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Riding With the Border Patrol



— February 15, 2018

Riding With the Border Patrol

  • Agents navigate remote and unforgiving terrain with grit and muscle chiseled in intense workouts.
IT IS THE RAINY SEASON AND an endless carpet of green swells and dips over the hills and valleys of Southwest Arizona. The soft-blue sky is thick with clouds a well as circling black vultures. Along a ridge to the south, a small group of people, apparently picnickers, sits beneath a palo verde tree.
The only signs this bucolic spot is anything but benign and warrants special scrutiny, are the trucks along Interstate 19 in the distance below and the rust-colored fencing, up to 20 feet tall, snaking its way across the landscape. Welcome to Nogales, Arizona, along a stretch of Mexican border where near-daily efforts to smuggle people and drugs betray the tranquility of its hilltops.

For US Border Patrol agents, traversing this terrain nearly 4,000 feet above sea level is a test of physical skill in a competition that often gives smugglers a distinct advantage. “It’s taxing on the agent,” says officer Daniel Hernandez. “I’ve got to carry my body weight plus another 30 or 40 pounds of gear that I can’t drop. A smuggler carrying 50 pounds of marijuana can drop those 50 pounds and run.”

Hernandez is wearing a green long sleeve, canvas-like uniform to protect against the rough bark of mesquite trees and fine-barbed cholla cactus, noting, “In Arizona, everything pokes or sticks you.” The long sleeves and thick fabric compound the heat and thin air. “Fatigue plays a huge role in the ability to perform your job and find somebody. There are some peaks that hit up to 7,000 feet above sea level. You have to have a certain level of endurance to just deal with that altitude and then carry the additional load of our firearm, service radio and bulletproof vest.”

But for every challenge thrown their way, the agents say they have devised training, both in physical fitness and field operations, in response. Training for skills directly job-related, such as use of force, is mandatory; physical fitness is largely left to the agents, who are typically given a few hours each week for exercise—from strength training to speed-and-agility workouts—while on the clock.

Hernandez is standing in an area just a short drive from the Nogales port of entry to the United States. As one of the busiest stretches along the nearly 2,000-mile long US-Mexico border, the route is clogged with trucks, buses, and other traffic, as well as pedestrians from a Mexican population center more than 200,000 strong—a recipe for a popular smuggling location.

Just over the border on the US side, the area is dotted with warehouses and retail buildings, ideal hiding spots for people who have entered illegally and are awaiting cars to traffic them farther north. That gives agents a 30-second window to catch running migrants from the time they are spotted. “Time is of the essence in this location,” Hernandez says. “A quick burst of speed in a full sprint comes in handy.”

And the small group by the palo verde tree to the south? They are on the Mexican side, and Hernandez is certain one man just to the left of the group is a scout. Scouts guide migrants across the border via radio by alerting


After a rare snow near Laredo, Texas, last fall, Border Patrol officers rescued these illegal migrants by reaching them on horseback.

them to the locations of US patrols. We peer at the group through binoculars, and the man standing alone ducks behind a bush. “They’re probably watching us at this moment,” the agent says. “They’re trying to devise a game plan. It’s fair to assume there’s always somebody watching you out here. You should never let your guard down.”

A Demanding Job

For the Border Patrol, achieving that state of mental preparedness means being physically fit, not only to handle threats but also to appear imposing enough—the agents call it “officer presence”—to deter danger in the first place. The agents must also be physically fit for their various transportation methods—including on foot—and the rough terrain they traverse along the vast, unforgiving and often remote border.

Near the border in Laredo, Texas, that patrol sector’s agents prepare for their field operations by working out at Mustang CrossFit, set in a hangar-like structure with 25-pound medicine balls, pull-up bars, and other gym equipment. (See box at right for more on the exercises the agents use to prepare for fieldwork.)

“These guys are out there chasing people, riding horses, ATVs, jumping over obstacles, and what we do here prepares you for that,” says Jason Quesada, a Laredo agent, and Mustang CrossFit supervisor. “You’re jumping over boxes, lifting heavier weights, you’re moving your body in different ways, trying to improve agility, balance, control, strength. All that stuff translates to catching people in the field, assisting people that are injured, helping people out of remote areas, everything we do on a daily basis.”

Gilbert Salinas, 36, a Laredo horse patrol agent, said his area’s first sizable snowfall in 14 years put his physical skills to the test in November when he and his partner had to rescue several migrants who had crossed illegally but called for help after they got caught in the storm. Salinas and his partner responded because vehicles could not reach the remote area; the agents ended up lifting the migrants onto their horses before leading them out of the snow on foot.

