Assault on NPS employee highlights danger along U.S.-Mexico border

Federal and local law enforcement are still trying to determine whether an assault on a uniformed maintenance worker at Chiricahua National Monument last week was related to cross-border activity at the southeast Arizona park, which is on a route known to be used by human traffickers and drug runners about 60 miles from the Mexican border.

Karen Gonzales, 60, continues to recover this week in a hospital after having been attacked and left unconscious in a picnic-area restroom last Wednesday. Gonzales' government vehicle was recovered, hours after the assault, in the town of Douglas, which is across the border from Agua Prieta, Mexico. Yesterday, the local sheriff's office released photos of three suspects who were seen in the area in the days leading up to the attack.

Even if a cross-border connection isn't found in the assault, the summer of 2013 has already been a busy one for cross-border activity on national parkland, with several incidents highlighting the dangers faced by Interior Department employees who work along the front lines of the United States' border battle.

Interior manages tracts comprising 800 miles, or about 40 percent, of the U.S.-Mexico border. Those lands include six wildlife refuges, several large Bureau of Land Management districts, lands held in trust for four American Indian tribes and a half-dozen national parks. The department has jurisdiction over some 25 million acres within 100 miles of the border.

Border-related law enforcement on those lands generally falls under the purview of the Department of Homeland Security through the U.S. Border Patrol, which is responsible for securing both federal and non-federal land against illegal crossings. But Interior also has its own law enforcement personnel who are supposed to protect park visitors, federal property and natural resources. And those officers are often drawn into cross-border responses.


That includes an Aug. 5 incident at Coronado National Memorial in Arizona, about 50 miles west of Douglas.

According to an NPS bulletin, rangers joined Border Patrol agents that day in tracking suspected undocumented immigrants on a park trail. As the joint law enforcement team moved in, the suspects tried to hide in a tree, which happened to be occupied by a hive of Africanized bees.

The bees attacked the suspects, Border Patrol agents and rangers. One agent was stung more than 200 times, causing his eyes to swell shut and prompting law enforcement officials to call in a medevac helicopter. Rangers helped in treating the injured and searching for suspects who fled during the attack.

The NPS bulletin noted that all those who were stung eventually recovered.

The rangers who participated in that joint action are part of the 140-member Interior law enforcement contingent that patrols federal lands near the border. Despite the increased focus on the border in recent years, that staffing level has been steady since 2008, when Interior added about 30 officers to Southwest border units.

Meanwhile, Border Patrol staffing levels are increasing by leaps and bounds -- and could do so again under the sweeping immigration legislation that was passed by the Senate before Congress adjourned for the August recess.

In the mid-1990s, the Border Patrol had around 4,000 agents working the Southwest border when the federal government began adding additional personnel to the region to battle illegal human and narcotics trafficking. It was a strategy that put a high priority on enforcement in urban and populated areas, according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office report.

But that effort also had the effect of diverting large amounts of illegal traffic to more remote federal land, including national parks and other Interior lands.

Booming Border Patrol poses resource threat -- GAO

One park that has became a hot spot for illegal border crossings is Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona.

The most notable incident occurred in 2003, when park ranger Kris Eggle was killed as he worked with Border Patrol agents trying to catch suspects in a drug-related murder.

But according to a 2009 report from the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, the park became a hotbed for illegal cross-border activity. From 2007 to 2009, park rangers arrested and indicted 385 felony smugglers, seized 40,000 pounds of marijuana and intercepted 3,800 illegal aliens at Organ Pipe Cactus, according to the report, titled "Perilous Parklands."

Today, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument continues to be a target of illegal activity.

On June 30, rangers set up an observation post along Highway 85 at a traffic stop near the park visitor center. A search led to the discovery of five women, all illegal aliens, hidden under camping gear in the back of a small SUV. Rangers also pursued and arrested a seventh person who was believed to be a scout who guided the women to the SUV driver. The driver, a U.S. citizen, was arrested and believed to be involved in a human trafficking ring run out of California.

"This incident is an example of targeted enforcement based on recent trends in illegal trafficking that is part of daily operations at the park," an Organ Pipe Cactus incident report stated.

Along with the dangers related to illegal activity, the uptick in illegal crossings on protected federal lands has taken an environmental toll.

