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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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In addition to the UDAs, the Cabeza is now a prime spot for drug runners. Those who walk marijuana across the border, called "backpackers," carry 40-pound (18-kilogram) loads, and they usually travel in groups of 5 to 15. The smuggling can be very sophisticated: There are often resupply stations set up in the desert, filled with gallon (4-quart) jugs of water and covered over in camouflage netting. Spotters, some equipped with night-vision goggles, sit on the mountaintops and radio down to the smugglers that all is clear.

Other dope runners load up stolen vehicles with drugs and drive, hell-bent, through the desert to a safe house or a drop in the U.S. "There've been exchanges of gunfire here," Di Rosa said. "Luckily, no one's been hurt, but these guys have fully automatic weapons. AK-47s, Uzis, you name it. A Border Patrol helicopter was fired on last summer."

We were making our way down the road to one of the few wells in the Cabeza: Charlie Bell Well. I could see it in the distance—a windmill to bring the water up into a huge tank and a high blue flag put up by a nonprofit group called Humane Borders to signal UDAs that there is water available. The tank had a faucet at the bottom, so anyone passing by could get good water on demand. The Border Patrol does not stake out the wells. "People crossing illegally don't want to get caught," Annerino explained. "So if the patrol was there, they'd avoid the wells, and then there'd be even more dead people out here. No one wants that."

We stopped at the tank and Di Rosa showed me the "guzzler." It was a separate cement pool set in the ground, full of dirty brown water, covered over in pond scum, and swarming with bees. The guzzler was for the bighorn sheep and the Sonoran pronghorn antelope.

It looked like people had been at the well very recently. There was some human waste and wrappers from a Mexican brand of socks. "You get those little needles in your socks," Annerino said, "and you can't get them out. These guys brought spare socks. What does that tell you?"

"I'd guess that they'd made the trip before. Came prepared."

"See," Annerino said, "garbage and tracks: They tell you a lot."

Di Rosa was concerned about the condition of the road. As we drove on, it braided into half a dozen tracks that met and came apart where the sand was soft. Other roads, totally illegal, crossed the administrative road from the south. These weren't just the work of a single car, they were sand highways. The Growler Valley looked like a four-wheel-drive recreational site.

"Worse every year," Di Rosa said. "Welcome to the wilderness." Then he broke into a high-pitched, humorless laugh; other men might have cursed. He drove for the next 10 or 15 minutes in a muted fury.

Breaking the silence, Di Rosa said, "Tim, if you see a body lying in the road, be careful. Don't approach. It could be an ambush: people waiting in the wash. They will take your truck. Maybe not hurt you, but they'll take your truck and your food and all your water and leave you out here."

Now we were coming up on a sight that would soon become all too familiar: a black Jeep Grand Cherokee that appeared to be buried to its axles in the sand. We stopped to take a look. "These are all stolen," Di Rosa said. It was a drug rig, with the backseats removed to accommodate the load. The Cherokee's tires were shredded, and it had been driven on its rims until it simply sank into the sand. The vehicle itself, although almost new, was in bad condition. All the windows were broken, someone had pounded on the hood with a tire iron, and there were bullet holes in all the doors and the tailgate.

Every one of the dozen or more cars we eventually saw abandoned in the "wilderness" had been shot and beaten to death. You take all the trouble to steal what you think is a perfectly good car and then it punks out on you. Leaves you stranded in the middle of the desert with a load of dope you can't possibly carry yourself. ¡Hijo de puta! Pow, pow, pow.

Di Rosa got us back to his office after dark. The Growler Valley was all but ruined, a graveyard for cars abandoned and abused, a labyrinth of off-road tracks, with garbage and human waste strewed everywhere.

"What are you guys going to do now?" Di Rosa asked.

"We'll drive El Camino del Diablo," Annerino said. "Camp along the way. Do a little hiking."

"Be careful," Di Rosa said.

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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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