“The training we do helps us keep a level mind in a situation like that,” Salinas says. “We’ll routinely track groups for six or seven hours on horse nonstop. It takes a lot of leg strength to remain on the horse, and your arms will get exhausted from pulling the reins.”

Agents also repeatedly mount and dismount with their heavy gear, such as when they must enter private

Fitness Moves Match Demands in the Field
Many athletes work out to boost their performance in sports—Border Patrol agents train to improve their performance on the job, sometimes in life-threatening situations. Jason Quesada, fitness supervisor at the Laredo, Texas, patrol sector’s Mustang CrossFit facility, leads his agents in a warm-up of stretches to help improve their flexibility and prevent muscle injuries during the workout to come. Once done with the stretches, the agents tackle rigorous exercises to enhance their skills in the field. The agents run through 50 repetitions of each of the following four exercises.

ranchland. (Each Border Patrol sector has a ranch liaison to make those arrangements.) “There’s a lot of getting up and down from the animal with all that weight,” says Albert DeLeon, Laredo special operations supervisor and horse patrol coordinator.

Guadalupe Cisneros, 30, a Laredo horse patrol agent, described the arrest of six of eight illegal migrants he and his partner tracked earlier that day. “I jumped a fence and I jumped cactuses. These guys were underneath bushes. A lot of times some guys just close their eyes, hide underneath a tree and act like you can’t see them, so you’ve got to get in there and talk to them or yell at them and pull them out.”

Brittney Villanueva, 28, a Laredo agent and fitness trainer who stands just under 5’3”, had just completed a CrossFit session. Her sweaty arms adorned with decorative sugar skull

  • Wall Ball shots begin with squatting while you hold a 25-pound medicine ball, then quickly extending yourself as you throw it upward to reach a high point on a wall in front of you before catching the ball. Female agents sometimes use 14-pound medicine balls. Two-pound balls are on hand to train the agents in the exercise. Because of the stretching involved, Wall Ball shots help improve the agents’ flexibility. The squatting position, Quesada says, mirrors scenarios that agents often find themselves in when they are crouching low in the field while wearing their heavy gear, represented by the medicine ball.
  • A Power Clean is a total-body exercise that involves lifting a manageable weight (the agents lift 135 pounds), grasping the bar overhand, from the floor to the shoulders by extending your hips and knees in an accelerated movement. The Power Clean simulates picking up something heavy, such as gear or an immobilized person. Illegal migrants are sometimes found injured or dehydrated, and agents must get them to safety.
  • In the “burpee over bar” exercises at Mustang CrossFit, agents repeatedly drop down and get back up quickly. Burpees work your entire body and provide a strong cardiovascular workout. Burpees help prepare the agents for those scenarios, Quesada says, in which “you’re running, you fall, you’ve got to pop back up. If you’ve got to go under a fence or a vehicle, whatever you have to do, you’ve got to get down and get back up.
  • Pull-ups are an old favorite that help build mass and strength. They work the brachialis and brachioradialis arm muscles, near the elbow, and help increase back strength. Pull-ups are equivalent to climbing over a fence or scaling a wall. And back strength is key not just in climbing, Quesada adds, but many other dynamics of the agents’ work in the field.


Virtual Reality Puts Agents in Peril—Safely
Somewhere in the desert, a female Border Patrol officer pulls up on her ATV to examine a bundle, presumably of drugs, dropped by smugglers who have crossed the Mexican border. In seconds, gunfire erupts in front of me and to my right.
Somewhere in the desert, a female Border Patrol officer pulls up on her ATV to examine a bundle, presumably of drugs, dropped by smugglers who have crossed the Mexican border. In seconds, gunfire erupts in front of me and to my right.
The figures shooting at me are in civilian clothes, and I shoot back. To my right, another person runs from a tree and settles behind a rock; I do not shoot. When the gunfire is over, two presumed smugglers who fired at me are disabled.
The gunfight never put me in any real danger. My gun, painted yellow to indicate it is not live, is a real weapon but modified with a CO2 cartridge to mimic the recoil of a firearm and equipped with a laser. The bright red light lands where I aim on the five screens, each the size of a small garage door, set up in 300 degrees around me in a law enforcement training system called the Virtra 300.
The figures and desert landscape on the screens around me are video recordings. Before the scene started rolling, placed on my side is a black box through which 50,000 volts, the same as in a Taser, will be delivered if the bad guys on screen target me before I hit them.
My spot-on aim, which surprises me, spares me the shocks. I am in a giant virtual reality game with more painful consequences than most games, except the stakes are much higher for the Border Patrol officers who train in it.
When the simulation is done, the real officers around me congratulate me for my shooting, and for keeping my gun down for the one innocent that ran from the tree to the rock.
During the exercise, I had glimpsed, out of my peripheral vision, what I thought was another person all the way to my right. That figure never existed—showing how the mind can play tricks when such split-second decisions arrive.

