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The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part two.


THE balloons, which are parked 10,000 feet above the surface, are called aerostats. The term sounds impressive but lacks precision. All balloons -- whether hot-air or helium, zeppelins or toys -- are aerostats: they fly not by dynamic lift, achieved by forcing air down, but by static lift, which is analogous to a ship's floating. The Customs balloon is somewhat longer than a Boeing 747, but less graceful. A puffy white blimp with a bulbous radar pod and oversized tailfins, it flies a fixed position at the end of a Kevlar umbilical cord. In desert sunlight it shines brilliantly; at night it flashes with powerful strobes to keep airplanes from flying into it. The idea is not a new one: balloons were used for reconnaissance during the Civil War, and they were widely deployed along the Western Front during the First World War. They were called "captive balloons" in English, and Fesselballonein German -- Fesselbeing "fetters." They carried artillery spotters, who telephoned their observations along wires built into the tethers. When attacked by fighters, the spotters had to jump; this was the first regular use of parachutes.

The Customs balloons are different in one important way: they carry radar, which from the maximum altitude sweeps the horizon for 150 miles around. The radars do not blink, panic, or worry about their girlfriends. Combined, they form an overlapping polka-dot line from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. The balloons are tethered in Yuma and Fort Huachuca, Arizona; in Deming, New Mexico; and in Marfa, Eagle Pass, and Rio Grande City, Texas. Their gleanings are transmitted to the Customs radar room in Riverside, east of Los Angeles.

The system is not omnipotent. Already three balloons have crashed and been replaced. They are vulnerable to, among other things, high winds, dust devils, jet-stream turbulence, ice, and snow. Thunderstorms, which hit the border by the thousands, are their mortal enemies.

At Fort Huachuca, I stood with a ground-crew chief while he eyed a growing thunderstorm and ordered his ship reeled in. He was a retired fighter pilot with a chiseled jaw. He gave me his plan for weather: "If the cell's ten miles out, we'll fly at ten thousand. Cut the distance in half, and we're down to five thousand. The idea is to dock it, secure it" -- he pointed to the pavement -- "and step across that yellow line when the first drop falls. If the crew gets wet, I buy steaks." It seems like a reasonable plan, because the balloons are fairly safe when secured to their docking masts, but it means they spend much of their time on the ground, where the radar is essentially blind.

There is another problem. The balloon is like a giant flag -- when you raise it, you proclaim your seriousness; by hauling it down, you signal that the border is again open for business. In theory, Customs can fill the gap by sending one of its long-range patrol airplanes aloft. The patrol airplane is the all-weather Lockheed P-3, a four-engine turboprop stuffed with electronics, shouldering an early-warning radar in a twenty-four-foot flat dish -- fancy battlefield stuff, expensive to buy and to fly. Customs bases its fleet in Corpus Christi, Texas. The equipment has excited the agency into military prose: "The Defense in Depth strategy provides for offensive and defensive capabilities via the use of mobile and fixed detection resources deployed in depth and reaching to source and transit countries from the borders of the United States." In other words, we keep the balloons here and send the P-3s offshore, over international waters, to watch deeper into Mexico and Central and South America. What this means, however, is that when the balloons are hauled down, as they are regularly, the chances are that no patrol airplane is available. With equipment like P-3s, you don't sit around waiting for bad weather in Fort Huachuca.

The Customs agents are not naive. They have flown the border for decades, and know its size and challenges. They like to take reporters to high altitude over southern Arizona and show them a land so vast and empty that the cities look like cloud shadows and the mountains like veins under the skin of the earth. This is hot drug-running country, on the direct line to California. Customs never claimed that it could stop the air traffic, only that it could slow it. Despite the problems with the radar fence, it appears to be succeeding. The goal of a one-in-four interdiction rate no longer seems impossible.

