How the Border Patrol uses tech to combat smugglers

Every day, hundreds of people cross the border illegally into the Arizona desert. In Tucson, the Border Patrol uses a wide mesh of technology to try to stop them. CNET Road Trip checks it out.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
8 min read
A close-up image of the sensor package atop the mast of a U.S. Border Patrol mobile video surveillance system -- a radar, daytime and infrared cameras, and a laser range finder. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

TUCSON, Ariz.--It's summer in the Southwest, and there may not be a hotter border anywhere in the United States. For one thing, the mercury is easily over a hundred every day. And then there's the steady flow of organized smugglers trying to sneak themselves and their substantial cargo -- of migrants and/or drugs -- across Mexico's long desert frontier with Arizona.

There are nine U.S. Border Patrol sectors stretching across America's southwestern frontier. And back in 2000, the agency was snagging more than 2,000 people a day for crossing illegally into its Tucson sector -- which is responsible for 262 linear miles of border and about 90,000 square miles of territory -- making it one of the busiest.

Tech looms large in Arizona border battle with smugglers (pictures)

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But these days, that number has plummeted to between 300 and 350 a day, and the Border Patrol's adoption of a broad set of new technology aimed at combating smugglers -- a complex network of cameras and sensors in the ground, on towers, on the back of mobile trucks, or mobile agents, and airborne -- has played a large part in the reduction. After all, if a smuggler knows that he and a group of migrants he's shepherding are likely to be spotted thanks to the technology, he's more likely to try another area.

Vast desert
As part of Road Trip 2012, I've driven into the hottest part of the Arizona desert to spend the day with Border Patrol agent Mario Escalante. For hours, Escalante tours me around some of the most desolate parts of the country showing me a large part of that mesh of cameras and sensors.

Here's the problem: the desert down here is vast, and though it may look flat from a distance, it actually is made up of an endless number of little washes, cuts, and valleys that "bodies," as the agents call people, can hide in as they attempt to make their way north from the border to a place where they can blend in with society.

Operators in the control room of the Border Patrol's Tucson headquarters monitor incoming real-time video and other sensors for evidence of illegal border crossing. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The issue of immigration in Arizona has been prominent in the news again for some time because of a law passed in the state in 2010 giving police broad powers to stop anyone they think might be there illegally, and because the U.S. Supreme Court last month ruled that parts of the law were unconstitutional. But the Border Patrol, part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, isn't caught up in that debate, Escalante suggests: its job isn't to worry about policy; its job is to catch people who have illegally crossed the border, which is to say anyone -- even American citizens -- who didn't properly go through a port of entry.

Note: Watch for Part 2 of CNET Road Trip's look at how Customs and Border Protection uses technology -- a visit to the port of entry at the busiest border crossing in the world, at San Ysidro, Calif.

Back when he was growing up in El Paso, Texas, Escalante recalled, he used to watch hundreds of people literally massing at the frontier with Mexico and then simultaneously rushing across, overwhelming the Border Patrol agents lined up to stop them. These days, that scene doesn't play out anymore, especially not in Arizona where the government has constructed a long fence along the border intended to make it that much harder for anyone to cross over.

The fence, however, only protects the flat areas of the boundary. Where it encounters steep terrain, it ends. And that means there are still plenty of places where people can sneak into the U.S.

With more than 90,000 square miles of desert to guard, the Tucson sector Border Patrol relies heavily on technology. It starts with a system of nine tall towers topped with a package of sensors -- radar and both daytime and infrared cameras. Four of the towers are located along the border, while five are layered behind, in case anyone gets through.

One of the Border Patrol's sensor towers (left), along with a communications tower. Both are located deep in the Arizona desert and provide agents in Tucson with real-time visual information -- as well as alerts to unexpected activity -- about possible border crossers in the area. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Though the nine towers are not simultaneously visible to one other, each is in line of sight with at least one other. And all are linked to microwave communications that can send imagery back to a control room in Tucson in real time. Radar atop the towers scan constantly, monitoring the desert for movement, and if there's an alert, someone in Tucson will zoom in on the area looking to see what's moving around.

At the same time, there are a number of mobile video surveillance systems (MVSS) deployed throughout the sector. These are similar packages of radar and cameras -- plus a laser range finder -- mounted on short masts atop trucks that are parked for long periods of time on top of hills that offer coverage of the desert that augments the towers. Agents rotate in and out of the MVSS, watching their areas, able to beam imagery back to Tucson, or zoom in on something they've been alerted to by headquarters.

