Technology helping border agents identify threats and rescue injured migrants abandoned by smugglers
VAN HORN, Texas (Border Report) – Disoriented and hungry, the young woman from Guatemala slowly walked out of a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle and sat on a metal bench next to a cinder-block wall.
An agent instructed her to remove filthy camouflage pants and shirt while an interpreter inside the Border Patrol station questioned her in Spanish.
“Before they abandoned you, where did they tell you to go?” he asked as she removed two of the three layers of clothing she wore. “They told you to go to (Interstate) 10, do you know what ‘10’ is?”
“No,” said the 18-year-old named Dina in a soft voice barely above a whisper.
She was rescued by a helicopter crew from the Wiley Mountains east of Van Horn, where she spent a day and a night alone after hurting her foot. The group of 26 migrants she was traveling with took off without her when they spotted an approaching Border Patrol vehicle.
“I turned on my telephone and asked (the smuggler) what I should do. He told me to walk to a mountain, that another (smuggler) would help me. But there was no one there. I called again but he stopped taking my calls and texts,” Dina told Border Report, declining to give her last name.
A nurse assistant took her inside the station. She was to receive a medical exam and taste food for the first time in three days.
Border agents in the past five months have participated in 6,630 search and rescues of migrants along the Southwestern border. They’re hoping newly deployed technology will help them not only stop human smugglers and drug couriers but also render life-saving aid to at-risk individuals.
“Anybody that falls behind is left behind,” said Jose Aleman, agent in charge of the U.S. Border Patrol station in Van Horn. “They’re not familiar with the area so it’s easy to get lost; one mountain looks like the other. They can walk around in circles. We are constantly rescuing people and finding people that pass away because of the elements.”
At least 650 people died last year crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, succumbing to extreme heat, cold or hunger, according to the International Organization for Migration.
‘Smart’ cameras at work on the border
Border Patrol agents east of El Paso are using artificial intelligence cameras and other technology to detect and rescue migrants in mountain and desert terrain. The cameras detect changes in landscape and track individuals and groups in the desert.
“They have been a game-changer, a force multiplier,” Aleman said. “They detect anything within its area, give us the exact location of folks coming through here. (They) narrow down the response time, narrow down apprehension time so we can quickly move on to other areas where activity is detected.”
The so-called autonomous surveillance towers, coupled with emergency beacons, metal placards with calling instructions and helicopters have led to the rescue of more than two dozen migrants near Van Horn in the past few months.
The cameras have a 3-mile visual radius and night vision technology. Mounted atop 33-foot metal poles, they can also give agents cues as to whether anyone in a large group may be carrying a weapon.
The towers automatically “hand off” from one to the other if a group goes out of one camera’s sight. With a rotary mount, the cameras’ radar is always on scan mode.
The towers and beacons are solar-powered. Many are in private land.
Aleman said the Border Patrol has received the support of ranchers and other property owners concerned with the increasing migrant traffic. The problem isn’t so much criminal activity as self-preservation acts such as getting water by cutting hoses leading from reservoirs to cattle feeding grounds and sneaking into farm sheds to protect themselves from the elements.
“There’s good cooperation with the community. There’s good cooperation with other law-enforcement agencies like the (Texas) Department of Public Safety and local sheriffs’ offices,” he said.
Aleman, a 22-year veteran of the Border Patrol has seen his share of deceased migrants over the years. He talked about the recovery of five bodies in the desert after a snowstorm last year and rescuing a middle-aged woman whose fingers turned black from frostbite.
But none was as dramatic as a man he found over a line fence in a ranch within sight of Interstate 10, where someone might have been able to render aid, he said.
Smuggling networks, a ‘web of lies’
Border Patrol officials like Aleman lay those deaths at the feet of transnational criminal organizations and the human smugglers they employ.
“They sell them on a trip and lie to them at every turn. They place them in stash houses packed with 100 other people, exposed to COVID and other diseases. Some they get greedy, and it turns into kidnapping; they hold them until relatives send more money than they agreed to,” the chief agent said. “And once over here, they’re only concerned about those that can walk and that they’re going to get paid for.”
Other dangers include transporting a dozen or more individuals in a single sedan at high speeds over busy Texas roads. Those vehicles have been known to overturn, injuring and killing the occupants.
The trip is especially dangerous for women, who often share with their medical screener that they’ve been sexually assaulted.
“We understand the migrants are doing what they feel they need to do. But we hope the message gets out how things really are. It’s not worth it,” he said.
Dina, the rescued Guatemalan migrant, said she shared the news with her parents of how her trip came to a sudden end. “They are very sad,” she said, adding they incurred a $3,250 debt to get her to the United States.
But when asked what her plans were, she said she is hoping to join her sister, find work in the U.S. and economically help out her family in Guatemala. With the smugglers unlikely to write off the fee, she might have little choices left.