Interdiction means more than seeing your quarry on radar -- you have to catch it, too. That is where the aircrews come in. Once a suspicious airplane has been spotted, they fly out to intercept it, follow it, and seize the load. Aircrews are positioned at airports all along the border. The Tucson station, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, is one of the biggest. There is new drug-fighting money here -- lots of it. Since 1985 the staff has grown from fifteen to eighty, half of whom are pilots. Their main interceptors are $8 million versions of the Cessna Citation business jet, equipped with F-16 target radars and forward-looking infrared scopes. The Citation is a match for the opposition: it can dash to 400 miles an hour and slow to 100. It can even land on the short dirt runways preferred by smugglers -- though it cannot take off again. Therefore, for the final stage of the chase Tucson sends out the Sikorsky Blackhawks, powerful $16 million military helicopters equipped with night-vision devices. The Blackhawks carry the "bust crews," meaning anyone who happens to be sitting around the station. Everyone wants to go. Sometimes there is gunplay, but the agents don't think of the dangers. Busts break the monotony of the job.

Tucson is strong in the numbers: last year it generated roughly 170 arrests, eighteen seized aircraft, 140 seized vehicles, 6,000 pounds of cocaine, 26,000 pounds of marijuana, $5 million in cash, and untold attaboy letters. Between sorties the crews endure a firehouse routine. They thumb magazines, read technical manuals, and hope for a call. They don't talk much, because they have said it before. They watch videos. They run missions to Burger King. On some shifts they practice emergency procedures, or grab one of the confiscated airplanes and poke around the border airports. Sometimes they get calls from the police for their Boelkow helicopter with the 30 million candlepower "night sun" spotlight. "Very psychological," one pilot told me. "It intimidates people."

When the weather is good, the jet crew is expected to take a Citation out and cruise the border for a few hours, searching for traffic with the F-16 radar. They call it trolling; it's a way of keeping their flight hours up and practicing their intercepts. To avoid a pattern, they fly where they want, when they want.

THE crew I accompanied chose Southeast Arizona, where the balloon at Fort Huachuca was down again. We climbed on autopilot past blossoming clouds to 17,000 feet. The captain, named Sayrahder, was a former air-traffic controller with long blond hair and an aging face. His copilot looked like a fraternity boy; his name was Cruciger, but they called him Junior. It was his turn to fly the airplane. Besides the standard instrumentation and some extra radios, the flight deck contained special radar scopes, small repeaters of the big screens in the back, where the radar operator was at work, aiming the antennas. He was a slight, prematurely balding agent named Forcum, who told me he liked action.

The only action around was one of their own Blackhawks coming at us, trundling east to El Paso at 150 miles an hour. We picked it up on the target radar, 9,000 feet below. Sayrahder radioed the other pilots, and Cruciger showed me his technique -- a cold, stern intercept. He turned toward the helicopter, passed it high and fast, dropped behind into its blind six o'clock position, slowed, and crept up until he locked into place about twenty feet behind it and slightly to the side. The idea is to read the registration number on the tail, transmit it to Riverside, and then, if the computers do not suspect a smuggler, depart without being seen. Sayrahder thought Cruciger had approached too aggressively, and reminded him of another Customs pilot who had shot past a suspect airplane in an embarrassment of brakes, unable to slow in time. We watched the Blackhawk's tail vibrate, commented on the shaking of helicopters in general, and accelerated away through a steep turn.

Sayrahder said, "Who else'll give three guys a Citation with full fuel and a credit card?"

We came around for a high-speed pass, clipped past the Blackhawk at 400 miles an hour, and swept into a climb. The helicopter pilot radioed his laughter and said, "Whooee, Junior's bad."

An unusually high-flying bug hit the windshield at 16,500 feet, and we discussed it for a while. When the Fort Huachuca balloon went up, I asked the pilots how they decided which targets to intercept. They said, more or less, "We use discretion, we don't intercept the airlines."