tattoos from the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead, Villanueva says exercises like a farmer carry, in which she walks with a kettlebell weighing more than 50 pounds on each arm, help compensate for her petite frame. “I’m also an EMT,” she says, “so that has come in handy because we have to literally carry somebody out in the field.”

Villanueva also favors a CrossFit exercise known as a muscle-up, a swinging pull-up in which you lift your hips to the bar. “This would be very comparable to running after somebody and having to jump a cinderblock wall,” she says. “That particular scenario happens more than you think.”

On this particular day at Mustang CrossFit, the agents are doing deadlifts. Quesada says those exercises help strengthen the back, a common problem area for many agents, and adds, “That will assist you with being in a hunched-over position when you’re riding an ATV or on a horse, or if you have to carry something.”

Back in Nogales, in a cavernous former retail warehouse, agents finetune their hand-eye coordination by bobbing and weaving at a speed bag, and by landing knee strikes and kicking at a long boxing bag tied down at both ends, a training technique favored by fighters like Floyd Mayweather, Connor McGregor, and Manny Pacquiao. The agents also leaped into the digital world by training at large virtual reality screens that simulate dangerous encounters in the field (see left).

Instead of CrossFit, the Nogales agents have embraced a homegrown combat conditioning training program, says Joe Uribe, who teaches combat, general fitness, and lethal force training for the Tucson sector, which includes Nogales. Tucson sector agents with a mixed martial arts background developed the program.

Near the double-end boxing bag, agents throw fist, head and knee strikes at a series of circular pads that are part of a training system developed by Bas Rutten, a fighter with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. The apparatus minimizes injury risk versus sparring with a partner, Uribe says.

The Best Defense

In another corner of the warehouse, in the “mat room,” agents develop defensive skills using mock equipment such as foam-encased batons, imitation Tasers and pepper spray canisters without the chili oil extract. The agents also use fake stun grenades in crowd control exercises to prepare for protests.

The most physically demanding defensive tactics, Uribe says, take place in the mat room and involve preparing agents for attacks that could bring them to the ground.

When agents arrested a group of migrants, the protocol is to have


Tucson sector fitness supervisor Joe Uribe and Border Patrol Agent Daniel Hernandez in the mat room where conditioning for combat training takes place. Right, Uribe at the speed bag, which helps develop hand-eye coordination.

With Training, a New Life for Inmates and Horses
While Congress debates whether to lift restrictions on killing wild horses and burros said to be too numerous for the natural resources in which they live, many wild mustangs are being given a new lease on life by, well, going to prison. Under a joint program with the Bureau of Land Management and a handful of state correctional departments, inmates are training wild mustangs to serve in the Border Patrol.
Mustangs are a good fit for the program because they adapt well, says Cody West, supervisor with Colorado Correctional Industries. “Not only do they train better, they last longer for the Border Patrol,” he says. “They’re born with bigger bones, bigger feet. They come from the wild so being out on the trails is nothing new to them.”
West says he looks for inmates, all volunteers, who have little experience with horses: “That way we don’t have to break any bad habits.” Inmates who participate typically have a year or less left of their sentences. Inmates say the work with the horses has taught them life skills they can apply when they are released. The program has taught lessons in patience and keeping emotions in check, said Taylor Hommertzheim,

Colorado inmates train wild mustangs in a program that helps rehabilitate both the inmates and horses.

