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CROSSING THE LINE

Above the border

A border patrol pilot on the trail of teen parents, 'shadow wolves,' an execution and a miracle

January 15, 2006|Dennis Michelini | DENNIS MICHELINI is a pilot for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

WEST OF TUCSON are picturesque lines of jagged mountain ranges. From the city, the ranges seem randomly scattered. But from the air it is clear that they mostly run north to south -- all the way to Mexico. Between them are open tracts of land, as much as 15 miles across. Some are sandy, some brush filled, some dotted with Sonora cactus. These flats are where I work.

I am temporarily assigned to Arizona with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security. From my helicopter I can see the many trails leading from the southern border north through these flats. There may be 10 within a mile, and not another for the next two. They pass and weave across each other. As they lead northward, the trails dip in and out of the washes that run east/west through the flats. Illegal aliens hide in these washes. On the rocky and sandy bottoms and under the thick, low trees, they have built sturdy lean-tos from cut wood and brush.

As I fly north along a trail, every few hundred yards I may come across another wash with five or six wooden hutches on the bottom -- at the bottom of where this particular trail intersects the wash. Travel 200 yards east or west in the wash, and you will come across another wide northbound trail and another set of lean-tos. Little communities, abandoned at the moment, but populated for short times throughout the day and night.

Because I do not know the area well, I fly with agents from Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue, commonly called BORSTAR. They throw their heavy medical bags in the back of the helicopter and often respond to emergencies in the middle of nowhere, at least nowhere an ambulance can get to. Many times I've seen children, waist high, with oxygen bottles held to their small faces, or their fingers gently pricked to test sugar levels.

All this going on in the middle of nowhere. Women with chest pains, bee stings, snake bites, dehydrated. Thousands of people migrating through 40 miles of wilderness are a kind of moving city, an invisible human caravan, requiring all the necessities of any permanent community.

I've caught so many people, the days and adventures have merged and split like the weaving trails I follow. But a few come clearly to mind.

One afternoon, after catching a group, I landed to assist the agent on the ground. Most of those apprehended were men. There were a few women and a young couple with two small children. As we sat by the side of a dusty road and waited for transport, I spoke to the couple. They were both 19, the older girl was 3, and the younger girl, dressed in a dirty pink outfit, was just 14 months. The 3-year-old, exhausted from a night of walking, slept heavily, sprawled on her back across her daddy's spread legs. The 14-month-old seemed a bit cranky, hungry it turned out. She took eagerly to her mother's breast.

The two parents smiled at one another. They talked about their children and their lives, what they hoped to do, where they might find work in Mexico and if they would again chance a crossing. We spoke about the girls' names -- one had been named after her maternal grandmother. I told them I had two daughters. The mother laughed when I told her my wife was Hispanic. "From Mexico?" she asked. No, I answered, but her mother was from Mexico, and my wife swears at me in Spanish. "So does mine," shouted one of the other men from the group.

Then the van showed up and we said our goodbyes. I gently touched her children on the forehead, a Hispanic gesture: When you see something as sweet as these children, so valuable, you touch them there to protect them from the "evil eye." I don't know if I believe in the evil eye, but I do believe in a simple gesture, even to strangers, that tells them their children are precious.

It was an odd thing to do, I instantly realized, with someone I had just arrested, and immediately I asked myself what future, immediate or enduring, had I set in motion for this family. What might have happened if I had not seen them that day?

Once we were called to assist with a body. We normally do not give rotor time to bodies, but this was different. The body had been found in a rather large wash, broad and open in the center. Another pilot had seen it earlier in the day and recorded its GPS coordinates. There had been an execution: The body had a gunshot wound to the head. Littered around the body were bloodied clothes. Investigators believed that there might be another injured person nearby. A single bullet to the head is typically how one smuggling organization tells another not to interfere on its "turf."

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