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The Guardians of the Border

Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies are all working hard to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, but the job is overwhelming.

September 30, 2015  |  by Sylvia Longmire

Photo: iStockphoto.com
Photo: iStockphoto.com

The following is taken from "Border Insecurity: Why Big Money, Fences, and Drones Aren't Making Us Safer" by Sylvia Longmire.

All law enforcement agencies with a border security mission face challenges, including red tape, lack of funding, corruption, low morale, and personnel and management problems. But the core agents and officers strongly believe in the mission and feed off of their victories enough to get them through to the next day. Many of them—particularly in the United States Border Patrol—are regularly dealing with conflicting or nonsensical information from Department of Homeland Security regarding policies and procedures, but they soldier on because they believe in the mission.

A Punch in the Face

It was 3 a.m. and Border Patrol Agent Kevin Simmons (not his real name) was working in the Southern California foothills. He was out in the field with several other agents when dispatch notified Simmons and his fellow agents of a seismic sensor hit. One agent set up an infrared scope to look for migrants or smugglers—"bodies" in Border Patrol parlance—in the dark. Pretty quickly, they detected a large group of people coming down into the area through a canyon.

All the agents got into their trucks and started driving down an access road toward the opening of the canyon. Then Simmons and the others got out of their trucks and saw through the scope that the group was resting/hiding on a nearby hillside, most likely because they saw the Border Patrol vehicles approaching. The agents then started to fan out, moving toward the group.

It wasn't long before they were apprehending one illegal immigrant after another—the group had approximately 60 people traveling together. After rounding up the majority of the migrants, the agents got to the point where they were using their infrared scope to pick out any stragglers who were attempting to get away. Agent Simmons was coming down the hill when he heard through his radio, "Hey, head back up the hill to just above where you were because I've got some bodies laid up there; looks like two or three." So Simmons went back up the hill.

Simmons soon saw them. He started telling them in Spanish, "Don't move!" and he noticed it was one male and two females who were hiding. Simmons grabbed the male migrant in order to handcuff him. However, the man had other plans. He immediately grabbed Simmons right back.

The migrant seemed intent on throwing Simmons around as best he could. The agent tried to gain solid footing and get the man off of him with short, rapid punches. However, Simmons fell backward right onto a rock, and although his body armor absorbed most of the impact, the fall still knocked the wind out of him. His assailant took advantage of Simmons's brief disorientation to jump on top of him while the two women he was with started grabbing at Simmons's shirt and hair. Simmons had trained extensively for what happened next but had prayed it would never happen: The man reached with his right hand across Simmons's body and went for his gun.

Things started moving in slow motion. Simmons slammed his own hand on top of the migrant's to prevent him from pulling the gun out of its holster, then started trying to strike his assailant with his left hand to try to get the man off of him.

Simmons stopped trying to block the man's punches and put both hands over his holster to protect his gun. While this succeeded in forcing the migrant to remove his hand from Simmons's holster, it also freed up both of the man's hands, which promptly began pummeling Simmons's face. Simmons rolled over onto his right side (where his gun happened to be strapped) and knew that from that position he could protect his firearm.

The male migrant finally got off of Simmons, grabbed one of the female migrants, and started running. A few moments later, the second woman started running after them.

Simmons jumped up and started chasing them across the hill. He caught up to the second woman and was able to tackle her to the ground. However, because the hill was so steep, they started tumbling and Simmons ended up on top of her. The woman started fighting with all her strength, which Simmons found to be considerable and more than he expected; he was having a very hard time holding her down. He started yelling at her to stop fighting and be still while he tried to maneuver her into a handcuffing position. Then she lifted up her head and took a solid bite of the meat on Simmons's hand between his thumb and index finger.

Simmons was raised in a very traditional household where he was taught the one thing a man should never, ever, ever do is raise his hand to a woman under any circumstances. Except this circumstance.

