In 2010, Customs and Border Protection retrofitted about 20 sections of pedestrian fence along the U.S.-Mexico border with vertical gates as part of a $24 million project that also included adding scour protection at 94 washes that sit along the fence to preserve roads and fence foundations.

Officials also permanently anchored to the ground about 17 sections of Normandy-style vehicle barriers to prevent them from washing away and damaging property during storms, Easterling said.

It's not clear yet how much it will cost to fix the broken fence, Easterling said. In the meantime, the Border Patrol has made strategic adjustments in that area to monitor illegal crossings, he said.

Critics say the entire 5.2-mile stretch of the faulty design should be replaced. But Easterling said there are no plans to replace it.

The agency is "still optimistic that if the gates are opened prior to the major rain events that they will function as designed," Easterling said in the email.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Rain washes away 40 feet of US-Mexico border fence

Arizona Daily Star
August 10, 2011
by Brady McCombs

Feds had been warned its design could cause floodwaters to back up

A 40-foot stretch of mesh border fence east of Lukeville in Southwestern Arizona was knocked over Sunday by rainwater rushing through a wash.

This is the first time any part of this 5.2-mile stretch of fence has been knocked down by floodwaters since it was built in 2007-2008, but it is the latest in a series of challenges for the barrier during rainstorms, said Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Superintendent Lee Baiza.

The design does not allow for the free flow of water in natural washes intersecting the border, he said. In washes, the fence has grate openings at the bottom that are 6 inches high and 24 inches wide with 1-by-3-inch bars.

"The fence acts as a dam and forms a gradual waterfall," Baiza said. "It starts to pile up on the bottom as the grass, the leaves, the limbs start plugging up. The water starts backing up and going higher. The higher it gets, the more force it has behind it."

Sunday's storm dumped 1.5 to 2.5 inches of rain in the area upslope from the area where the fence failed, according to the National Weather Service.

Bursts of strong rain are common at the park, meaning that other parts of the fence that are in the natural washes could be at risk of being knocked over, too, Baiza said.

The problems were anticipated by Organ Pipe officials.

In October 2007, before the fence was built by Kiewit Western Co. for $21.3 million, Organ Pipe officials told the U.S. Department of Homeland Security they were worried that the design would impede the movement of floodwater across the border; that debris would get trapped in the fence; that water would pool; and that the lateral flow of water would cause damage to the environment and patrol roads, according to a report issued by Organ Pipe in August 2008 about flooding that summer.

In response, the Border Patrol issued a final environmental assessment with a finding of no significant impact. It also said the fence would not impede the natural flow of water or cause flooding.

The agency said it would remove debris from the fence within the washes immediately after rains to ensure that no flooding occurred.

At a December 2007 meeting, Kiewit officials stated in a handout that the fence design "would permit water and debris to flow freely and not allow ponding of water on either side of the border" because the drainage crossing grates "met hydraulic modeling requirements."

"Now we know who's right," said Matt Clark, Southwest representative for Defenders of Wildlife. "Period. End of story."

The situation is an example of how Homeland Security ignored expert advice from people within the federal government to ram through border-fencing projects, Clark said.

The first sign of problems occurred on July 12, 2008, when the 15-foot-high wire-mesh fence halted the natural flow of floodwater during a storm that dumped 1 to 2 inches of rain in 90 minutes around the border towns of Lukeville, and Sonoyta, Sonora.

Water pooled behind the fence and flooded into the Lukeville Port of Entry and private businesses, causing damage.

At the Gringo Pass convenience store, merchandise was damaged and the store was closed for cleanup, according to a lawsuit filed by the company against the U.S. government in 2009. The lawsuit says the flooding diminished property value by $6 million.

On Sunday, the storm also caused flooding in several buildings in Lukeville owned by Gringo Pass, Inc. after water pooled against the border fence and seeped into the structures. Those buildings now include a restaurant, post office, shuttle company and a duty-free store that had just received a new shipment of goods, said a store spokesperson. The convenience store is now out of business.

After the July 2008 flooding, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument officials issued a 17-page report detailing how it happened. Baiza said then he wanted government officials to revisit the design to prevent future problems.

