Border Patrol agents getting a GPS reading
Border Patrol agents Jason Rheinfrank, left, and Eric Cantu get a GPS reading before tracking illegal crossers on the Tohono O’odham Nation near Sells. Many agents now are posted closer to their jobs at remote forward bases or camps. Photos by David Sanders / Arizona Daily Star

PAPAGO FARMS - Wearing a T-shirt and shorts, Border Patrol agent Walter Martinez eats cherry pie out of a paper bowl.

He's seated at one of several tables in the living room of a large modular building that houses up to 50 agents at a time. Across the dimly lit room, another agent does pushups. Others watch MTV.

It's early evening and the agents are between shifts at one of the Border Patrol's forward operating bases, which along with temporary camps are an increasingly integral part of the agency's strategy to slow illegal immigration and drug smuggling.

The bases and camps let agents stay out for longer periods of time in remote border areas that have been difficult to patrol due to the vast distances and long drives to and from stations, said Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin. Agents typically stay seven days straight at the bases.

"The mobility, the agility, the nimbleness of the Border Patrol as we dislodge the smuggling organizations from their routes is a critical dimension," Bersin said. "We expect forward operating bases to be used with increasing frequency."

This Papago Farms base, about 2 1/2 miles north of the border on the Tohono O'odham Nation, is one of three permanent forward operating bases in the Tucson Sector. There are seven camps for a total of 10 bases and camps - up from three in 2005.

Last year's $600 million in border-security supplemental money included $6 million for two new forward operating bases. The Border Patrol plans to upgrade one base and build a new base, both within the Tucson Sector, said agency spokesman Eric Cantu. It costs about $3 million to build a forward operating base, he said.

There are seven permanent forward operating bases along the U.S.-Mexico border. The Border Patrol would not disclose the number of camps.

Security experts and ranchers call the bases an efficient use of agency resources, getting agents off the main roads and into the smuggling corridors.

"We have a lot more people on the ground, and they've caught a lot more dope and people than they would have," longtime Cochise County rancher Wendy Glenn said of two camps put up in the last two years east of Douglas.

But the Border Patrol agents' union has concerns about housing conditions at the camps and the lack of standby pay for agents stationed there, said Shawn Moran, vice president of the union, National Border Patrol Council.

Agents are not allowed to leave without permission from a supervisor or have visitors. They must bring their own food, water and bedding, and cellphone service is usually shoddy.

"You can't be told you can't leave an area and not be compensated for your time," Moran said. "That's basically kidnapping our agents."

The chapters of the union in the Tucson and Yuma sectors filed a grievance in 2008, alleging agents were entitled to standby pay while at the bases and camps. But a federal arbitrator favored the Border Patrol, saying that while required to be on standby status, the agents didn't qualify under federal standby standards.

The increased use of bases and camps is part of an ill-advised movement by Border Patrol leaders to make the agency more military-like, Moran said. Many agents left the military seeking better working conditions and more time with their families.

"This is a civil service job," he said. "Yes, there are aspects that are militaristic, but this is not the military. You can't abuse Border Patrol agents and expect them to stick around in this agency."

The agents' union plans to file a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Heath Administration, alleging the camps and bases don't meet required standards for temporary labor camps, Moran said. They've had reports of insect infestation and cramped quarters, he said.

The Border Patrol declined to comment until a complaint is filed.

Desolate spot

A tall chain-link fence surrounds the Papago Farms forward operating base, the only thing besides mesquite, cactus and dirt for miles in this spot about 25 miles southwest of Sells.

In the compound - roughly the size of a soccer field - are one large modular building, two trailers, a repeater tower, generators, horse stables and a landing pad where helicopters can refuel.

Nine refrigerators hold food and beverages agents bring from home. A treadmill and other exercise equipment sit in a corner.

Martinez, a supervisory agent from El Centro, Calif., is one of several agents on a week's temporary assignment in Arizona. In a single day, he and his crew of agents apprehended two groups of illegal border crossers and seized a load of marijuana.

"You are cutting two hours off drive time," Martinez said. "Being here makes it easier to do our jobs." But it's a tough assignment.

"It's hard on my family, but it's part of the job and they understand," he said.

The camps and bases are staffed around-the-clock, every day of the year. Agents usually work one 10-hour shift per day, though sometimes longer.

"All you pretty much do out there is work, eat and sleep," Cantu said.

The seven camps in the Tucson Sector are far more rustic than the bases, with tents and trailers for agents to sleep in. They can be moved in response to the traffic patterns of smugglers.

"They can be put up where you need them at a moment's notice," Cantu said.

The first two forward operating bases were established in 2002 after 14 illegal border crossers died on the Camino del Diablo, a trail in Southwestern Arizona, Cantu said. Both started as camps - one at Camp Grip about 75 miles southeast of Yuma and the other at Papago Farms on the Tohono O'odham Nation.

During the scorching summer months when illegal border crossers die almost daily, the agency's search, rescue and trauma team- or Borstar - can stay at the camps, Cantu said. The agency's other specialty teams use the bases and camps, too. Those include the ATV and horse patrol units and Bortac, a specially trained tactical unit.

"Mission comes first"

Life in the bases and camps may not be easy, but being in the Border Patrol means adapting to the needs of the agency, said Fred Burton, vice president of intelligence at Stratfor Global Intelligence in Austin, Texas.

"At the end of the day, the mission comes first," said Burton, a former special agent in counterterrorism for the State Department.

Getting agents closer to where they need to patrol is the same concept used by city police agencies that build substations throughout a community, Burton said. The U.S. military often uses them overseas as well, such as in Afghanistan now.

"The fact that you've got your agents deployed out in the field just makes much more sense," Burton said.

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