Finally we had someone on the radar, off the right nose, doing 140 miles an hour eastbound at 9,500 feet. Riverside checked its recent flight path and confirmed that the plane had been following the airway. Cruciger looked eager, and Sayrahder said, "Lotta times they'll try to mix into the legitimate traffic." He flew the intercept, and approached carefully from miles astern. Standard radar shows an airplane as a symbol on an electronic map; forward-looking infrared radar shows a ghostly image of the target much as you would see it with your eyes. It is intended as a night-vision device, but it works as well in daylight. The airplane ahead began to take on definition in infrared while it was still only a speck in the sky: high wings, two engines, slow-turning propellers, strange outboard pods. Closer in, we discovered it was a flying boat, a Grumman Albatross. Sayrahder snuggled up to the tail, and the airplane filled our windshield. Cruciger had trouble reading the registration number, because of the aquatic curvature of the hull, and Sayrahder had to move farther to the side. This did not please him, because it put us within view of the other cockpit -- but, as he said, how often do pilots look back? Once we had the number, we dropped into a trailing position and waited while Riverside ran a check. The check came up empty; it almost always does. We got a name and an address in Miami, no history of smuggling, and we turned away.

Cutting for Sign

SOUTHWEST of Tucson, in an emptiness of jagged ridges and wild valleys, lies an Indian reservation nearly the size of Connecticut. For some sixty miles it backs on the border, which is merely a cattle fence. This is the high country of the Sonoran desert, with thick growths of cacti and small-leafed bushes, watered in the summer and winter by seasonal rains. The people who live here are the Tohono O'odham, a loose configuration of Pima-speaking Indians also known as the Papago. Like many Indian groups, they are poor and troubled, and survive largely on government handouts. Their ancestors lived a semi-nomadic life across large tracts of the desert.

When the border intruded, in 1854, slicing their land in two, its immediate effect was to provide a refuge in the United States from persecution in Mexico. While Mexican settlers were pushing the Indians aside in Sonora, across the line in Arizona the O'odham lived in valleys no one wanted, and fought alongside the Army against their traditional enemies the Apaches. As "good Indians," they were mostly left alone. The southern O'odham began to migrate north. Since Mexico has never believed in reservations, those who did not flee were slowly engulfed. By 1900 the identifiable population in Sonora had shrunk to a thousand; today it is estimated at two hundred. The holdouts live in remote villages just south of the border, under threat from encroaching ranchers. In desperation they tear down the new fences built across their pastures. Hired cowboys answer with flashed weapons and mutilated cattle. They call the Indians squatters, and bulldoze vacant houses. The Indians say they will fight -- brave words in a violent land. This is the backcountry of Sonora, a long way from Mexico City, and justice has been corrupted.

But the holdouts are not alone; the official count underestimates the strength of the O'odham in Mexico. It is based on a legalistic definition of the border, and on "pure race" concepts that do not necessarily reflect people's views of themselves. Many O'odham are still seminomadic. They live a few weeks here, a few weeks there, and do not let the border stand in their way. I talked to a tribal official who said that a third of the families on the U.S. reservation retain close ties to Mexico. They keep households in the Mexican villages, shop in Mexican stores, and pray in the Mexican churches. They attend festivals and visit friends. Crossing the border here is illegal, but there are thirteen gates in the cattle fence, and they are left open.

I asked a tall young man to name the gates. We stood by a trailer in Sells, Arizona, the capital of the reservation. Speaking softly from the chest, clipping the words with his throat in the Indian way, he said, "Buenos Aires, Newfields, Valenzuela, San Miguel, Whitehouse, Serapo, Vamori, Itak, Rockpoint, Christmas, Papago Farms, Salt Well, Menenger's Dam. There's a bunch of cuts in the fence ain't got a name."

He had done a stint in the U.S. Navy as a jet mechanic, and now lived in Mexico, helping his grandmother with her cows. Since his truck had broken down, he was spending a few days in Sells. I asked, "Are you a Mexican or U.S. citizen?"

He looked away at the mountains. "What do you mean?"

"What passport do you have?"

"Don't have one."

"If you had one."

He pulled out his wallet and showed me his tribal card. "Tohono O'odham. The O'odham Nation."

