A Day in the Desert
Ride Along with a Federal Agent on the Busiest Section of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico Border
Story by Brady McCombs / Photos by Dean Knuth
Sells, Ariz. — Agent Jeffrey Herro turns against the midday sun and walks backward as he studies the desert floor.
Herro (BA-99) and two other Border Patrol agents track a pair of footprints — one a cross-trainer shoe and the other a carpet bootie used as a cover by smugglers to conceal shoe prints.
Over the last hour, Herro has trekked 2 ½ miles north in the 95-degree heat amid the cactus, mesquite trees and hard sand. The only breaks have been to stop and discuss strategy. They don’t want to fall too far behind a group spotted hours earlier by agents using a high-tech surveillance system.
“Sometimes it’s just easier to walk backwards,” Herro says. “You can see the sign better.”
Learning to “track sign,” as agents say, is one of many tricks the UNC graduate has learned in his 12 years in the U.S. Border Patrol. Today, he’s a supervisory agent in the green-clad agency that has become the face of the United States’ border security efforts.
After graduating from UNC in December 1999 with a degree in Sociology and an emphasis in Criminal Justice, Herro sought a law enforcement job with the federal government. One night, while browsing the Internet, an ad popped up to apply online for the Border Patrol.
“I didn’t know what I was applying for,” he says. “I just knew it was a federal job.”
Co-workers from an internship he had done with a different federal agency put him in touch with a few retired Border Patrol agents. The way they described the job sounded interesting to Herro, an adventurous young man looking to see other parts of the country.
A few months later, Herro was hired by the Border Patrol and sent to Ajo, Ariz. “It has been fun ever since,” says Herro, 35.
INTO THE EYE OF THE STORM
Herro knew little of the Border Patrol growing up in Denver and not just because he lived in a nonborder state. The agency used to be a relatively small, underfunded agency.
But over the past 15 years, the Border Patrol has undergone a historic buildup. The agency was already growing before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, shifted the nation’s focus to shoring up its borders and sent the agency’s growth into overdrive.
There are 22,000 agents today, compared to 4,000 in 1992. The nearly $12 billion budget of the Border Patrol’s parent agency, Customs and Border Protection, is double what it was in 2004, the first year after the Department of Homeland Security was created.
When Herro was hired and sent to Arizona in 2000, he was sent into the eye of a brewing storm.
A mid-1990s security push by the U.S. government beefed up enforcement in Texas and California — the two busiest crossing spots for drugs and people at that time — funneling traffic into Arizona. Authorities expected southern Arizona’s harsh desert and deadly heat to be a natural deterrent from crossing.
By the time Herro put on the uniform in 2000, Arizona had become the busiest stretch of the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border that extends from the Pacific Ocean in California to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas. As the agency grew, a buildup of fences and technology coming along with it, Arizona became the focal point of the Border Patrol’s operations.
Today, 4,000 of the Border Patrol’s 22,000 agents are stationed in the “Tucson Sector,” which covers most of Arizona from the New Mexico state line to the Yuma County line in western Arizona. A little less than half of all the apprehensions of illegal immigrants and seizures of marijuana made by the Border Patrol along the Southwest border occur in the Tucson Sector.
Herro was sent to patrol in a station based in the tiny town of Ajo, Ariz., an old mining town located 135 miles west of Tucson near one of the largest Indian reservations in the country, the Tohono O’odham Reservation.
“I looked it up on a map and said, ‘It’s kind of close to Phoenix. That’s cool,’ ” Herro remembers. “Come to find out it’s an hour and a half outside of Phoenix.”
After being sworn, he was sent from Tucson to Charleston, S.C., for the five-month Border Patrol training academy.
“At the time I hated it,” Herro says of the stress studying immigration law, learning Spanish, and the physical and firearms training. “But looking back, it was fun. I have great memories.”
Herro graduated in the 453rd class of the Border Patrol, created in 1924. (For perspective on growth in the past decade, the agency just graduated the 1,000th class).
He spent his first eight weeks in field training on patrol alongside fellow rookie agents. A supervisory agent taught them about the terrain and landmarks, and how to implement what they learned at the academy in live settings.
After that, as all rookie agents are, Herro was assigned a veteran agent to mentor him over the next three months. Herro’s mentor wasJim Hancock, an agent who had spent 27 years patrolling the area and was renowned within the agency for his tracking skills. That’s how the young man from the mountain state learned how to read the desert floor.