He drew his hand back and socked his female assailant as hard as he could. She started screaming in Spanish, "Help me! Help me!" as loud as she possibly could. That was when Simmons heard a rustling in the bushes nearby. Simmons scooted up on the female immigrant and held her down with his knee to keep her in place. He then unholstered his gun and drew down on whoever or whatever was in the bushes, trying to be ready for anything. He saw a person start to emerge and got ready to pull the trigger, thinking it was the man who assaulted him earlier. But Simmons looked harder and saw it was another female immigrant, and she wasn't one of the two beating on him earlier.

He started yelling at her in Spanish to get down on the ground, and as soon as she saw the gun, her arms shot up in the air. She got down on the ground and started screaming in Spanish, "Don't kill me! Don't kill me!"

Simmons holstered his gun and looked around to make sure no one else was approaching or trying to catch him off guard. He rolled the first female immigrant, whom he had been holding down, over so he could handcuff her. Simmons got on the radio and called for backup.

Inside the Border Patrol

Back in the 1990s, serving in the Border Patrol in California wasn't exactly where Kevin Simmons pictured himself. Growing up on the East Coast, he spent a lot of time outdoors and was college educated, but was well into his twenties and still living at home with his family when he decided he needed to start exploring some career options. The Border Patrol was engaged in a huge recruitment drive in the mid-1990s. Within a few months of applying and completing the interview process, the agency offered Simmons a position as an agent.

Given that Simmons went through Border Patrol training almost 20 years ago in a program that was somewhat different than today's— I asked him how his classmates compare to recent Border Patrol Academy graduates.

"Back then, you couldn't help but have people who weren't good at what they did, but it seemed like everybody wanted to be good," Simmons says. "Back then, the one thing you did not want was to be branded as a slug. Most guys I worked with back then really wanted to work, and the work was there. Aliens and dope, and in 1996 it was everywhere. We were super, super busy.

"If I had to compare that with today," he continues, "I would say that the whole generational-differences thing we've been getting really hammered into us for the past 10 years is really accurate. You have so many people coming in now, these twenty-somethings, who just feel entitled to everything." Simmons did say it wasn't all of the newer agents, but the phenomenon seems a lot more prevalent in recent years than it had in the years following his graduation.

Border Patrol Agent Daniel Blake (not his real name) is one of those newer guys coming in now, and I wanted his perspective on the caliber of his peers. Blake is a former Marine, so he has high standards for himself, as well as high expectations for decorum among agents. "There isn't a lot of respect for the supervisors and their rank," Blake says. "People look at supervisors like any other agent and treat them more like a friend than a superior. Comparing that to the Marine Corps… when I was a corporal, if someone told me to do something, the immediate response was, 'Yes!' and it got done. With a lot of agents, a supervisor can say, 'Hey, I need you to get this training done,' and the reaction will be, 'Eh, that's stupid.'"

Oddly enough, changes to the organization that people might view as equitable could be making some Border Patrol sectors less effective. Blake explains, "There's a culture of fairness, at least at my station, where they try to rotate everyone through every assignment along the border as evenly as they can. We have a lot of rugged terrain in our sector. Some of our agents are in their mid-fifties and can't hike well, some are really overweight and can't hike well, and some are just plain lazy and don't want to hike. But to meet that culture of fairness, they'll be assigned to those positions, even though you've got young guys who have a lot of energy and want to do everything they can. [And they're] put on an 'X' where they can't move for the entire shift."

All that being said, both Simmons and Blake love what they do. Both agents agreed that most Border Patrol agents work very hard and believe in the mission, although they feel stymied by an antiquated bureaucracy filled with red tape and frequent shows of favoritism.

86 Sworn

Local law enforcement agencies on the southern border are fighting to keep their heads above water with community policing because now they have the added burden of a border security mission that belongs to the federal government.