I learned he had been a heavy drinker. "But three ghosts came, told me I'd have trouble. So I don't drink no more, and I don't do dope." I asked him if he ever had done dope. He did not answer. I told him I had come to write about smuggling on the reservation. It is pervasive, and may now constitute the most common occupation among the O'odham. I had heard an O'odham schoolteacher say this is not all bad: success of any kind is better than the hopelessness of the government dole. The argument is a measure of the reservation's despair.

I spoke one day with the Customs agent responsible for fighting smuggling on the reservation, a lanky white man named Floyd Lacowell: age forty-seven, boots, jeans, turquoise shirt, graying hair, weathered skin, a pistol on his hip.

He said, "After fifteen years of the same shit, you look back and wonder what you've done." He smiled wryly. "The last few years we've caught a bunch, which means there's just a whole bunch more getting through." In other words, while Washington peddles the theory of wearing down the drug cartels, Lacowell is out in the field getting overrun. Frustration has developed in him a fine sense of the absurd. About his work he says, "It's a civilian version of Vietnam. That makes it the second losing war I've fought."

AS dawn broke one day I met Bob Antone in Sells, and we drove south in a small four-wheel-drive truck, across the reservation and toward the border gate at Papago Farms. Antone is one of the Customs Service's O'odham trackers, a burly man of forty with longish black hair. He was dressed in jeans and lug-sole boots. Trackers are also known as sign cutters; they "cut for sign." "Sign" is evidence of recent passage across the land -- a tire track, a footprint, a broken branch. "Cutting" is the action that applies to it, whether searching, finding, or understanding. It is a high art. Antone described his work as "Come out here, cut for sign, maybe jump a load." He is a man of few words.

The land was green with mesquite, dense with desert scrub. We followed a dirt road past a white adobe chapel and a village of traditional houses with walls of spiny ocotillo plastered with mud. Later we came to more-typical cinder-block houses of the style built by the government on reservations throughout the West. We eased by a cow. A car passed, swirling dust. Antone peered at the driver, a woman he knew and suspected of occasional smuggling. He said, "I wonder where she's coming from." To stop her, he would have needed a reason to believe that she had just crossed the border.

A Gila monster waddled across the road. Antone said, "Second one I've seen this year. Last year didn't see any. Haven't seen any rattlesnakes this year. Seen a couple run over on the highway, but not out here on patrol."

We passed Papago Farms, a 3,000-acre irrigation project with a long and troubled history. The road grew rougher and dissolved into deep puddles still standing from the previous week's rain. We parked by the open border gate, where the road widened and continued south. I walked across the metal grate of the cattle guard into Mexico. The day was hot already, and I walked back across to the United States. Antone told me a story: When Customs tried to stop a pickup carrying a load, the driver turned around and raced for the gate. Antone blocked the gate with his truck. The driver sped right through the fence.

I thought, anyone would have. The fence is three strands of barbed wire strung between wooden posts. The purpose of the gate is to keep the fence intact. When Antone blocked it, he caused some poor cowboy an hour of cursing in the sun.

All day we followed the primitive dirt roads along the fence line and north through the desert pastures. Antone drove at walking speed with his head stuck outside, looking down, checking the dirt for tracks, cutting for sign. He told me more stories: We found fresh tracks and followed them through the desert, an hour, a day, two days. We jumped smugglers and arrested them, or we saw where they had been, but they were too fast for us, and got away. Once Antone said simply, "Last week a guy found five hundred pounds of coke under a tree."

Most of the cocaine that comes through Mexico and into the United States comes right through the ports of entry, concealed in truckloads of vegetables or seafood or anything else that Customs can examine only cursorily because it spoils in the heat. The smugglers guard the load from a distance, and often don't inform the truckers that they are hauling contraband. It is a good technique, likely to become better with the free-trade traffic. Marijuana, because of its bulk, is harder to conceal, and it goes around the ports. Some cocaine does too. For pickup trucks the most common entry is by dirt road across the reservation; the open gates and historic traffic make smuggling by the Indians difficult to detect. Drug organizations pay up to $5,000 a load, and find plenty of O'odham willing to take the risk. The most intricate procedure calls for "heat vehicles" equipped with radios to lead the loads and scout for trouble.

