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The Closing of the U.S.-Mexico Border

In 1994 Operation Gatekeeper tightened border security, and made it far more difficult for undocumented migrants to walk from Mexico into California.  The Border Security Initiative of 1998 and subsequent efforts after Sept. 11, 2001 attempted to seal off the most urban and transportation-friendly parts of the border with pre-fabricated walls, vehicle barriers, electronic surveillance technologies and more border agents.  As of April 2010 approximately 645 miles of such barriers were operational along the 1,951-mile U.S.-Mexico land border. 

Today only relatively inaccessible locations on the U.S. side remain without barriers.  According to the Department of Homeland Security those are areas where it takes many hours or even days to get to a “pick-up spot” on the U.S. side, which gives the Border Patrol ample time to respond and apprehend crossers.

Border Security Techniques

Border Patrol cars in a remote part of the El Paso Sector

These tactics and the combined use fencing, barriers, detection technologies and patrol techniques have made undocumented crossing more difficult in both urban and rural areas. In the video Border Security Techniques in the Southwest Border Patrol Agent Ralph Gomez describes how crossers can be captured or deterred. 

(See the Border Security Techniques in the Southwest video with Agent Ralph Gomez.)

This enforcement strategy has not only made it harder and more dangerous, but also more expensive to cross the once-porous border without documents.  For those who want to cross illegally, organized criminals have taken over many of the former “mom and pop” routes for smuggling people across the border, and prices have climbed into the thousands of dollars for “coyote” services.

For an interview with a former coyote, who we call Alejandro, go to the CBIG video Interview with a Coyote.

The Funnel Effect

Funnel Effect

The increased border security has also made illegal desert and water crossing much more difficult.  What was once a simpler 3-5 hour walk through the desert has become a multi-day ordeal of hiking up to 40-60 miles in remote and harsh terrain where there are few opportunities to obtain water, shelter or aid.  This channeling of illegal crossers into uninhabited dangerous areas is called the “funnel effect.” 

(See Funnel Effect video with Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith and Robin Rieneke.)

The Department of Homeland Security reported that 417 people died trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in 2009.  This number was up slightly from the prior three years, even though the number of border crosser apprehensions was down.  The funnel effect explains this anomaly, as people are crossing in more remote and dangerous areas where they are more likely to succeed or die trying.  And since only recovered remains are counted as “border crossing deaths,” it helps explain why CBIG believes the actual number of deaths may be two or three times higher than the official DHS count.

Take the case of Roberto Hernandez Cuevas, a 22-year-old from the small town of Magdelena Teitipac about 30 kilometers from Oaxaca. Hernandez and two friends left their village to go to the United States on April 27, 2009, headed for the Arizona border.  Hernandez had gone to the United States several years earlier and found work in a restaurant in Southern California, eventually working his way up to “concinero,” before returning home to his family.  But his second time crossing the border proved more difficult.


Roberto Hernandez Cuevas (left) from Oaxaca in the kitchen of
a Los Angeles restaurant with a co-worker.  Photo: Unknown photographer

The three young men crossed the border with two coyotes, walking two days and two nights, skirting west of the little town of Ajo, about 35 miles inside Arizona.  From near Ajo they walked another day, probably entering the Barry M. Goldwater Bombing Range. At this point they split into two groups and Hernandez began faltering and losing his ability to walk.  His friends decided to leave him behind and search for help, walking another 24 hours before finally finding a road and the U.S. Border Patrol.

Hernandez’s precise location could not be determined and his remains have never been found.  Bodies in the desert are scavenged by animals and can be entirely gone within less than a month.  Therefore, Roberto Hernandez Cuevas is not among the official border death figures for 2009.  The Mexican Consulate in Tucson deals with many cases like his.


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