How a Footprint in the Dust Leads INS Trackers to Their Quarry

BY SONIA NAZARIO, TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tracker Charles Grout can spot a footprint from a moving Ford Bronco. His partner, Manuel Sauceda, can tell, within a range of a few hours, how old it is.

They are agents for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service based in Cotulla, Texas, halfway along a seven- to eight-day walk between the Rio Grande at Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, and San Antonio. Their job is to arrest immigrants who enter Texas illegally.

Salary increases for Grout, 40, and Sauceda, 36, are based partly on how many immigrants they catch. They work together, along railroads and in the desert, taking turns tracking on foot and driving ahead in the Bronco, sometimes for days.

One Thursday in September 2000, Sauceda discovers footprints near a cattle trough southwest of Encinal. He knows immigrants drink from the trough, although the water smells like rotten eggs and is laced with green scum. He circles the footprints and draws closer.

If footprints are not windblown or caved in, then they are recent. If no animals, such as centipedes, snails, birds or snakes, have crossed them, then they are fresh. If there are discarded food wrappers nearby, and if the wrappers are not covered with ants, then the tracks are brand-new.

Sauceda circles the water trough, sweat trickling down his face, searching among piles of cow manure for clues. He faces the sun and looks for tiny shadows.

Then he finds more tracks. They have been made that morning. He detects patterns: one track is waffled, another has fine lines, and another is shaped like the pointed toe of a boot.

"I see at least four here," he says.

He smiles. Like a bloodhound, he leans over and picks up his pace.

Changes at the Cotulla office show how much harder it has become to sneak past agents like Grout and Sauceda.

In 1994, Cotulla had 20 agents. Now it has 70. It is one of eight INS stations north of Nuevo Laredo, where 470 agents have been added in the last seven years. They are among more than 5,600 the INS has hired since 1993 to expand its forces along the southern U.S. border.

In addition, agents use a growing arsenal of technology: helicopters, night-vision goggles, thermal imaging that picks up body heat and seismic sensors that detect footsteps along immigrant trails. One INS officer's only job is to move the sensors to outsmart smugglers who try to plot their location.

Earlier on this day, alerted by Sensor No. 53, agents caught 11 Mexican men who had been walking across the desert for four days.

Grout and Sauceda are particularly dogged, partly because it means saving lives. Every two weeks or so, Sauceda says, he calls an ambulance for an immigrant who has been bitten by a rattlesnake, or hit by a train, or grown so dehydrated in the Texas desert that he is nearing collapse.

Sauceda follows the footprints at the water trough. He comes to a trail, climbs into the Bronco and drives, opening and closing gates with keys from a ring that holds scores--given to the agents by ranchers.

The temperature climbs to 100 degrees--cool compared with highs of 112 to 118 the week before, which had partially melted the asphalt on Interstate 35. The Bronco has a range-fire-prevention reminder on the dashboard: "Do Not Operate Off the Road in Dry Grass or Brush." Sauceda ignores it.

By 2 p.m., Grout and Sauceda have lost and found the tracks several times.

Whoever is leaving them seems to be angling toward a tower with an antenna. The two trackers search each big tree and every water source. They come to a barbed-wire fence. Marks in the dirt show that their quarry has crawled under it. Grout picks up the tracks on the other side.

"There they are, the same ones," he says. "Bigger than Dallas."

The track-makers are headed for Encinal. If they reach town, it will be virtually impossible to find them, and the agents' half-day spent in the cactus and the searing heat will be wasted.

Sauceda, dripping sweat, trots alongside the footprints.

Grout drives ahead, to the edge of town. He spots an odd-looking dirt driveway. The right side has been dragged clean. It leads to a ramshackle house.

He parks. There, in soil leading to the driveway, are the footprints: waffle, fine lines, the point of a boot ...

"I got 'em!" he says into a walkie-talkie.

"Where?" Sauceda asks.

"Same place as the last time."

Grout takes three paces toward the house. A Rottweiler lunges from behind a tree. Grout reaches for his .40-caliber Beretta.

A chain stops the dog a few feet in front of him.

Carefully, Grout presses forward seven more paces, then swings open the door to a yellow shed. Jammed inside are five surprised immigrants.

He handcuffs them.

Back at the Bronco, he inspects their footwear. Waffle, fine lines, pointed boot.

Grout smiles.

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