Patrolling Ajo; drugs, desert, and danger

AJO, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) - The Tucson Sector of the U.S. Border Patrol is responsible for covering almost the entire U.S./Mexico border, 262 miles stretching from the Yuma County line to the New Mexico state line.

There are eight Border Patrol stations that are responsible for different sections of the coverage area, each with unique challenges. But the Ajo sector, in particular, jumps out as one of the toughest ones.

"The terrain, the vastness, the remote locations they have to operate in," Border Patrol Agent Daniel Hernandez explained. "There are no easy arrests in Ajo. The Ajo agents, they're a special breed."

Agent Hernandez has been on the force for about seven years, spending the majority of his time in the Douglas Sector. He explained every sector has it's dangers and is busy with apprehending human smugglers, drug traffickers, and illegal immigrants. But Ajo is a 7,000 square mile hot zone.

"There's a lot of mountainous, remote areas here," Hernandez said. "So our agents are constantly patrolling those areas because there's a heavy drug trafficking history in the area because it is so removed from typical civilization."

Agents spend long hours under the sun in the Ajo sector, often many miles away from any population. Sometimes they rely on high-tech surveillance to monitor the area, but for the most part, the agents in the field rely on their eyes, ears, and intuition. 

"You're visually scanning the road," Hernandez said. "Visually scanning off to the side, little washes, little flat areas to see if there's any footprints or any signs of human activity."

That means driving off-road through the desert, getting out of the vehicle, and inspecting the land -- it's called "cutting," and Hernandez says it works very well.

"We do catch a lot of people coming into the country illegally and a lot of drugs coming into the country illegally just off of one footprint," he said.

Border Patrol Agent Armando Vidales explained he often looks for footprints, garbage, clothing, or other clues near water tanks and sources throughout the desert.

"During the summer, it's all about the water source," he said. "They'll go from water source to water source."

He has a military background and specifically sought out joining the team of Ajo agents. In about seven and a half years, he's learned a thing or two.

"The terrain is really unforgiving," Vidales said. "Every plant out here is pretty much designed to rip skin off of you."

He's also experienced his fair share of close calls.

"I've ran into everything from being shot at, one time," he said. "To just the people that are here to give up and claim asylum from other countries."

Both agents say there's not question things can get tough out there in the mountains, the valleys, and the washes. Backup is sometimes five minutes away, but other times, it could be an hour away, Vidales explained. The agents do what they can to stay out of harm's way, but sometimes it's unavoidable.

The difficulties, the dangers, the determined agents like Vidales, just a few of the reasons why Agent Hernandez continues to praise his brothers and sisters who patrol Ajo.

"It takes a special person to become a Border Patrol Agent," Hernandez said. "And it takes a different kind of special person to become an Ajo agent because these guys are tough."


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