Sheriff Mark Dannels of Cochise County, Ariz., was more than happy to help introduce me to the locals' point of view regarding border issues. Dannels is very frustrated by what he sees as a failure by the federal government to do the job of border enforcement. When DHS started building the border fence in earnest in 2006, the plan was to wall off urban areas to reduce trafficking and illegal immigration in those areas. The fence would then force border crossers to go somewhere else—typically more rural parts of the border—where they would pose less danger to U.S. citizens, and where Border Patrol agents could more easily apprehend them in the open. This strategy was actually preceded by Operation Gatekeeper, a huge push during the 1990s by the U.S. government to stop illegal immigration, and it's been a headache for local law enforcement ever since.

"If you take a look at our county, which is considered one of the nonpopulated areas of the southwest border, we're still seeing 50% of all smuggling activity. That operation [Gatekeeper] from the 1990s is working; we're getting flooded," Dannels says. "[DHS] has addressed some of the issues here. They put up a fence from just south of Bisbee to east of Douglas, but beyond that fence, it's wide open. They've also significantly increased the number of Border Patrol agents working here. This is not to knock the Border Patrol; they're doing a great job. But there are 1,500 federal agents here to secure our 83 miles of border, and it's still not secure."

Like most border sheriffs in the Southwest, Dannels routinely gets calls from ranchers in his county who complain that smugglers and migrants are trespassing on their land and cutting their fences. "I know one rancher whose home has been burglarized four times. I had another case just a week ago where a resident was hit over the head with a two-by-four by someone who wanted to steal his water. Our border is not secure, no matter what the media is saying," he says.

One of Dannels' concerns is that he doesn't receive additional funding for a border security mission. "The things we do that go beyond our normal job of patrol, the domestics, the DUIs, the crashes… I have to take from those resources and do more with less. That border is a federal border, and my guys aren't sitting on it," says Dannels. "They're going to be working across the county to make a difference there, so I don't have the resources, and I have to be very careful and creative with how I put these response units together to make a difference. And it's tough. I have 86 sworn deputies in a county of 6,300 square miles."

On the Geronimo Trail

Cochise County Sheriff's Deputy Mike Magoffin's family owns the Magoffin Ranch not far from Douglas, and he grew up in the local ranching community. And he's well aware of how hazardous border law enforcement can be. Shortly after we got into his patrol truck, we discussed my previous military service and law enforcement work, and he asked me if I was familiar with the M-16. I replied that I was, along with the other weapons I had used as a special agent in the Air Force. He then directed my attention to the M-16 and shotgun he had secured in his truck, as well as the ballistic vests tucked in between our seats. Magoffin specifically pointed them out "in case things get hairy."

We headed east toward Douglas, population 17,378, the kind of town where everyone knows everyone. The demographic is largely Latino, which is typical for a border community, but also allows drug smugglers and cartel members to blend in easily—if not subtly. As we drove east, we passed by some gorgeous homes that could actually qualify as estates. Magoffin looked at me and said, "There aren't a lot of high-paying jobs in Douglas, so you have to ask yourself, Who's living in these homes?"

Magoffin drove into the southeastern reaches of Cochise County via a rough dirt road called Geronimo Trail. He explained that this area was one of the busiest corridors in the state for drug and human smuggling, and it was easy to see why. The nearby foothills were excellent places for spotters to set up shop with binoculars and radio to their coyotes when the coast was clear of any Border Patrol or other law enforcement vehicles. The bushes and scrub provided an infinite number of places where migrants or drug mules could hide or stash drug loads for later pickup. The border fence here is just a vehicle barrier in this part of the county, and anyone on foot—migrant, coyote, or drug smuggler—can easily hop over it.

Sylvia Longmire is a medically retired Air Force captain and former special agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. From December 2005 to July 2009, she worked as a senior intelligence analyst for the California state fusion center and the California Emergency Management Agency's Situational Awareness Unit. Longmire is the author of "Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars" and "Border Insecurity: Why Big Money, Fences, and Drones Aren't Making Us Safer" as well as numerous articles. She is a frequent guest on numerous TV news shows and the principal of Longmire Consulting (longmireconsulting.com).


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