To remedy the problem, the Army Corps of Engineers installed 50 to 60 liftable gates in 11 drainage systems as part of a 2010 drainage-improvement project. The system calls for the gates to be raised by a hoisting apparatus during storms so water can freely flow.

On Sunday, though, the gates were down, Baiza said.

Questions about the fence, the design and gates were not answered Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security or the Army Corps of Engineers.

The recent events show that there should be no border barriers in water crossings, Clark said. Officials should use alternative security measures such as ground sensors in those areas, which would not only allow floodwater to move freely but also create breaks for wildlife.

"Flooding is a very visual and physical reminder that walls block ecosystem processes," Clark said. "There are major costs both fiscally and environmentally to building walls across watersheds."

Did you know?

The 5.2 miles of pedestrian fence that was constructed in 2007 flanking Lukeville was part of hundreds of miles of fence built between 2007 and 2009 along the U.S.-Mexico border. Today, there are a total of 350 miles of pedestrian fences and 299 miles of vehicle barriers along the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Illegal Border Crossings Fewer But Just As Deadly

National Public Radio
August 7, 2011
by Ted Robbins

Over the last decade, the U.S. government has spent billions beefing up surveillance, manpower and fencing along the border with Mexico. Fewer people are attempting to cross, but hundreds of migrants still die every year, and not a day goes by without a rescue by border patrol agents.

Officials and humanitarian groups are ramping up efforts to find illegal crossers before the worst happens, and they're hoping new deterrents convince people not to cross in the first place.

Catching The Crossers

Robert Kiernan is one of the agents assigned to help track down those trying to cross. Kiernan is a Border Search, Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) agent working in an area southwest of Tucson, Ariz.

On a recent evening, he scans the desert for signs that people have been here. It's nearly sunset, so the long shadows highlight any footprints in the dirt. It's also when border crossers start getting active. Sure enough, a call comes over the radio: I got two bodies walking northbound from the 34 road. They're maybe a mile north.

A border patrol truck loaded with radar and cameras spotted them. Kiernan turns around and drives to the location. After a short hike, he sees two men hiding under brush next to a dry wash. The men could have been part of a larger group that scattered. They give up quietly. Agent Kiernan looks through their pockets and their backpacks and finds wire cutters, a steak knife, a pencil, toilet paper, snacks and water from a nearby cattle tank.

After a walk back to the road, other border patrol agents give the men fresh water, which they gulp down.

Kiernan says most crossers are unprepared for the journey.

"They're often lied to by the smugglers," Kiernan says. He says smugglers tell crossers that Phoenix — where these two say they were headed to find construction work — is just a day's walk. It actually takes a week.

"Most of them wouldn't sign up for something if they knew they were crossing into a region that could possibly take their life," Kiernan says. "Business wouldn't be that great for the smugglers, so they gotta lie to them to get them to take that hike."

Agent Eric Cantu says these crossers were probably trying to make it to a highway a few miles away where they'd get picked up. He asks the men how long they'd been walking. They say they crossed the border about a day and a half ago and made it 30 miles north before being caught. In some ways, they're lucky.

The Fate Of The Unlucky

Dr. Greg Hess, the Pima County medical examiner, opens the door to a refrigerated morgue. Inside are those who ran out of luck. White plastic body bags are stacked on shelves up to the ceiling.

"We probably have about 250-ish people in there," Hess says, guessing that almost all of them are undocumented migrants.

These are just the migrants who haven't been identified. Someone from the Mexican consulate comes to the facility's other morgue several times a week, trying to ID bodies and then notify relatives back home. In this morgue, each bag has a John or Jane Doe tag. Some bags contain just a few bones. Some have been here years. In another room, small lockers contain baggies filled with migrants' personal effects. Hess examines one collection.

"This is Case 1501. And you can see we have a Mexican identification with a name. We also have a piece of paper with phone numbers, CDs and a portion of a watch, which is still running," Hess says.

The ID shows a healthy-looking young man, but his remains are likely just a skeleton, so there are no fingerprints. Efforts to trace him through DNA haven't been successful. His remains will stay here until someone claims them or he's cremated.