29, who is in the Four Mile Correctional Center in Canon City, Colorado, for possession of drugs and attempted second-degree assault, and has worked with 20 animals over 17 months. He currently rides six horses.
“If you go in a round pen and work with the horse, and it’s new and doesn’t know anything, you can get frustrated,” Hommertzheim says. “But then the horse gets frustrated. You have to keep calm and know that eventually, it’s going to work.”
He said he has learned to overcome his instinct to get nervous with a new horse, and instead approach a new animal with a combination of confidence and respect. “It teaches you responsibility, being accountable for something,” says Richard Kline, 33, an Arizona inmate jailed for car theft. “It pretty much helps you grow up. They don’t know anything when you get them. You’ve got to teach them everything. You’ve got to clean up after them. If they get any cuts or scrapes, you’ve got to clean their wounds. You’ve got clean their pens up. I look at it like you’re raising kids.”
Albert DeLeon, special operations supervisor and horse patrol coordinator for the Laredo, Texas, Border Patrol, sees poetry in the program. “The horses are trained by convicted individuals, turned out by the Border Patrol and then they’re out there saving lives,” DeLeon says. “It’s a win for everyone involved.”

them sit to keep them from running off or assaulting an officer who must approach the migrants with a clipboard of processing forms. In the event someone tackles an agent, the officer is to rely on Gracie jiu-jitsu, a martial arts technique imported by the Brazilian Gracie family. “Brazilian jiu-jitsu was invented for the little guy,” Uribe says. “Jiu-jitsu really works nice because you don’t have to rely on brute strength. You don’t have to rely on being at a 100% energy level.”

The officers are taught to employ the technique when facing an opponent trying to tackle and climb on top of an agent. “That’s one of the most dangerous positions you can be in on the ground,” Uribe says. With an attacker’s legs straddled around the agent’s hips, the officer has no access to his gun and other tools. On the upside, neither does the attacker.

“The difference is the opponent knows it’s very easy for them to lift their body slightly to try and grab something versus you trying to muscle them up or away to get to one of your tools,” Uribe says. “At that point in our use-of-force model, we are allowed to do techniques to stop that individual from doing that— closed-fist strikes, elbow strikes. That should stun the opponent and set them up to where they can be rolled over, pushed away and get that agent back up on their feet.”

To keep an opponent from sitting on top of him, an agent is taught to wrap his legs around the opponent when he falls to the ground. “Your gun belt is still accessible,” the trainer says, “and you have moderate control over their body versus them having that heavy control on you.”

Trouble Underground

One of the more perilous applications of the agents’ fitness training is in the underground tunnels that smugglers seem to favor in the Nogales area. Agents who work the tunnels train in what the border patrol says is the nation’s only underground tunnel training facility. It consists of several hundred feet of buried drainage piping 24 inches and 36 inches in diameter, with four entry points. In some of the tunnels, agents hit dead ends; in others, they have to turn at a 45-degree angle.

Real smuggling tunnels, of course, are more volatile than the controlled training pipes. “There’s the claustrophobia issue, but then there’s also the fear of the unknown that people have to conquer,” says Chris Brinkoff, a Nogales agent who specializes in tunnel operations.

The agents have special tools that read tunnel air quality, and they’ve learned to identify whether soil in a tunnel is packed enough to keep it stable. But many real tunnel scenarios are unpredictable, with agents encountering needles, jars of urine and armed smugglers who engage the agents in underground shootouts. Thomas Pittman, a Nogales supervisor, says he was in a tunnel when he came upon a small boulder propped up above him by nothing more than a single 2×4.

Some tunnels can be as little as 15 inches in diameter. “I’ve been in tunnels where my stomach and back have been touching the walls,” Pittman recounts. “Usually they’re a little bigger and you can crawl on your hands and knees. It’s really difficult, especially if you’ve got to crawl backwards when you can’t turn around. And a lot of the tunnels descend and then rise underneath the fence footer so you’ve got to crawl down and then up. It gets pretty tiring.”

Diverse Terrain

In the compound housing the tunnel complex, a six-story tower gives the agents a platform from which to practice rappelling, which simulates work on cliffs. The facility reflects the diversity of terrain the agents must work in, from the barren desert to sweeping mesas and mountains to muddy riverbanks and thick pine forests.

Back in Laredo, in a small wooded area along a bank of the Rio Grande, Peter Ayala, a special operations supervisor, underlined the obstacles agents face. He showed how easily someone can get disoriented just by moving a few yards into the muddy marsh from a rare stretch of paved access road that parallels the border. “You walk 10 feet into this brush and it’s very easy to lose your bearing,” Ayala says; at his feet is a muddy black garbage bag a migrant used to keep clothes dry while crossing the river. “You start getting claustrophobic here. Compound that by the nighttime. This is a dangerous job.”

