USB realigning coverage zones

September 08, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

With a goal of saving lives by focusing manpower along the entire Mexican border, the U.S. Border Patrol's El Centro sector is realigning its coverage zones.

The El Centro sector is made up of the El Centro, Calexico, Indio and Riverside Border Patrol stations.

Under the present alignment, the more than 200 agents assigned to the El Centro station have been responsible for covering a zone stretching from Imperial County's east desert to the western desert.

The 300 agents assigned to the Calexico station have been responsible for covering the area within and surrounding that city. While a smaller area, the focus of illegal immigration there has necessitated such a concentration of agents.

Come Oct. 1, the area covered by the El Centro station will decrease.

Agents assigned to that station will cover an area just west of Calexico to the San Diego county line and as far north as the Westmorland area.


The agents assigned to the Calexico station will cover the Calexico area east to Gray's Well and as far north as the North Algodones Dunes.

The Indio station will cover north of the El Centro and Calexico zones. Indio also will be responsible for operating the Border Patrol checkpoints on Highway 111 and Highway 86 in Imperial County.

Both checkpoints, closed in recent months due to a lack of manpower, are expected to reopen on an intermittent basis as of Jan. 1 and before next summer are expected to be open on a regular basis.

The shift in coverage areas is led by Kenneth Stitt, chief of the Border Patrol's El Centro sector.

Stitt said Friday the change was necessary particularly to aid in the coverage of the west Imperial Valley desert where a number of undocumented immigrants have died this summer.

During the Border Patrol's current fiscal year, which started Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30, 84 migrants have died trying to cross the border illegally. That number includes those who have died in the desert, waterways and traffic accidents.

A large number of those deaths have been in the western desert, where smugglers attempt to walk people across the border. The western desert — as opposed to the mostly flat eastern Imperial Valley desert — is treacherous terrain.

It's a desolate area difficult for agents to cover, particularly if those agents have to cover both the eastern and western deserts.

Stitt said the zone change will allow El Centro station agents to focus efforts in the western desert and said, "Ultimately reduce the number of deaths we have seen in the western desert."

He added, "There have been way too many fatalities this year."

The area north of Highway 98 is known as the "badlands" because of the treacherous terrain. He said if agents can keep immigrants south of 98, they can save lives.

The western desert is a lonely stretch of land. A fly-over of the area reveals paths smugglers have used to guide migrants across the border. Endless footprints of migrants who have attempted to cross stretch as far as the eye can see.

Abandoned vehicles can be seen and gallon-size plastic water bottles are strewn throughout the area, some still half full.

Stitt said as the new zones are implemented he hopes to see smuggling operations pushed out of the Valley. If the smugglers know they are going to be caught in this area, he said, they will have no choice but to look for other locations to cross.

He said the program of forward deployment — placing all manpower along the border — is already making a difference and will continue to do so under the zone changes.

But it will take more resources to adequately cover the zones.

Stitt said more agents are on the way, adding the El Centro station should have as many as 30 new agents in the next year and the Calexico station will see about 70 new agents.

Technology also will play a role.

In the Calexico area cameras are posted on large polls along the border. Those cameras allow Border Patrol agents to monitor activity and respond to it.

In the next fiscal year the Border Patrol will receive more cameras, enough to extend the length of the Calexico station's area — out to Grays Well.

Stitt said he is confident with additional resources in the eastern zone, and with the cameras, the Border Patrol should be able to control activity in that area.

He said the toughest battle will still be in the west, and in fiscal 2003, the Border Patrol is expected to receive cameras for that area.

Still, Stitt said he hopes to see a decrease in deaths next summer in the west desert, brought about by the focusing of agents in that area.

"That's my biggest goal for next summer," Stitt said, adding, "It's just going to be a matter of perseverance in the western desert."

Stitt added the way he will monitor the success of the zone change is if there is an increase in apprehensions followed by a steady decrease that would result from less crossing activity.

Stitt said he realizes illegal immigration is going to continue as long as people seek to cross the border in search of better lives and as long as the illegal immigration remains profitable for smugglers.

He said changes would have to occur in Mexico so people no longer have the need or desire to cross the border.

Until then, he said, the Border Patrol will continue efforts to prevent illegal immigration and save lives.

"All we can do is maintain a controllable border," he said.

Staff Writer Darren Simon can be reached at 337-4082.

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