But the surest method is a string of backpackers walking for days through the desert. The packs are made of sugar sacks roped together, and weigh up to a hundred pounds. Increasingly, marijuana and cocaine are combined in a single trip. Led by a guide, perhaps supplied by prearranged caches of water and food, the backpackers walk the loads fifty miles north and hide them near state highways.

We drove on, the radio sometimes crackling with police talk. The best place to cut for sign is a loose-dirt road, smoothed and fluffed by recent rain. If you study the ground against a low sun, the tracks appear luminescent. Our conditions were different; the earth was packed, dry, and heavily traveled, and soon the sun was high. We saw hundreds of footprints, mostly old and irrelevant. I found them confusing.

Across one road that afternoon we found a group of new footprints. Antone studied them, frowning a little. He walked around them, and he crouched. He poked at the soil with the toe of his boot to check the depth and compare for freshness. He went out in the desert to see if the walkers had turned after crossing the road. They had not. He pointed and said, "They're guiding on that mountain." He counted fourteen people, and concluded they were immigrants.

I asked how he knew. He explained, They're going for speed, not caution; they have small feet, like Indians from Oaxaca; this one's wearing rubber-tire sandals; these are children; and look, here is a woman in high heels. He said they had crossed that morning, and he showed me the weathering that had just begun to soften the edges, and the bird tracks across the prints of a man's pointed street shoes.

Other immigrants are more careful about crossing the dirt roads. Some walk backward, to appear to be heading south. Some attach severed cows' hooves to their feet, and some attach horseshoes. One man was a pole vaulter, and left a mysterious indentation at the center of each road.

Smugglers leave a different record. They wear waffle-soled hiking shoes or smooth-bottomed sneakers, and they rest every quarter mile, setting down their heavy packs. They camp and sleep. Caution counts for more than speed; otherwise the load would have been sent by truck. The backpackers stick to low ground and the heaviest vegetation. They follow cattle trails, but otherwise do not walk in single file. When they come to a road, they disperse and cross it at widely different points, seeking hard and stony soil. They brush out their prints. Some wear carpet on their feet. But once the O'odham trackers are on to them, none of it helps. The trackers are persistent, and the slightest disturbance attracts their attention -- an overturned pebble, a bent blade of grass. The best among them can follow a trail across bare rock.

Antone discovered tire marks leading unexpectedly into the desert -- a pickup pulling a horse trailer. We followed the marks slowly through the brushland until we came to the place where the pickup had backed up and turned around. The ground showed that two horses had been unloaded and two men had mounted up. The horse tracks headed south and returned from an angle. Antone and I followed on foot. He moved with surprising agility for someone his size.

He said, "Probably a couple of cowboys, but I don't know who." After a half hour he said, "See how the tracks spread, like they were out looking for cattle?" He said, "Somebody else was out here too, cutting for sign, checking the area. Looks like Brian. But I noticed back there the trailer tracks were on top of his."

We came to a rock pile, climbed it, and found two empty Budweiser cans. Antone cut for sign south of the rock pile and found nothing. We followed the horse tracks back to where the trailer had been. As we drove away, Antone said quietly, "It was Arivicio and his man out looking for strays. Didn't find any. Brian noticed the tire tracks, found the trailer, went out on foot, ran into Arivicio on the way back. Sometime yesterday."

BUT no matter how well the Customs trackers read the land, the fact remains that they hardly slow the drug smugglers. I went south of the border to a meeting of O'odham and Mexican cowboys, who described trucks stacked high with marijuana bales, moving under armed guard to staging areas just south of the fence. I asked about Customs, and one man said,

"Day after day we see the dope going through the gates. Sometimes we see Customs."