A few feet away is a sign declaring the area a wildlife sanctuary, meaning agents and others cannot wantonly clear the brush. Further along, Ayala pushes against a tall thicket of Arundo donax, also known as giant reed, carrizo and border bamboo, an invasive grass that has given smugglers and migrants an effective place to hide, including cover for ambushes. Working with the US Department of Agriculture, the Border Patrol has introduced insects to help devour the cane-like plant, but it continues to flourish.

The risks the patrol agents face were underscored in November, in a middle-of-the-night incident near a West Texas interstate drainage ditch that left Border Patrol Officer Rogelio Martinez dead and another, Stephen Garland, severely injured. Authorities continue to investigate, but theories, from an attack by people in the area to a truck accident, differ on what happened.

After Drop in Arrests, Illegal Crossings Expected to Pick Up Again
During the federal government’s 2017 fiscal year, which ended September 30, Border Patrol officers made 310,531 arrests, a 24 % drop from the previous year and the fewest overall since 1971.
The figures, released by the Homeland Security Department in December, show a sharp decline in apprehensions just after President Trump’s election victory, giving rise to what some have called “the Trump effect” on immigration—the deterrence of his central campaign promise to build a border wall and clamp down on illegal immigration, and of the surge of arrests of foreigners living illegally in the US since his inauguration.
But some observers expect the numbers of illegal crossings to rebound this year back to usual numbers of previous years, and representing about 30,000 arrests per month. Writing in The Hill, Steven Kopits, president of Princeton Energy Advisors, a Princeton, New Jersey, consultancy, expects 10,000 arrests per month on top of that, reflecting crossers who decided to postpone crossing from last year to 2018 and doubling apprehension rates of 2017.
Kopits points to economic factors that will lure more illegal immigrants: the need for labor to deal with the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, as well as the California fires. And he notes that the National Association of Housing Builders reports that 82% of construction firms are anticipating labor shortages.
Growing Risk

Although the Border Patrol made fewer arrests and apprehended more families versus individuals in the last fiscal year, the risk of violence is growing, Border Patrol chief Ronald Vitiello said in a press conference last fall at which statistics were released. In the year ended September 30, border patrol officers were assaulted 847 times, a 45% increase over the previous year. The use of firearms by agents dropped to a record low of 17 incidents during fiscal 2017, down from 55 in 2012. (The agency changed its use-of-force policies at that time after a series of fatal shootings.)

Hernandez, the Nogales agent, recalled his most physically challenging episode, a mid-summer day a few years ago when temperatures hit triple digits. He was deployed in a remote pine forest region of eastern Arizona not regularly frequented by officers when his partner spotted signs of human trafficking along a dirt road: enough footprints to indicate that at least 15 people had passed through.

The team asked that extra agents be deployed on a mountaintop that could give them a view of several possible routes. From their perch, those agents spotted the group of migrants resting beneath a tree in the distance.

Hernandez and his partner set out to drive about three miles to get close to the group; with a quarter mile left, the pair suddenly saw 15 footprints across their path. They hadn’t heard from the agents on the mountaintop, so Hernandez and his partner thought they happened upon a second group. The find sent their adrenaline spiking. But it turned out it was the same group, and it was moving so quickly through the forest that the spotters who saw them beneath the tree thought they were still there.

As soon as Hernandez jumped onto the new path, he saw one migrant, dressed in full camouflage, look in his direction and casually turn beyond a dry riverbed. Hernandez hoped the migrant hadn’t spotted him among the pines. But when he and his partner turned another corner, they saw the group of migrants “quailing,” a term they use for scattering in every direction.

So began an operation that lasted more than 14 hours and put Hernandez and his fellow agents over 20 miles of mountainous terrain, much of it on foot, in high altitudes that demand twice as much water consumption as operating on flatlands. They had trailed, captured and brought the illegal migrants—18 in all, including the camouflaged man, a guide—out of the forest.


Laredo Border Patrol supervisor Peter Ayala inspecting a marshy area along the Rio Grande known for illegal crossings.


They then returned to the woodlands to retrieve one woman whom her companions said was left behind. Hernandez had already given his remaining water to one of the migrants, whom he carried on his back; he was physically spent and dehydrated to the point of nausea.

“I should have gone to the hospital for an IV [intravenous hydration] but I didn’t,” Hernandez recalled. “We just stopped at a Circle K [convenience store] on the way back to town and we just slammed Gatorade. I remember hoping I never push my body that much again because it was scary. We had no water and we were the only ones out there.”

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