NOGALES, Ariz--Standing on a hilltop that overlooks a series of ravines used by Mexicans to cross into the U.S. illegally, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agent Paul Boulier remarks that in his 16 years of service here, the past year was the quietest. “They used to come over in groups of 20-30,” he says while watching two men move suspiciously on a hilltop on the opposite side of the border fence. “But now we see groups of 2-3.”
Boulier’s definition of quiet may be skewed by the volume of humanity he witnessed streaming across the border in previous years. Things along the Arizona border may be quieter for some Border Patrol veterans, but by any calculus they are still amazingly active. The 262-mi. stretch of the Tucson border sector has traditionally been the country’s most active—with more than three times as many arrests as the next-busiest sector. Fiscal 2010—ended Aug. 31—saw 203,000 arrests of illegal immigrants along the Tucson line, along with 940,000 lb. of marijuana seized and the deaths of 210 immigrants who succumbed to the desert or violence of the “coyotes”— smugglers immigrants pay up to $3,000 to sneak them across. Compare those numbers with FY09, and there has been a slide, which is in keeping with trends over the last decade. Fiscal 2009 saw 226,000 arrests and 1.1 million lb. of marijuana seized, while deaths stayed about the same. Those numbers may pop, but consider that in 2000 there were 616,000 arrests of illegal immigrants attempting to cross the border in the Tucson sector.
The reason for the drop in illegals is hard to pin down, but reasons normally given range from the lack of jobs due to the U.S. recession to better enforcement, tough barriers and technologies such as cameras and sensors that act as deterrents.
When it comes to the drug trade, however, the border area is about as porous as it's ever been, both in terms of volume as well as the political storm surrounding the issue. Nevertheless, the drug cartel violence that has been ripping northern Mexico apart, and which recently caused Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to compare it to an insurgency, is not spilling across the border. Take the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, whose 2,700 mostly drug-related murders last year have saddled it with the moniker “murder capital of the world.” Just across the border, El Paso, Tex., saw just one murder last year. Arizona, which sees more illegals and drugs pass over the border with Mexico than any other state, actually saw its crime rate drop 12% last year.
The reasons for this are simple. The drug cartels are big business, and like any big business the bosses are brutally rational actors who know full well that violence and crime on the American side of the border would be bad for their bottom line. If Border Patrol agents or local police were to be killed, the weight of the U.S. military and law enforcement institutions would wake up and clamp down hard, sealing off their smuggling routes. And so the cartels are willing to lose a few battles, and a few bundles of drugs, to win the larger smuggling war.