“He was a legend in the Border Patrol,” Herro says. “He knew everything about sign cutting. Sign cutting is an art.”
Herro had plenty of practice. From 2000 to 2006, Border Patrol agents apprehended an average of 950-1,600 people a day in the agency’s Tucson Sector.
Herro still remembers the first apprehension he made. It came after a group of illegal border crossers scattered in all directions after a helicopter spotted them near the highway. Herro focused on one man.
“He was running and then just stopped,” Herro remembers. “He was like, ‘Agghh. I’m done.’ And then he tells me in English, ‘You guys are impossible to cross here. You caught me three times in two days.’ ”
He’s made thousands of apprehensions since, including many large groups. While on horse patrol in 2004, he and two other agents caught a group of more than 100 illegal immigrants walking together, which was not unusual during the peak years for illegal crossings. During his career, Herro has worked in the agency’s horse patrol, ATV unit and in helicopters.
In recent years — due mainly to the economic recession in the United States, but also to the border enforcement buildup that has made it more difficult to cross — there has been a precipitous decline in crossings of illegal immigrants. In the last fiscal year, agents made an average of 337 apprehensions a day in the Tucson Sector.
The smuggling of marijuana, however, hasn’t slowed. After spiking in 2009, the seizures of marijuana in the Tucson Sector have remained at record levels each of the past three years. “I don’t think people realize how much dope we catch,” Herro says.
He still works in southwestern Arizona, though he’s switched stations and now lives with his wife and two stepdaughters in Gilbert, Ariz. Each day, Herro drives 1 ½ hours from his home in the Phoenix suburb to his area of patrol near the U.S.-Mexico border. Some agents patrol close to where they live, but many make long drives like this on a daily basis.
Herro isn’t the only UNC graduate who’s a Border Patrol Agent in Arizona. Mitch Bierle, a 26-year-old who graduated from UNC in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice, has been with the Border Patrol for four years and works in the same station as Herro. (NV: The Border Patrol granted permission to interview Herro only.)
HIGH TECH AND OLD SCHOOL
The group that Herro and the agents follows on this day was first spotted using one of the newest gadgets in the agency’s growing technology toolbox. The portable surveillance system includes a tripod mount, long-range infrared sensor and camera, plus a battery and a laptop. The 400-pound units are carried in pieces by three agents into remote areas or atop mountains.
On this day, the surveillance unit was atop a mountain when agents spotted at least 15 people and provided GPS coordinates by radio to agents in SUVs nearby. So far, other agents have caught five men and one woman.
As Herro and two other agents follow the footprints, other agents comb the area for more tracks. Two of the agency’s helicopters — including a massive Blackhawk chopper — have flown out from Tucson to help with the search.
Today’s Border Patrol has an array of technology at its disposal including airplanes, helicopters, drones, ground sensors and tower-mounted and truck-mounted surveillance systems with radar, sensors and cameras.
Despite all of the gadgets, many times catching a group comes down to “Border Patrol 101,” as Herro calls it. That refers to the tracking techniques agents use that aren’t much different than what hunters and American Indians have used for hundreds of years. “Technology is great, but it’s not a catchall,” says Herro, as he continues walking backward, straining to spot the footprints.
Herro says horses are among the agency’s most valuable assets. While in the horse patrol unit, Herro had the same horse for 2 ½ years and grew to admire the animal’s innate ability to track people.
“We would be sitting on a trail, anticipating a group coming up and you would see the horses’ ears perk up and aim toward the sound,” Herro says. “That was our cue to get on the horses.”
Most agents patrol in SUVs, spending a big chunk of their day behind the wheel. Herro estimates he drives about 250 miles during his usual 10-hour shift. But agents can only get so far in their vehicles. Most arrests or marijuana seizures culminate on foot.
That’s what Herro is hoping to do now, as he and Supervisory Agent Hugh McNamara work together to stay on the prints. McNamara, a tall man with a long stride, is ahead of Herro, sometimes getting so far in front that they have to use their radios to communicate.
“Right here,” Herro says to McNamara over the radio, when he spots a footprint.
With his boot, Herro marks a line in the dirt. That’s to make sure he knows he’s already been there in case they have to retrace their prints.
“Got it,” McNamara says in a loud voice a few minutes later when he spots a print.