The meeting had been called because of an increase in cattle rustling. Eight men gathered under a mesquite tree in Mexico, stirring the dirt with their toes, smoking and speaking softly, mixing words from three languages. During the long silences, when each man looked away, the desert intruded with buzzing flies and birds chirping in the bushes. The land was pale and hot and smelled faintly of dung. I asked an O'odham rancher from the reservation how many animals he had lost to rustlers. He wore a hat with a turned-down brim, and I could not see his eyes. He answered, "Last year I found about thirty tracks in four miles of fence. Just this week I heard a cow sounding like she was getting pulled by the neck."

"What do they do with the cows?"

He tilted his head and glanced pityingly at me. "Some they eat, some they keep. Some they butcher, and sell the meat."

Wondering how the loss of thirty cows affected him, I asked the size of his herd. He answered, "Sometimes we have drought and they die out. In a good year we ship quite a few. Hard to say how many are out there. We can't do it like the white man and count each one."

It was a good dodge; I had the feeling he knew the number within a calf or two.

The men weren't optimistic about stopping the rustling. One rancher had tried to organize regular patrols along the border fence, but had been restrained by threats to his family. Most of the rustlers are known -- Mexican cowboys who have gotten involved in the drug business, and who profit from the lawlessness to steal the occasional cow. To stop the rustling, the men agreed, you would have to stop the drug traffic.

One man, a Mexican who wanted to help, said, "I am convinced that in the state of Sonora nothing can be done about anything. The ranchers and drug traffickers have it under control. The army and police have sold out. And the men in power wouldn't appreciate it if we tried to go over their heads to Mexico City."

I said, referring to Salinas's attempts at reform, "But there are changes, real changes."

"And they will answer you, 'That's Mexico City. It will never get here.' These people are damned serious. They are fighting Salinas, and I think they will win."

An O'odham from a village to the south said, "The traffickers are organized, and they are ruthless. You are either with them or against them. The people are afraid. When they hear the trucks coming, they hide in their houses."

One night I sat through a storm and waited for traffic with a Customs Service tracker named Lambert Cross. Cross is a big man with an easy laugh. We were parked off the road in a four-wheel-drive Suburban, a mile north of the gate at San Miguel. Thunder ripped overhead, and lightning slashed the valley around us. To the north, water had risen in the arroyos, cutting off our return to Sells.

Cross was happy. He said that sound travels better after a rain, so you can hear an engine at two miles, and a truck crossing a cattle guard at five. In the meantime, since no smugglers would come across until the arroyos subsided, he played me a tape of old-timey music by an O'odham group, the Gu-achi Fiddlers. We listened to the "Tohono Special Polka," the "Second Time in San Xavier Two-Step," the "Pinto Bean Two-Step," and the "Cababi Polka," which is named after a village. He called it pascola music, a dying tradition, and said his brother-in-law is one of the greats. Cross himself plays guitar and sings gospel. Two years ago he played at the Indian National Finals, which is a big rodeo in Albuquerque. At my insistence we listened to a recording of him singing "He's My Lord and My King." Afterward he told me, "Jesus is my salvation."

Cross is forty-seven. He grew up on a small branch of the reservation along the Gila River. His family had eighteen horses for plowing and pulling wagons. Each night they were turned loose, and each morning before breakfast Cross went out to find them. By the age of ten he was an accomplished tracker. The family chopped mesquite, sold the wood, and with the money bought coffee, sugar, salt, bacon, and lard. Everything else they grew or hunted. They were so poor that they bought the children shoes two sizes too big and made them go barefoot when they came home from school. They had a radio, and at night they sat around it listening to The Lone Ranger.Afterward the grandfather tried to teach them traditional songs, which told the story of the world.

Cross was sent off to the big Indian boarding school in Riverside, California, where he was required to speak English. For lack of practice he forgot his grandfather's songs, and now he regrets that his granddaughter must learn them from someone other than himself. After graduating, Cross married, moved to Oakland, and went to work in factories. He drank heavily, almost lost his family, returned to the reservation, stopped drinking, and became a cop and a born-again Christian.