"Evidence has since shown that this traffic has damaged natural and cultural resources on federal lands," GAO said in a 2010 report to Congress. "Specifically, federal land managers have documented thousands of miles of immigrant trails and thousands of pounds of trash-littering landscapes that have more wildlife and plant species listed under the Endangered Species Act than any other geographic region in the continental United States."

In response to increasing activities on federal lands, the Border Patrol began shifting agents to those areas as its staffing levels continued to tick upward. In fiscal 2001, agent staffing levels on the Southwest border topped 9,000. By fiscal 2012, the Border Patrol had more than 18,500 agents working the border.

When operating in protected natural and historic areas, Border Patrol agents are required to coordinate their efforts with Interior officials as outlined under a 2006 memorandum of understanding that was signed by the secretaries of Homeland Security, the Interior and Agriculture.

That coordination hasn't always run smoothly.

The 2010 GAO report noted that more timely Border Patrol access to Interior lands was needed to improve security operations along the border.

A recent GAO assessment from this past spring lauded the Border Patrol for taking steps to better coordinate their efforts, but that report noted that challenges remain.

“There’s an ongoing effort to enhance communication and coordination,” said Jon Andrew, the interagency borderlands coordinator for Interior.

Andrew said that one of the best ways to further that cooperation has been the increasing number of joint operations that Interior law enforcement officials have engaged in with local and other federal agencies in recent years.

“You get people with badges together and they start working together and patrolling together and they establish relationships,” Andrew said. “People start to get to know each other and this coordination becomes more operational.”

He acknowledged that it’s still not perfect.

“It’s always complex and always changing,” he said.

Meanwhile, some conservationists and federal officials continue to worry that the Border Patrol's efforts can contribute to the degradation of protected lands.

"As a result of Border Patrol's increased presence on these borderlands, some land managers have asserted that their abilities to carry out their natural resource protection responsibilities, such as limiting vehicle traffic in environmentally sensitive areas, are sometimes affected by the methods that Border Patrol agents use to carry out their homeland security responsibilities -- such as patrolling and installing surveillance equipment in remote areas," GAO reported in 2010.

If the Senate-passed immigration bill becomes law, the number of Border Patrol agents in the Southwest would double to nearly 40,000. The legislation would also require the construction of hundreds of miles of fencing along the border and authorize the use of unmanned aerial drones and new radar systems to track illegal border crossings.

During consideration of the bill, conservation groups expressed concern about some proposals aimed at protecting the border that they said would erode environmental laws and fragment wildlife habitat along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Expanding fencing and security installments along the border creates problems for migrating wildlife, those groups warned.

Meanwhile, a coalition of 20 environmental groups also joined together to oppose a provision aimed at expanding the Department of Homeland Security's authority to waive environmental laws along the 1,969-mile border for the construction of "tactical infrastructure," such as forward operating bases. That provision was included in the Senate bill, but environmentalists are hoping to eliminate it before the bill is signed into law (Greenwire, July 12).

And while the Senate bill is mostly targeted at Border Patrol and Department of Homeland Security operations, it does include provisions focused on Interior law enforcement, such as authorizing funds for upgraded communications systems.

All of which may help stem the rising tide of illegal border activities in places like Padre Island National Seashore near Corpus Christi, Texas.

An NPS bulletin from that park this past June noted that the park experienced a busier than normal May when it came to cross-border activities.

According to the release, the Border Patrol recorded an 85 percent increase in cross-border activities at the park in May.

Rangers there were twice called to respond to drug wash-ups at the seashore and were also involved in three operations aimed at drug smugglers.

"These collectively led to the arrest of seven smugglers, the issuance of 14 citations, and the seizure of 75 pills, nearly 46 kilos of marijuana, a kilo of cocaine and seven pipes and a grinder," the bulletin noted.

Rangers also arrested 16 undocumented aliens at the park that month.

Despite the incidents noted in NPS bulletins that have been released summer, Interior’s Andrew said he doesn’t believe federal lands as a whole are experiencing an uptick of activity.

With overall fewer immigrants crossing the border today compared to a decade or so ago, he said, cross-border incidents have also fallen.

“We’re way below where we were at the peak,” he said. “Sometimes you get a series of things coming together and it may seem worse than it is.”

Still he acknowledged that agency employees do continue to face threats from illegal drug and human trafficking coming from Mexico.

“It presents a threat to people living and working in the area,” he acknowledged. “I think it’s part of life on the border right now.”

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