Between the two of them, they’ve followed the prints all the way to one of the few paved roads on the Tohono O’odham Reservation. They know it may be hard to find the prints on the other side of the road, but they’re driven by an extra incentive today. The one woman caught from this group told agents that she got separated from her 8-year-old daughter during the arrest, meaning agents are now searching for a lost girl.
HUNTERS AND SAVIORS
The scorching heat is deadly for people trying to traverse the U.S.-Mexico border. In Arizona, the bodies of more than 2,000 illegal immigrants have been found since 2001. Despite a slowdown in illegal immigration in recent years, the death toll remains basically the same each year. Most perish during the summer when temperatures reach 105-110 degrees for months on end — their one-gallon jug of water not nearly enough to sustain them for crossings that sometimes take five or six days.
Herro has discovered bodies, but has also saved dozens of others from dying. The agents’ main mission is in a ‘hunter’ role, trying to stop people, drugs and potential terrorists from crossing into the country illegally. But the treacherous desert environment means they must be ready to shift into ‘savior’ mode at any given moment, especially in the summer months.
Herro and McNamara balance both roles during their search. They remain glued to the tracks, but are also looking for any sign of the missing girl.
“When you get a report of a kid like that, it’s all hands on deck,” says Herro, whose stepdaughters are 14 and 10 years old. “All you want to do is find them alive.”
The Arizona heat is brutal, even for veteran agents like Herro who spend big chunks of the day in air-conditioned cars with plenty of ice-cold water.
“It can zap you real quick,” Herro says. “Especially in the summer.”
He knows how dangerous it can be, which is why the rescues he makes are among the most rewarding parts of his job.
“Some people come up to me and say, ‘Why are you stopping these people from coming in?’ ” Herro says. “Another way to look at it is everybody you catch is potentially a rescue. Most of the people out here don’t know what they are getting themselves into with the heat.”
The desert extremes can catch people by surprise, too. Even though it’s 75 degrees in the day in February, it gets frigid cold at night.
During one summer rescue Herro made, a man started crying and hugged him. A few minutes later, he found two others, who did the same thing. They rescued 42 that day, and one died.
“They all thought they were going to die,” Herro says.
Herro and McNamara are able to pick up what appear to be the same footprints north of the paved road, but then lose them when they reach a stretch of dry yellow grass that makes it nearly impossible to spot them.
“I’m not tracking anything,” McNamara radios to Herro. “I lost the sign.”
There’s no sign of the 8-year-old girl, either.
“This is the frustrating part,” Herro says.
The two agents concur it’s time to cut their losses and head back to their cars. They will pass along the GPS coordinates of where they last spotted the footprints to agents coming on for the evening shift, who may be able to find the two men farther north. Of course, it’s possible, too, that the two people were picked up in a vehicle at the road and are heading north to Phoenix. (Later, the Border Patrol contacted a family member who would only say that the girl had been located.)
Such is the job of a Border Patrol agent. For every group caught, another gets away amid the sea of cactus, mesquite trees and sandy washes. For every day of multiple captures, there’s a day like this that comes up empty.
As they walk back south, a fellow agent drives by and gives them a ride to their vehicles. His shift finished, Herro begins his drive north back to the Phoenix area and reflects on a job he’s grown to love.
“Look around, this is my office,” says Herro, driving on an isolated road in the wide-open expanses of Arizona’s desert. “Yeah, I have a boss but he’s not seated in an office right next to me. It’s pretty much a different thing every day. I like coming out, working outside, going for hikes.”
When his youngest stepdaughter graduates from high school, he and his wife plan to travel or temporarily live in another part of the country. One idea is to move to Washington, D.C., and work for the agency there in some capacity.
“I think it would be a great experience to work in headquarters,” Herro says. “That is one of my big goals. But, I don’t know, we’ll see what the future holds.”
He’s sure of one thing: The desert is where he wants to end up.
“I don’t ever want to push snow again,” Herro says. “I like Arizona.” NV
—Loveland native Brady McCombs has been the Arizona Daily Star’s border and immigration reporter since February 2006. He has been recognized for his work by several state and national newspaper organizations, including being named the 2007 Arizona Journalist of the Year from the Arizona Press Club and Arizona journalist of the year by the Arizona Newspapers Association in 2007, 2008 and 2011. He is a fluent Spanish speaker and lived for three years in Costa Rica while in the Peace Corps.