LAS CRUCES – One evening in January, Border Patrol agents using night-vision equipment spotted five Mexican citizens, led by a diminutive guide, picking their way across the rocky desert in Sunland Park.
After Border Patrol agents rounded up the group, they learned the guide was a 12-year-old girl.
After she was prosecuted for juvenile delinquency in federal court and finished her eight-day sentence, the girl, now 13, reappeared one May morning leading three illegal immigrants across the border in the Mount Cristo Rey area of Sunland Park. She was accompanied by a 15-year-old boy, and the pair remain in federal custody, according to a Border Patrol official.
The two children are part of a recent surge in Mexican smuggling gangs’ use of kids to lead small bands of illegal border-crossers into New Mexico, in response to beefed-up border security.
In fiscal year 2009, the Border Patrol in New Mexico referred six juveniles to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for prosecution, and nine more were referred in fiscal year 2010, said Jonathan Richards, special agent in charge of the Santa Teresa station.
Since January, Border Patrol agents in New Mexico, specifically those who work at the Santa Teresa station, have arrested and referred 32 juveniles to federal prosecutors.
At least 28 of the cases have been successfully prosecuted as of early June, according to the Border Patrol.
“Over the years, we would see juvenile smugglers, but we’d see them infrequently,” Richards said in a recent interview. “We’d see them smuggling aliens, smuggling narcotics, but again, it was infrequent. But … it’s become quite prolific.”
The youngest child smuggler picked up by the Border Patrol was the 12-year-old girl.
Most of the juveniles are promised pay of $50 to $100 per person smuggled into the U.S., according to debriefings after their arrest, Richards said.
Familiar with terrain
Smuggling organizations have for years employed children as drug mules, to either walk or drive hidden caches of drugs through ports of entry. But, this year, they have turned increasingly to hiring them to lead border-crossers on short treks through the desert terrain, in particular in the Mount Cristo Rey area of Sunland Park. Mount Cristo Rey is a rocky pilgrimage site bisected by the U.S.-Mexico border on the western edge of El Paso.
The peak, which features a large statue of the resurrected Jesus on the cross, stands on the eastern edge of Sunland Park. While Sunland Park is separated from Colonia Anapra on Juárez’s west side by a pedestrian fence, the mountain itself is not fenced.
Most of the children arrested in suspected smuggling cases are from Colonia Anapra and are familiar with the terrain.
“Mount Cristo Rey is partly in Mexico, so they have a high ground, and they attempt to exploit that when they see a window of opportunity,” Richards said.
Groups of border-crossers typically try to reach a border highway, a hotel in El Paso or a business in Sunland Park, where they can be picked up. If the first leg of the journey is successful, illegal crossers are taken to destinations in the U.S. interior.
All cases involving juveniles in federal court are sealed. Spokesmen for federal prosecutors in New Mexico and the West Texas district cited that fact in declining to provide information concerning numbers of cases, types of cases or policies concerning juvenile prosecutions.
The increased use of juveniles by smuggling organizations may have been based on the belief that American authorities would not prosecute such cases.
In the past, Richards said, juveniles were not always referred for prosecution. “Some instances we would, some instances we would not,” he said.
But federal authorities have increased their prosecution of juvenile guides and that may have a deterrent effect, Richards said.
In February, three such cases were referred for prosecution. In March, one case was, and in April, 12 cases were. But since May, 10 juveniles have been handed to federal prosecutors.
Richards said that, in December or January, with the number of juvenile arrests rising, Border Patrol officials worked out an agreement with federal attorneys in New Mexico that has led to more prosecutions.
If witnesses cannot be used to build a case for immigrant smuggling, the children at least face a charge of juvenile delinquency for entering the country illegally.
A child prosecuted for juvenile delinquency can receive probation until the age of 21 or be incarcerated until the age of 21, according to Terri Abernathy, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Mexico.
The Santa Teresa station is home base for about 350 Border Patrol agents who guard 62 miles of international border, extending from the New Mexico-Texas line through Doña Ana County and west 14 miles into Luna County. In the station’s area of responsibility, the border is fortified with 51 miles of vehicle barriers and more than eight miles of mesh fencing designed to prevent pedestrians from walking across from Mexico.
Although the fencing does not extend over Mount Cristo Rey, Richards said he believes Border Patrol agents apprehend about 90 percent of the people trying to cross illegally through the area.
Apprehensions of illegal immigrants, which numbered more than 10,000 in 2007, fell to fewer than 2,000 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
This year, apprehensions by the Santa Teresa station are expected to decline further, an indication that fewer people are trying to penetrate the area.
“I think we are catching the overwhelming majority of people coming in, but there’s always someone willing to come in,” Richards said. “We’ve been so successful in this area, stopping people and making arrests, that they’ll try anything.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal