YUMA, Ariz. (WDRB) -- The Arizona border with Mexico is breathtaking, antelopes running free across the open, unsettled desert. But among the natural beauty lurks a dark problem.
Drugs and human smuggling.
President Donald Trump's campaign promise to build 450 miles of border wall by the end of 2020 is underway, but there remain numerous examples of shoddy barriers. From a helicopter high above the desert, you can see just how easy it can be for people to jump the fence and enter the U.S. illegally.
A well-orchestrated team of crime busters armed with helicopters, ATVs, trucks and boat patrols roam the area, looking for anything and everything. And the process is always changing.
The usual array of drugs is customary for Border Patrol agents, though another has spiked of late. Recently, agents seized $450,000 worth of meth, cocaine and fentanyl all in one day. In fact, agents confiscated a 640% increase in fentanyl in fiscal year 2019 compared to 2018. And for fiscal year 2020, they're on track for another 330% increase.
"What starts here at the Southwest border then actually expands throughout every state, through every county into every city," said Carl Landrum, deputy chief of the Yuma Sector Border Patrol.
Agents all play a role in protecting the border, including agent Keith Graue from Florence, Kentucky.
"It's not just everyday people walking across," Graue said. "They try to hide their sign. They try to make it look like they weren't there."
The agents say smugglers are getting smarter, wearing camouflage shoes with carpet on the soles to blend in to the desert, which doesn't leave a print, Smart said.
"In my 11 years, I've found anywhere from 6-month-old children to most hardened repeat offender, drug smuggler, human smuggler," said Jason Smart, a supervisor air interdiction agent with Air and Marine Operations.
And the drug trade is so strong that people are willing to walk from Mexico and hide in mountains for days. Some are scouts paid about $1,200 for the dangerous trek. They alert cartels to agents' locations and sometimes are given drugs to stay alert and to fight off hunger.
In the steep mountains, the nearest water source is about 30 miles away. Agents say when they do find water bottles, sometimes they are black bottles that were sold in Mexico, hard to see from the air versus the clear plastic bottles that stand out. But technology is catching people in those remote areas. Sensors, cameras and GPS help locate people entering the country illegally.
As a WDRB News crew was embedded with Border Patrol agents, the hunt was on to find three men in camouflage. The men were seen on a border patrol camera the night before.It's a coordinated effort. The agent on the ground looks under shrubs and finds one man in camouflage and then the others as they surrender. The two backpacks the men were carrying held more than 37 pounds of marijuana. Border Patrol said another backpack had food inside.
Agents said criminals get creative when trying to smuggle in illegal drugs. At traffic stops and border checkpoints in the area within the last few months, they found more than 1,500 pounds of marijuana in the back of a truck with a street value of $618,000, 55 pounds of meth hidden in a car bumper and meth disguised as popsicles.
At a former KFC restaurant on the border in San Luis, authorities found a nearly-500-foot drug tunnel in 2018. It stretched all the way to a private home in Mexico. A traffic stop with more than $1 million worth of drugs led investigators to it. A newly constructed wall is now up in that area, double fencing now making it even harder to get in.
"This wall is not 100% guaranteed nobody can cross it," Landrum said. "It is possible for people to cross it. It's important for to people to know we put this in for a deterrence effect."
But drugs — a lot of drugs — do get through the border and are often found in Kentucky. Customs and Border Protection said Louisville's UPS and DHL in Erlanger lead the nation in narcotics interceptions. The shipping companies work with law enforcement to stop drugs from hitting the streets.
"UPS participates in a variety of interdiction efforts with law enforcement authorities all over the world to promote the safety and security of our people, customers and the general public," public relations manager Jim Mayer said in a statement to WDRB News. "Our network features extensive security measures designed to stop those who would misuse our services. We don't discuss the specifics of our security program since its success depends on confidentiality."
For Graue, working in Arizona has been a huge change.
"We may be running into families," he said. "They come across too, but there's a lot of bad people that come cross that we shouldn't allow in this country."
He and others have worked at a remote base in the middle of the desert. It would take at least a couple of hours to drive to from Yuma.
"In the desert, some places have 30-40 miles without any roads, in a national park," Smart said, adding that that also poses more restrictions. "It's very difficult to get vehicles and equipment to areas migrants and aliens use."
With wide open spaces of terrain with mountains and desert, agents said they can only do so much, and more agents are needed.
Tune in Wednesday for part three of our series embedded at the U.S.-Mexico border, where we'll dive into the new technology used by agents to catch people and drugs crossing illegally.
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