The U.S.-Mexico Border's 150 Miles of Hell
Credit: Photograph by Peter van Agtmael
Lowell's neighbor Jim Chilton owns a 50,000-acre ranch that shares a five-mile border with Mexico. Hundreds of smuggling trails cross it. Guided by scouts and aided by a paucity of roads and law-­enforcement patrols, the smugglers move easily through the terrain.

When I showed up at his house, Chilton opened a small barred window set into his heavy front door and scrutinized me for a moment, then invited me in for cowboy coffee in his kitchen with his wife, Sue. Chilton is 72, Sue, 69. They are relaxed and of modest stature. Sue, a naturalist, said that at 3,500 feet, mesquite grassland gives way to oak grassland and that the region has a bimodal weather pattern (convective and frontal). With a cackle and sidelong glance, Chilton said, "I just read cowboy things."

"Oh, don't believe him," said Sue. "He has a great, great interest in history."

Chilton, whose family has been ranching in Arizona for five generations, has a large library where he likes to sit and read Bancroft's Works or 19th-century magazine articles with titles like "My Adventures in Zuñi."

Chilton brought a Ruger .44 pistol and a Ruger .223 rifle with us out to his pickup, and we drove south into a landscape that lay furrowed or broken between mountain ranges. Ranchers here lease most of their land from the state or federal government, and their permits restrict material improvements. The majority of the corridor runs through national forests or monuments, or semiautonomous, undeveloped Native American reservations. Law-enforcement officers consequently have very few roads to use and no operating bases – 96 percent of Chilton's ranch is publicly owned. Its scarce roads are gashed and serpentine.

"How on Earth," Chilton asked, "would a border patrolman ever see anyone coming through this country?" He slowed above a notably green arroyo called Yellowjacket Pasture. "The Border Patrol rarely get out of their vehicles – they patrol the roads. Now imagine you got people down there in Yellowjacket Wash. Look down there. Look at all the hiding spots."

The wash had produced thick stands of mesquite trees, and an opaque profusion of ocotillo and guajilla and creosote and prickly pear cactus.

As we continued south, Chilton began pointing out trail after trail coming down through the hills: little switchback scars, bare tracks descending arroyos. "There are literally hundreds," he said. "There's no way law enforcement can cover all these trails." Smugglers could cross the border at night without resistance, Chilton said, climb the mountains, come down these trails, and disappear.

Like Lowell, Chilton told me that scouts have stationed themselves on mountaintops all across his ranch. According to the DEA, the Sinaloa Cartel employs between 200 and 300 surveillance teams along the length of the corridor. Drug loads can be passed from one team to another, all the way north. Scouts have night-vision goggles, infrared telescopes, and military-grade two-way radios with rolling encryption. Land-mobile radio repeaters boost the strength of outgoing transmissions, so no signal degradation occurs as the radio waves flow north. Portable solar panels power the devices. The cartel can reprovision its surveillance teams over a period of months a hundred miles into the United States.

Individual scouts can be chased from their locations, but only temporarily, and they usually succeed in remaining invisible. The mountains are full of caves – "spider holes," Border Patrol and DEA agents call them – and when scouts can't find caves they remain deep in brush, beneath rock overhangs or under camouflage tarps. When scouts are spotted and flushed, they're rarely caught. If you see them, they see you, and they have strict orders, Chilton said, to drop everything and run. The cartel doesn't care about losing equipment; it worries about giving up information. "Chasing a scout," one Border Patrol agent told me, "is like chasing a unicorn."

Shortly afterward, we saw a Border Patrol SUV parked on the side of the road. "He's there to prevent vehicle traffic," Chilton said. "He'll just sit there." In the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, which encompasses the corridor, the agency has at most one agent for every 21 square miles of territory. We would spend seven hours traversing the ranch that day and not see another patrol unit.

The farther south we drove, the rougher the terrain became. We entered the Bartolo Mountains. Halfway down a narrow canyon, Chilton pulled over. The other side of the canyon, he said, was Mexico. He grabbed his rifle, and we got out and climbed down to a small plateau. A cattle fence, making acute angles as it traveled through the mountains, marked the border. The fence was so low and insubstantial, it disappeared as soon as you shifted your gaze. We were far beyond the scope of any patrol, Chilton said. He doubted the cartel even bothered to station scouts here.