Then, there's a system of underground sensors buried throughout the desert, each of which triggers an alert if there's movement within tens of meters. And finally, when necessary, the Border Patrol can call in air support from helicopters, drones, or airplanes equipped with high-tech sensors that belong to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's Office of Air and Marine.

Daniel Terdiman

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To be sure, individual Border Patrol agents still work the field and are constantly heading out into the desert in trucks, on ATVs, on horses, or on foot, to track, and ideally, apprehend border jumpers. And how successful are they? No one knows, Escalante explains, since it's not possible to guess at how many people are getting through.

Still, the goal of all the technology is to "work smart, not work hard," Escalante told me several times. Part of that is simply not expending unnecessary effort: if underground sensors are triggered by a cow, there's little sense sending an agent deep into the desert to discover that it's just a bovine if one of the many cameras can see what's there. And even if no stationary camera can see the area near the sensor, it's possible an agent can get close enough with either what's called a "scope truck" -- essentially a much more mobile version of an MVSS, but without radar -- or a Recon-iii, a handheld infrared camera with a range of 8-to-10 miles to spot the four-legged offender.

Then again, with hundreds of people sneaking across the borders every day, there's a very good chance that what's triggering an alert is in fact human. It could be a lone straggler lost and dehydrated, or it could be a smuggler leading a line of dozens of migrants. In either case, agents have to take action.

Ideally, this is where "agent experience" comes into play, Escalante explained. For example, longtime agents learn the desert intimately, and understand how the never-ending series of washes and cuts funnel border jumpers into certain places. So, he said, if an underground sensor in an area he knows goes off, he can make a guess at where a group will be headed. That way, the theory goes, instead of spending a lot of time and energy chasing the group, agents can get out in front of them and lie in wait.

Just some of the endless open desert the Border Patrol must constantly monitor for smugglers in the Arizona desert. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

At the same time, the high-quality cameras can also show that smugglers might be carrying large guns, and provide that information ahead of time so that there's no confrontation between a lone agent and an armed group that could end very badly.

Ultimately, this is all a big cat-and-mouse game, Escalante suggested. That's because the smugglers' tactics change from day to day, and so does that of the Border Patrol. They may move an MVSS from one hill to another, or add underground sensors. Teams stationed in the mountains may move, or agents may lie in wait in different places. Whatever the case, the Border Patrol is relying on its extensive network of technology to augment agent experience, and hopefully, keep the smugglers on their toes.

Because the Border Patrol knows that some people make it past all the cameras, sensors, and agents monitoring the desert, it also maintains a series of mobile and not-so-mobile checkpoints scattered on roads throughout the area. Manned with sniffing dogs and "non-intrusive" technology, the idea is to provide a second wave of protection against situations such as vehicles picking up border crossers who have made it through, or even drugs that have been stashed by smugglers along roads.

A look at the backscatter imagery of a Nissan that was pulled over to secondary inspection at a checkpoint along I-19 north of the Nogales, Ariz., port of entry. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

At a big checkpoint, like the one on Interstate 19 north of the Nogales port of entry that Escalante took me to, agents scrutinize several lanes of traffic, and a dog trots around most vehicles, looking for anything amiss. If either the dog or one of the agents sense that something isn't right, the potentially offending vehicle is pulled over to secondary inspection. But before tearing the vehicle apart, looking for contraband, agents drive a backscatter van past it, which provides sophisticated imagery of the interior of the vehicle that highlights any kind of organic material -- which, of course, can identify both hidden migrants and drugs.

Escalante recalled a recent situation where smugglers had sent a truck loaded with marijuana through the Nogales port of entry. Trying to elude detection, the smugglers had shaped the bundles of pot like watermelons, and had even covered them in green tape. But, he said, the backscatter signature of marijuana has little in common with that of watermelons. The driver was arrested, and the pot confiscated.

A Border Patrol agent and his working dog take a moment to play alongside a car that the dog had been sniffing around just moments earlier. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

During our time at the checkpoint, nothing incriminating turned up, either from the dog's examination or from the backscatter imagery. But as we drove away, Escalante told me he was very suspicious of a PT Cruiser that had been pulled to secondary. From everything he saw in the trunk, and the way it smelled, he said, his "spidey" sense was tingling. Once let through the checkpoint, the car would soon be stopping somewhere to pick up drugs and take them deeper into the U.S. "I guarantee it," he said.

So was letting the car go a total loss? No, he said. Agents would note what they saw and a record would be kept. In the future, the same car might come through again, and then they'd have one more piece of information to use to try to stop the smuggling. "Work smarter," he said, "not harder."