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Border Patrol in America's Most Dangerous WIlderness
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Border Patrol: Along the Devil's Highway

Arizona's Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge used to be a pristine desert. Now it's the front line in America's immigration battle, rife with garbage, drug runners, and illegal aliens. Welcome to the nation's most troubled wilderness.

Text by Tim Cahill  

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"Pues—Well," did we know where the Arizona town of Casa Grande was?

"About 50 miles," Annerino said, "70, 80 kilometers," and pointed northeast, out into a scrubby desert interspersed with a few ironwood and paloverde trees.

They looked out into the desert with hopeless eyes, and in a single moment I saw them give up their golden dreams. "Can you call La Migra?" one man asked, entirely defeated. Annerino tried to dial the Border Patrol on his cell phone but couldn't get a signal. "Lo siento—I'm sorry," he said.

The men from Hermosillo thanked us profusely, then went to sit beneath a tree on the side of the road. They didn't lower themselves gracefully. Their legs gave out and they basically collapsed, exhausted. We left them there, waiting for the Border Patrol to come and send them home.

As we drove off, I asked Annerino, "So what's the deal with the clean clothes?"

"You'll see how it works soon enough," he said.

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Roger Di Rosa, manager of the Cabeza, is lean and fit, a man of military bearing with thinning salt-and-pepper hair: the kind of guy who runs every day, even in temperatures nearing a hundred degrees (38 degrees Celsius). Di Rosa wanted us to see what was happening to the wilderness, so he offered to take us out on one of the "administrative" roads that are closed to the public. He drove a big white Ford truck with special "high flotation" tires that handled sand better than ordinary tires. The refuge manager doesn't want to get stuck in the desert. He'd have to call in for help, and he'd never hear the end of that one.

We traveled on the valley floor for a while. Ahead was a large metal tower, like the kind you build with an Erector set, topped with a solar-powered blinking light. We stopped so I could read the sign on the tower. In English, Spanish, and Tohono O'odham, it read: "If you need help, push the red button. Rescue personnel will arrive shortly to help you. Do not leave this area."

We piled back into the truck and drove farther into the Cabeza, listening to Border Patrol chatter on the police radio. "We got a rescue beacon at 3413," a voice said. It was the first of December and the temperature had dropped into the low 40s (4 degrees Celsius) the previous night. Undocumented aliens (UDAs) who cross the desert are seldom prepared for the cold. "Hypothermia," Di Rosa guessed, then stopped to show us a saguaro cactus with a rectangular hole about the size of a VHS tape cut into it. "People think they can chew the pulp for moisture," he said. "Actually, anyone who lives in the desert will tell you that saguaro is glutinous, bitter, and could make you sick."

A few minutes later we reached a place Di Rosa was proud to show us. We circled around a small conical hill and looked down into a square mile (3 square kilometers) of fenced-off desert. This was the captive breeding area for the endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope. We were about a mile (2 kilometers) from the pen, which is as close as most people are allowed. Through the spotting scope, I could see the pronghorns; they were smaller and lighter in color than the ones I knew from my home in Montana. Di Rosa estimated that there were 75 Sonoran antelope in all of Arizona.

We returned to
the truck and rose over Charlie Bell Pass, a rock-strewed joke of a road, then began our slow descent into the Growler Valley. I looked out over a desert that ran all the way to the horizon. It appeared bleak and devoid of life, but that's hardly the case. "We have some 700 species of flora and fauna out here," Di Rosa said. "It's the richest desert in the world."

At that moment a pair of jets, F-16s, swept over, flying pretty low to the deck. They rolled into a turn and headed north. The Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range was established as a bombing ground in 1941 and flanks the Cabeza to the north, northeast, and west. Pilots in mock dogfights no longer use live ammo, but they still have flyover rights to all of the Cabeza.

Di Rosa mentioned that this was his second stint working at the refuge. He'd also been here from 1978 to 1984.

"Did you know Ed Abbey?" I asked.

"Oh yes. We agreed to disagree."

"About what?"

"I told him he had to have a permit or I'd ticket him. He said, 'You have to find me first.'"

"Ever find him?"


"Was the Cabeza different back then?" I asked.

"Most beautiful place you could imagine. No illegal roads, no tracks, no garbage."

"What happened?"

It was, Di Rosa said, the federal border policies that took effect in the late 1990s. The Border Patrol clamped down hard on illegal urban crossing points in Arizona, California, and Texas. Traffic in UDAs was funneled into the most remote areas of the Mexican border. That meant more and more people were crossing the deserts of Arizona, especially in the Cabeza and neighboring Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

In 2002 the traffic through the Cabeza just exploded, Di Rosa said. "And last spring, 'coyotes' [people who lead UDAs through the desert for a fee] were bringing groups as large as a hundred through here. If someone is weak or falters, they just leave them. So instead of working on habitat recovery, animal recovery, or maintaining the wilderness character of the refuge, we've become a de facto Border Patrol as well as a search and rescue group." Di Rosa said that they have five or six deaths in the refuge every year. "But more get through the Cabeza and die up north, in the Goldwater Range."

No More Deaths, a humanitarian group, puts the number of migrant fatalities in 2005 at 279 in the Tucson Border Patrol sector alone and says some 3,000 people have died crossing the border since 1998.

"And no one knows how many have died and haven't been found," Annerino said. He has experience to back him up on this.  In 1999 he published Dead in Their Tracks, a book about the deaths he was beginning to see in the Cabeza and nearby deserts. He'd made the crossing with several UDAs—he prefers the word "migrants"—and knew what it was like. He knew what routes to take and where to find the bodies, and he'd seen firsthand that dying of thirst is a ghastly way to perish.

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Cover: Adventure magazine

Pick up our August 2006 issue for America's best hikes and drives, including 11 undiscovered trails and four energy-smart road trips; Africa's top safaris; and a border odyssey along the Devil's Highway, by writer Tim Cahill.

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