Since the U.S. Senate last week decided to forgo comprehensive immigration reform, the situation along the border will likely remain unchanged. One change that has occurred, however, is the commander of National Guard units monitoring activity along the New Mexico portion of that border.
On Thursday, several hours after the Senate voted against cloture on the immigration reform package, Col. Barry F. Stout assumed command of Joint Task Force Zia. About 600 National Guard troops are participating in Operation Jump Start under Stout’s command. They include Air National Guard personnel from Albuquerque, and Army National Guard troops from Arkansas, Georgia, New Mexico, Puerto Rico and West Virginia.
President George W. Bush in 2006 ordered the National Guard to help secure the border. Troops have since supported U.S. Customs and Border Protection in New Mexico in four areas of operation: Deming, Las Cruces, Lordsburg and Santa Teresa.
Unlike the Border Patrol agents that patrol the area north of the international boundary, National Guard troops do not operate alone. Most troops are placed in Entry and Identification teams, while others man fixed lookout sites such as Falcon Eye and Eagle Eye.
Tech Sgt. Ronnie Drake of the New Mexico Air National Guard has been stationed at the Falcon Eye observation site since October. Units at the sites — east of Columbus and several miles north of the border — rely on their eyes and high-tech equipment to complete their mission.
“What we have here is an Area Reconnaissance Surveillance System,” Drake said.
Most EIT personnel use one camera mounted in “skyboxes” to scan the area for illegal activity. The two fixed sites are equipped with a long-distance imaging camera that has daylight and heat differential abilities. In addition, Drake said, a Doppler radar system scans the area south of the site for movement.
“It’s just like the one the weather service uses,” Drake said.
Most National Guard units are stationary, identifying border crossers on foot and in vehicles, and directing Border Patrol units toward any incursions. Staff Sgt. Ryan Reynolds, also of the New Mexico ANG, said soldiers use the SALUTE acronym to report suspicious activity.
“We report on the size, activity, location, whether they’re wearing any uniforms, the time, and any equipment,” Reynolds said, “say, if they’re wearing backpacks or carrying rifles.”
According to Drake, this information is tracked, and helps agents and soldiers capture repeat offenders.
“People like to do things the same way,” Drake said.
Using the Global Positioning System, agents can track where they’ve apprehended smugglers and border crossers.
“If we’ve seen the same guy use a particular trail on Tuesdays,” he said, “we can have some agents waiting for him at the end of the trail next Tuesday.”
While that type of knowledge is useful, the main focus for the National Guard units is on spotting border crossers.
Drake said the standard equipment can be supplemented by mobile cameras that are operated remotely.
Falcon Eye is several miles from Eagle Eye, and soldiers are therefore able to support one another if border crossers are on the move between the sites.
“If they spot some movement over at Eagle Eye, but they can’t zero in on it,” Drake said, “we have some overlap here and can train our camera over there.”
The heat differential and radar systems are especially useful at night. Carlos Peña, who will complete a two-month rotation at the Falcon Eye site at the end of July, said most activity occurs after dusk. Peña, a specialist with the Puerto Rico National Guard, received training on-site from the Air National Guard.
Drake said the fast rotation means soldiers are trained to use fixed objects as reference points when directing agents into the area. An old Air Force beacon outside Columbus is one such point, as well as abandoned cars and a horse corral. According to Drake, a big hurdle is training soldiers how to communicate with agents after dark.
“They’ll say ‘head toward the mountains’ or ‘head east,'” Drake said. “For the agents, it’s pitch dark out there — there aren’t any mountains and there isn’t any east.”
The Doppler radar system is helpful. The system will register movement in three phases: a yellow dot means the radar “thinks” it spotted something, while a red dot indicates a more solid hit. A black dot is a pretty sure thing.
“The radar will try to identify what the object is,” Drake said. “It will also give us the distance, azimuth and speed.”
Targets moving from 1-3 miles per hour are possibly humans. Any faster is an animal, while targets going more than 10 miles per hour are probably vehicles. The system is sensitive enough to detect a bush moving in the wind.
In addition to the technology available and the role the National Guard plays in spotting border crossers, the troops’ presence is enough to dissuade would be crossers.
“When I first got here in October, a big group was about 25 people,” Drake said. “Now, it’s unusual to see eight people in a group.”
Lt. Dwayne Lee, public affairs officer for Operation Jump Start, said the National Guard presence also results in an unknown deterrent.
“We don’t know how many people have turned back after seeing the soldiers here,” Lee said.
For that reason, most of the National Guard positions are not camouflaged. Drake said that sometimes leads to additional captures, as border crossers who try to avoid the sites walk into the waiting arms of Border Patrol agents.
Still, motivated smugglers and border crossers have adapted their tactics.
“We’ll see them on the cameras looking at us,” Drake said, “and we can see they’re on the phone with somebody.
“They’re watching us watching them.”