While he talked about his life, the rain ended and the storm rumbled off to the west. The wind was cool and damp; it smelled of wet earth, mesquite, a trace of skunk. Scattered clouds slid over a half-moon, and the desert darkened and brightened. The Baboquivari Mountains rose in a jagged black ridge above us; Cross spoke about I'itoi, the O'odham Creator, who is said to have lived among the peaks. A coyote began to yelp and howl, and the entire valley came alive with a thousand high-pitched answers. The singing lasted for minutes and suddenly died. Cross said, "When I'itoi was making people, he let Coyote help with the cooking. But Coyote didn't pay attention, and he undercooked some and made whites." Cross must have thought I needed more cooking. He handed me an Atomic Fireball, a peppery candy that burned in my mouth. I spit it out, and he laughed. He had a bag of Fireballs at his feet. He said they kept him alert during these lonely watches.

The Best Video Game in Town

IN government jargon the Customs Service's facility in Riverside, California, is known as C3I, for "command, control, communications, and intelligence." It is the home of the Customs Service's knowing eye, the border voyeur. The radar building is a low tan fortress on March Air Force Base, enclosed by fences and barbed wire, watched over by closed-circuit television cameras. The lobby is an armored room, where a uniformed guard questions visitors through thick glass. But the guard smiles easily, and has grown bored by the precautions.

The building hums with air-conditioning. It is well lit and heavily carpeted. The people who work there dress neatly and look like headquarters staff. Before letting me into the radar room, they cleared classified information from the computer consoles, hinting that it related to politically sensitive joint operations south of the border. Direct U.S. involvement in Mexican counternarcotics operations has increased in recent years, the theory being that an American presence will stiffen the resolve of dishonest Mexican police forces. President Salinas knows that if his reforms are to succeed, he must move effectively against corruption -- perhaps Mexico's most intractable problem. This is one way to do it, or at least, in the eyes of Washington, to appear to do it. But few Mexicans are comfortable with the idea of U.S. paramilitary forces roaming their territory, and many resent the presumption of American moral superiority.

The enthusiast who demonstrated Riverside's tracking system was a sharp-faced young radar operator who had learned his trade as an officer in the Air Force. I will keep the list of wonders short: The system can track 2,000 targets at a time. It looks deep into Mexico, combining returns from the balloons, air-traffic control, patrol airplanes, and the military. It superimposes those returns on ground maps that show the smallest dirt tracks. It picks up road traffic. It provides names, criminal records, traffic violations, and personal financial reports.

We sat for hours watching traffic move across the screen, and pulled up information at random on declared flight plans: the names of the pilots, where they lived, where they were going. The radar operator was absorbed in his work; he called the screen the best video game in town. We talked about ways to fool the tracking system. He said: You can slow an airplane to car speeds, stick to a Mexican highway, and then dash across the border. You can fly north in the shadow of a train and at the last moment break off. You can work a piggyback scheme with two airplanes, one declared and one not, flying in such close formation that they merge on radar. You can cross the border legally, avoiding suspicion with a flight plan, drop the load to a ground crew, and return to Mexico without touching down.

For each of these moves the radar operator had a countermove. He was a chess player. He could not, however, explain the logic of the moves that followed: as we watched, a target flying at 500 miles an hour streaked in from the south and landed on a ranch airstrip just below the Rio Grande, in the state of Coahuila. Like many ranches in northern Mexico, this one was a known staging area for drug runners. According to Riverside's maps, the runway there was dirt and barely 3,000 feet long -- short for what was clearly a small jet. He said, "It's incredible what those pilots can do." But physics governs flight, and there is no magic to performance: shoehorning an airplane requires only that you gamble. And the entire drug business, like any black market, thrives on risk. Risk eliminates small-time bunglers, restricts the competition, and keeps the profits up. The big drug organizations depend on Customs to help them with this.