Taking Steps To Reduce Deaths

Though there are fewer people crossing the border illegally and there's more security than ever, border deaths aren't dropping. Hess says southern Arizona is still on pace to reach 150-200 deaths this year — the average yearly total over the last decade.

No one knows for sure why deaths aren't dropping, but research from one humanitarian group suggests that people are being found in more remote places. That coincides with the buildup of enforcement in urban areas, where people used to cross.

To combat the problem, the Border Patrol says it's put 40 BORSTAR agents and 200 emergency medical technicians in the Tucson sector. It's also training two new classes of agents. Humanitarian groups continue to patrol areas, but they want more help, like rescue beacons, water stations and better access. That's going to take more cooperation from federal and state land managers, as well as the Border Patrol and Native American tribes that own the land.

There's also a push to get phone companies to have more cellphone coverage for 911 calls in these remote areas. Warnings about the dangers of crossing are broadcast on TV and radio throughout Mexico and Central America.

New Penalties For Illegal Crossing

As for the two men Kiernan caught, they face a new punishment. Less than five years ago, they likely would have been put on a bus and sent back to the Mexican border where they could simply try to cross again. That "catch and release" policy, as President Bush called it, has virtually been ended.

These men were taken to Tucson, processed as any other arrestee and prosecuted. They were charged with illegal crossing under Operation Streamline, which has a near-100-percent conviction rate. The first conviction is a misdemeanor, usually punishable by time served. Offenders get a deportation on their record, and if they try to cross again, they can be charged with a felony.

Those efforts may be working, but they are long-term fixes. Generations of families have been crossing the southern border for years, and it could take as long as a generation to discourage them. Until then, people will continue to die.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Crossing more dangerous than ever for migrants?

Arizona Daily Star
August 4, 2011
by Brady McCombs

As I wrote about earlier this week, the border death tally is down slightly this year compared to past years. But, considering the precipitous drop in illegal entries from Mexico into the U.S. through Arizona, the argument can be made that the crossing is more dangerous than ever.

I've examined this theory in a pair of 2009 stories (links here and here). Essentially, border county law enforcement, Mexican Consulate officials, Tohono O'odham tribal officials and humanitarian groups say the unprecedented buildup of Border Patrol agents, fences, roads and technology has caused illegal border crossers to walk longer distances in more treacherous terrain, increasing the likelihood that people will get hurt or fatigued and left behind to die.

The rate of death — the number of bodies found per 100,000 Border Patrol apprehensions — backs up that assertion. The rate has been on the rise for the last decade, and is higher again this year through the first 10 months of fiscal year 2011 despite a numerical drop in bodies recovered.

Here's the year-by-year figures for the rate of death, based on the Arizona Daily Star's border death database:

Known deaths per 100,000 apprehensions in Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, by fiscal year:

2004: 39

2005: 52

2006: 46

2007: 59

2008: 57

2009: 88

2010: 118

2011*: 129

* From Oct. 1 through July 31

Basically, the rate continues to rise because the deaths continue at similar levels while Border Patrol apprehensions continue to decline significantly.

The 109,040 apprehensions made in the Tucson Sector from Oct. 1 through July 31 mark a 44-percent decrease from the same time in fiscal 2010 and a a 47-percent decrease from 2009, Border Patrol figures show.


More skeletal remains

The Pima County Medical Examiner's Office 2010 annual report — the first time the office has produced such a document — shows that just less than half of the undocumented border crossers the office handled in 2010 were skeletal remains.

The exact number was 45 percent — 103 of 230 cases.

There's no past year numbers to compare that to since the office just started producing these detailed reports but my observations — being the one that enters each new border death in our border death database — is that the proportion of skeletal remains has been on the rise in recent years.

An unofficial count of the 98 bodies handled by the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office this calendar year through July shows that 40 have been skeletal remains, partial skeletal remains or decomposed remains.

This is based on the what the pathologists write in the "cause of death" column of the report. We won't know the official "skeletal remain" count until the 2011 annual report comes out.

Here are some other interesting statistics from the annual report about the 230 bodies of suspected illegal border crossers that Pima County handled in 2010:

• 49 percent — of cases where the cause of death was undetermined, primarily due to the high volume of skeletal remains or decomposed bodies.

