Border agent Jose Luis Maldonado raises his binoculars and scans the desert horizon, looking for would-be migrants making the perilous crossing into the United States.
When he finds them, he doesn't arrest them. Rather, he makes sure that they know what dangers they face and lets them go their way. If they're in trouble, he helps.
Maldonado is one of the veteran agents from Grupo Beta, the decade-old border unit established by the Mexican government to protect migrants as they make their way north to the U.S.
In Mexican eyes, these are not illegal migrants. Rather, they are citizens who might face grave risks while still traveling freely within their own country. Beta officers have the delicate task of protecting migrants without encouraging them.
The officers patrol in beat-up open-air Jeeps and other hand-me-downs, while their U.S. Border Patrol counterparts cruise in air-conditioned Ford Expeditions. There are just 75 Beta agents along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border, hopelessly few for such vast terrain. The United States, by comparison, has nearly 9,000 agents on the border.
In some of the most dangerous stretches of desert along the Arizona border--where 14 Mexican migrants were found dead in a single group of crossers in May--Beta doesn't have any patrols at all.
Yet Beta has won respect from human rights groups and works well with the U.S. Border Patrol.
President Vicente Fox's government plans to add an additional 50 Beta agents in coming months, said Felipe de Jesus Preciado, director of the government's National Migration Institute.
The increase will let Beta agents start covering remote stretches where migrants are increasingly crossing because of tougher U.S. patrols around border cities. To step up protection near the Arizona border during the hot summer, Mexican officials last week announced a temporary deployment there.
Although the agents don't bother migrants, they do arrest people-smugglers--1,500 in the last 18 months, Preciado said.
But their principal task is search and rescue.
One recent day, with the temperature nearing 110 degrees, Maldonado steered his Jeep through a brutal gray-sand landscape about 30 miles east of Mexicali.
The La Salada arroyo doesn't have water running through it, but it has become a human channel. Maldonado said at least one group of six to 20 or more migrants passes through each day. Blue-and-white signs erected by Grupo Beta warn in Spanish: "Caution: Don't Expose Yourself to the Elements. It's Not Worth It."
Water Made Available at Strategic Points
In addition to the 125 warning signs put up around Mexicali, Beta agents have installed several 55-gallon drums of water at strategic border points to help keep migrants alive.
The few scrub trees that offer shade are surrounded by the detritus of hopeful migrants: bags of dried-out tortillas, a mayonnaise jar, empty water jugs.
"We find many people returning, those who gave up the attempt and are going home sick, exhausted, dehydrated," Maldonado said.
Often it is the veteran crossers who get into the most trouble, he said. They think that they remember the route and try to cross alone. "And those who die are those who get disoriented and start walking in circles," he added. "We find them hungry, thirsty, nauseous and weak."
Migrants often hike six hours from the nearest highway just to get to the border. They usually rest during the day, then walk at night. In a drainage tunnel under a road, signs of a recent migrant camp included still-full gallon water jugs, apparently judged too heavy to keep carrying. Amid the refuse: one of Grupo Beta's pamphlets explaining to migrants their civil rights.
"This is rattlesnake season, and anything that moves, they bite," said another agent, German Reynoso. "And from the border, it's still an eight- or nine-hour walk to the nearest highway."
The 14 agents assigned to Mexicali, many of them former police officers or soldiers, have received basic first-aid training and are armed so that they can arrest smugglers or gangs that attack migrants.
One such gang of 17 or 18 thugs was broken up this year near the town of Algodones near the California-Arizona border, said Mexicali Beta group chief Carlos Luna.
Luna said his agents rescued 293 people in the first four months of this year around Mexicali, compared with 390 in all of last year. He attributes the increase to improved patrols rather than a rise in migrant crossings in the Mexicali area, which he believes have declined.
The gravest danger here is the swift-running All-American Canal, in which nine people drowned in the first four months of this year.
Desperate migrants come seeking help at the modest Beta office a block from the border fence. Hundreds have been given free meals, and dozens have slept in the office, usually after a failed crossing attempt. Churches and nongovernmental groups in Mexicali also have set up shelters.
The equipment assigned to Beta has improved, and now includes night-vision gear, but it is still meager. Luna said more agents, better vehicles and global positioning devices would make Beta more effective.
Victor Clark Alfaro of the Binational Center for Human Rights in Tijuana said Beta agents "have carried out an honorable function and have helped migrants avoid some of the robbers and other threats. . . . It is a group that has won respect over the years." However, he said, the group should expand its range and number of units.
Migrants Also Flock to Southern Border
Some of the rescues on the Mexican side involve huge groups of migrants. Preciado, the national migration director, said one group of 249 Guatemalans and another group of 127 Central Americans, both suffering serious health problems, were saved in Chihuahua state just in the last month.
A significant number of migrants heading for the United States come from Central America, and Grupo Beta has deployed about one-third of its agents on Mexico's southern border. While other police units arrest foreign migrants who are illegally in Mexico, Beta agents help them if they are in trouble, just as they do Mexicans.
Migrants die on the southern border as well, lost in the Chiapas jungle or killed trying to jump trains. Last year, 136 migrants died trying to cross into Mexico from Guatemala, according to government statistics. That compares with 491 deaths of Mexicans trying to cross into the United States.
Nationwide, Beta agents rescued 14,384 migrants from danger in 2000 and 3,608 in the first four months of this year, according to government figures.
"Our job is neither to help them cross nor prevent them but to orient them to the dangers," Luna said. "The goal is for migration to be much less dangerous."