Now a slower target took off from Del Rio, Texas, crossed the river, and flew into the field where the jet had landed. Riverside alerted a Customs flight crew. After ten minutes on the ground the two suspect airplanes took off from the ranch, turned north, went through the official border-crossing procedures, and landed back at Del Rio. They were met by Customs agents. We got word at Riverside: the jet was a French-made Falcon 10, and the slower airplane was a single-engine Cessna Centurion. Both appeared clean, but the Cessna pilot claimed that he had never seen the jet before. The agents started tearing the airplanes apart.

In Riverside the radar operator called up the performance specifications for the Falcon 10 and discovered that the airplane was missing from the data base. He did get the numbers for larger models, the Falcons 20 and 50. I glanced at the stated runway requirements: they were the most conservative possible figures, the lengths a pilot might calculate at maximum weight with company executives aboard, and they understated the real capabilities of the airplanes. No wonder in the eyes of the government the smugglers seem superhuman -- they do not play by the official rules.

I noticed the same tendency in Tucson: on nights when thunderstorms are raging and the balloons are down, the Citation crews are not expected to fly their random patrols. This is as it should be, since thunderstorms are dangerous. But the weather provides cover for smugglers who fly anyway, picking through the storms, taking risks with the mountains. In a perverse way, this pleases me: there are summer nights when the Arizona sky is still wild.

Del Rio found no drugs on the airplanes. Riverside entered the registration numbers into the suspect list, and I went for a sandwich with some of the agents. They complained about the ability of the smugglers to outmaneuver them, and the clumsiness of their own response. They blamed bureaucracy.

I said, But your role by definition is to wait; even your intelligence is just an attempt to predict your opponents' initiatives.

The assistant chief was not happy with my description. He wanted to use the word "proactive."

I asked if they felt restrained by the courts, and they said sure, but less now than before. The conversation turned to a congressional proposal floated several years ago that would have allowed Customs to shoot down suspect airplanes.

A slick-talking man said, "That was crazy. We make one mistake, take out one Mexican doctor with his family in a Bonanza.... " He shook his head at the thought of the consequences.

A burly helicopter pilot disagreed. "What mistake? You're up there looking in this guy's window, and hell, you seethe dope. And he flips you off. Or he does this ... " He sucked air and made a show of smoking a joint. "We've even had them drop their pants and moon us. They just laugh and head back to Mexico."

"There's nothing you can do?" I asked disingenuously.

"Not the way it is now."

Still, they had a couple of stories. One pilot raised a smuggler on the radio and said, "Land." The smuggler answered, "No way," and turned toward Mexico. The pilot radioed, "This is a joint operation. There's a Mexican federaleon board, and his people are waiting on the other side." So the smuggler landed, was arrested, and said, "Hey, that wasn't fair -- there was no federale on board." And the pilot said, "Fair?"

"Do you mean he was so afraid of the Mexican police?"

The helicopter pilot laughed. "Police, army ... Unless you've paid them off, they'll blow you out of your boots."

The slick man said, "Then they'll take your watch."

The next story was shorter: A Customs pilot pumped two rounds through a smuggler's wing. The smuggler landed.

Those were the old days, a decade ago, when Customs air was underfunded and the pilots were frustrated. Despite their grousing, they no longer are. The slick one admitted it. "Don't get us wrong. We've finally got the setup, and we're doing the job. Our traffic is down by sixty percent. We're getting better all the time. We feel pretty good about that."

They feel good because the job is compartmentalized. Their orders are to take the smugglers out of the air, to channel the traffic, to put it on the ground. The larger problem is beyond their control: Once you force the smugglers to the ground, they are harder to stop. If they can't fly the dope, they truck it in, or bring it on the backs of men. There are 400 million crossings of the border every year, and the future belongs to free trade.

  • Read the conclusion of Langewiesche's two-part article on the U.S.-Mexican border, from the June, 1992, issue of The Atlantic.


    The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to part one. Click here to go to part two.

    Copyright © 1992 by William Langewiesche. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; May 1992; The Border; Volume 269, No. 5; pages 53 - 92.

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