• 43 percent – of cases where the cause of death were attributed to "exposure to elements," which includes heat, cold and dehydration deaths.

• 6 — deaths from falls or motor vehicle accidents

• 3 — deaths from drowning

• 3 — deaths from gunshot wounds

• 1 — death from bee stings

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

United States border fence threatens wildlife

Nature News
August 2, 2011
by Melissa Gaskill

The 1,000 kilometres of impenetrable barrier constructed along the Mexico–United States border, with the aim of stemming illegal human immigration, is also hampering the movements of animals, including several endangered species, a recent study finds.

The species most at risk are those with smaller populations and specialized habitats, says Jesse Lasky, a graduate student at the University of Texas, Austin, and an author on the study, published in Diversity and Distributions1. Small range size is associated with a higher risk of extinction, and for some species, the barriers reduce range by as much as 75%. According to the study, species most at risk include four listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered or threatened — the Arroyo toad (Anaxyrus californicus), the California red-legged frog (Rana draytonii), the black-spotted newt (_Notophthalmus meridionalis_) and the Pacific pond turtle (Clemmys marmorata) – together with the jaguarundi (Puma yagouaroundi), which is endangered in the United States and threatened in Mexico.

The study also identified three border regions where wildlife is most at risk from the barrier: coastal California, coastal Texas and southeastern Arizona's Madrean Sky Island Archipelago.

Fragmented communities

The Rio Grande Valley, in coastal Texas, contains one of two remaining stands of native Mexican sabal palms. The solid metal and concrete fence, around 5.5 metres high, with an 18-metre-wide strip of open land on either side, runs through a preserve created to protect the trees. Rare animals in the valley include the ocelot, of which fewer than 50 remain in the United States. The fence further fragments their habitat and separates the population in Texas from the larger and more genetically diverse population in northern Mexico.

The border barrier affects 60% to 70% of the habitat in the South Texas Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes the Laguna Atascosa, Lower Rio Grande Valley and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuges. At the request of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), about 100 openings for wildlife were incorporated into the fence in this area. But, says FWS wildlife biologist Mitch Sternberg, who was not involved in the study, these openings are too small for larger animals such as coyotes or bobcats, and bobcats follow regular trails and may not find the openings. "Bobcats don't go out looking for holes in fences as they travel back and forth through brushy habitats. Overall, wildlife connectivity does not exist in these sectors anymore," he says.

Sternberg, who monitors the area's bobcat population using cameras and radio collars on around 20 bobcats, says that the border barriers bisected the home ranges of the tracked bobcats. "I tracked some cats for a long time before the wall construction and did see significant shifts in territories," he says. A pair of collared bobcats that lived on the south side of the wall were trapped on the north side, where they were later killed on a highway while searching for new habitat. The presence of this fence-restricted pair may have caused another male bobcat to wander into an urban area — a rare occurrence — where it was killed by a vehicle. Another tracked pair abandoned their home range during construction of the barrier in their area.

Sternberg hopes to collar additional cats to study distribution and movement patterns after barrier construction, but says "I'm afraid most of the previous bobcats are dead due to forced dispersal during construction, so it will be a real challenge to replicate the study in those areas."

Environmental mitigation

The barrier was mandated under the Secure Fence Act, signed into law by George W. Bush in 2006, and Michael Chertoff, the then Secretary of Homeland Security, waived environmental laws for its construction. In January 2009, US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) committed US$50 million to fund mitigation of "unavoidable impacts to natural and cultural resources" from construction of the barriers, to be paid to the Department of the Interior over several years. In September 2010, CBP funded $6.8 million in mitigation projects, but approximately $30 million that was due to be allocated in 2011 was rescinded in the 2011 appropriations bill.

According to CBP spokeswoman Jenny Burke, the agency "remains committed to responsible environmental stewardship", and intends to resume the mitigation projects when funding permits.

The authors of the recent study1 recommend restoring historic connectivity through additional openings or removal of the barrier in key areas. Habitat restoration, particularly in areas where crossings are possible, could also mitigate some effects, Lasky says. "General land-use planning is important. We can plan new development and preserves with an eye to where we can promote connectivity and preserve areas where connectivity exists."