The idea came up about two years ago. El Centro sector Chief Border Patrol Agent Kenneth Stitt approved it in October 2001.
"This is just another tool that our agents can use in accomplishing their mission of protecting our borders and saving lives," said Stitt.
The new horse patrol unit, made up of six men and their horses, graduated Wednesday after three weeks of training. The team will start its patrols tonight in the foothills south of Ocotillo, mainly in the Skull and Davis valleys.
Nelson said that area is a main corridor for illegal immigrants crossing into the U.S., particularly in the summertime.
He said of the area, "It's hard for four-wheel vehicles to get in there and too vast to patrol by foot."
"Our goal is to close that area down to make it inaccessible for them," said Nelson, referring to illegal immigrants.
Nelson said the Border Patrol chose the area for patrols because many illegal immigrants die in that vicinity. The unit will patrol mostly at night because of the heat during the day. Four agents will patrol at a time.
Nelson said patrolling at night is more logical not only because of the heat but because that is when most illegal immigrants try to cross into the U.S. Also, patrolling during the day can be dangerous not only to the agents but to the horses.
"We're not going to work them for nine hours when it's more than 100 degrees," said Nelson of the horses.
All six agents have received basic training in first aid and the agents will carry, along with their regular equipment, electrolyte tablets and enough water for themselves and their horses.
Nelson said the horse patrol unit also can be used to help the Border Patrol Search, Track and Rescue unit with rescue operations.
"We will use the horses as part of rescue efforts when we need to. If they need help, we'll gladly go in there and help them," said Nelson.
Late week Border Patrol agents apprehended 43 immigrants, 10 suffering from heat exposure with one in serious condition. They were spotted near the In-Ko-Pah area and it took agents some time to reach the immigrants because of the difficult terrain.
Nelson said the horses would have helped reach those suffering from heat exposure quicker.
Nelson said the horse unit is part of the Border Patrol's national program of deterrence and early apprehension, "to catch these people before they get to the mountainous areas and stop them from getting into trouble by exposing themselves to the heat."
>>Staff Writer Mario Rentería can be reached at 337-3441.