“It used to be real easy but now it’s difficult,” said José, 39, an illegal immigrant from Mexico who refused to give his last name.
“A lot of people are afraid to cross because of all the trouble,” he said. “They say, ‘Oh I’m going to run in the desert,’ but you might get robbed or killed.”
José said he did not have the money to pay the cartel and did not want to do a “job” for them, which meant strapping on a backpack full of marijuana. So he walked through the New Mexico desert.
The trip, eight months ago, took him a week and a half.
José has crossed the border 10 times in the past five years. The El Paso Border Patrol sector, which includes all of New Mexico, has sought to deter repeat offenders with an “enhanced prosecution” program that includes mandatory jail time for people who are apprehended at the border.
But not all sectors follow the same rules. Said Martinez, the patrol agent in El Paso, “When we catch people in New Mexico the first thing they ask is, ‘Am I in Arizona?’ ”
The squeeze José felt resonates loudly in Animas, N.M., a drip of life nestled among photogenic mountain ranges. Tighter security to the west in Arizona and the east in El Paso has rendered this area, known as the bootheel, a smuggler’s paradise.
Human “mules” carry marijuana and descend into the United States through mountains and valleys that make it difficult for border authorities to see and reach. Migrants have also blazed a trail, taking greater risks to reach a better life. Residents have felt neglected as bigger areas get border money.
“They need to tighten down the border,” said Kim Burton, 55, a lifelong Animas resident.
Standing outside his house, a light snowfall covering farmland that seems endless, Burton pointed to a broken barb wire fence and deep tire tracks in the field where he grows chili peppers. They were made when a van stuffed with marijuana careened off the road one night and rolled over.
“It’s not safe,” Burton said, adding he has had people come to his door in the middle of the night looking for food and water.
He has no use for the Washington talk about legalizing undocumented residents: “If they don’t have papers, they should send them home.”
With growing outrage over the situation, dozens of border patrol agents have been added in recent years to the region, where two decades ago 10 Border Patrol agents from nearby Lordsburg covered 4,380 square miles. In addition to more manpower, vehicle barriers have been installed to stop trucks from crossing over flat terrain. Last year, the Border Patrol opened an outpost in Animas Valley.
Locals agree immigrant crossings have slowed as a result but say drugs continue to flow — on foot, in trucks (those barriers are easily overcome with ramps) and in ultralight planes, like one that crashed in August 2011 carrying 134 pounds of marijuana.
“They’re not going to stop it. They’re not going to stop any of it,” fumed Tom Estrada, 47, a businessman who wears a Glock on his belt for protection.
Despite the new patrol outpost, which has living quarters, horse stables and a helicopter pad, Estrada said patrol agents still make regular trips to and from the main station in Lordsburg, an hour and a half away: “It’s one guy per vehicle back and forth and you see those vehicles 24 hours a day.”