The mid-1990s saw a surge in illegal migrant traffic from Mexico to the United States in part due to a struggling Mexican economy exacerbated by a devalued peso in 1994. On the American side of the border, the result was a series of Border Patrol initiatives conducted along the Southwestern border–including Operation Safeguard in Arizona–intended to tamp down on the flow of illegal aliens through well-populated towns and cities.
These busy areas were attractive to would-be border crossers since it was easy to blend into the local, largely Latino population. As hundreds of new agents descended into metropolitan areas along the border as a result of these new initiatives, however, the only alternative became to cross through remote, dangerous territory such as Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.
The Immigration & Naturalization Service hoped such terrain would discourage mostly Mexican aliens from trying to cross illegally. That hope, however, quickly turned to illusion.
Operation Safeguard: Prevention Through Deterrence
Following the launch of the Border Patrol’s Operation Hold the Line in El Paso in 1993 and Gatekeeper in San Diego in 1994, Operation Safeguard launched in late 1994. It was the third initiative in a series of four initiatives (Operation Rio Grande would launch in South Texas in 1997) intended to bring down the flow of alien traffic driven by a philosophy known simply as “prevention through deterrence“.
Meaning, if you concentrate enough line agents in the towns and cities, and force border crossers to face sneaking into the United States through dangerous terrain, they will decide to stay home.
Unfortunately, the “deterrence” part of the equation did not work out as the INS creators hoped. The number of apprehensions of border crossers across nearly 2,000 miles of border rose a staggering 68 percent between 1994 and 2000, suggesting that the downward spiraling Mexican economy hurt too much and too few aliens were discouraged from crossing into the United States, despite the harsh landscape. The rising number of arrests does suggest, however, that the INS theory that aliens would be easier to detain out in the desert was, in fact true.
While this might have been perceived as one kind of success from a policy perspective–i.e. fewer individuals getting into the United States illegally–an unfortunate side effect was the skyrocketing personal risk to Mexican border crossers and the rising number of deaths of those crossing Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. The number of individuals who died crossing the desert in 1994 was 14. When 2000 rolled around, that number had jumped to 90. A year later, it was 145.
Operation Safeguard: A Surge of Line Agents
This was a public relations nightmare for the INS. Luis Alberto Urrea dedicated an entire book, The Devil’s Highway, to one particular group of border crossers who in May 2001 who died crossing the Sonoran Desert aided by a human smuggler. Their story was emblematic of the rising number of deaths that occurred throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s.
Operation Safeguard, which concentrated in the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector and the internationally split town of Nogales when it launched, became part of the challenge. In Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, Operation Safeguard was still going strong when new Border Patrol agent Billy Maddox gets stationed in 1999. The first scene of the novel shows him driving from his home in Sahuarita to Nogales for his first day on the job.
Operation Safeguard expanded the number of border agents in Tucson Sector more than five times from 1994 to 2000 to more than 1,500 agents. Billy Maddox became part of that demographic.
The journeyman agent responsible for taking Billy around, Carl Daniels, has a lot to say about Operation Safeguard. As he is driving Billy into downtown Nogales, he talks about all the agents stationed at standing posts around the city instead of actively patrolling different parts of town or the desert.
This irritated agents. No one liked standing around. In one scene, Billy is stationed downtown, bored out of his skull and standing in the boiling heat.
Billy shook his head now and pulled his cap lower over his eyes. It was three hours into his shift now. What was an agent supposed to do with this much nothing to do?
Fortunately for him, he is interrupted by a local citizen who has spotted a group of men emerging from a deserted house on a nearby street. The discovery of a tunnel running under the border fence with illegal migrants pouring through that house on the American side takes away Billy’s tedium really fast.
Death in the Desert: When There is Nowhere Left to Cross
But Carl also alludes to the more serious impact of Operation Safeguard, which was the growing number of migrant deaths, as discussed above. When he and Billy are sign cutting off South Sasabe Road (Route 286), he and Billy have this exchange.
Carl leaned against the truck. He suddenly looked disgusted. “You know, I’ve cut sign for years and this isn’t the first time I’ve ever done something like this. But it kills me to think about all the activity out here while those agents back in Nogey are just sitting on their hills reading War and Peace and waiting for border crossers to tumble into their arms.”
“You don’t sound too keen on Safeguard.”
“Never have been. But I’m not some fancy-shmancy politician in Washington calling the shots and thinking he knows better than I do behind his desk.” He shook his head. “It’s why the desert is getting all this traffic. It’s why all these people are dying. The only people who care are those who have lost someone. Fuck.”
Carl has a personal reason for being pretty frustrated with the number of people dying, which I won’t mention since it would be a spoiler. And Carl is just a fictional character as well. But his attitude is also indicative of the real-life Tucson Border Patrol Chief Ron Sanders who made the public admission that Safeguard was not solving any problems.
As quoted in an article, Samaritans in the Desert, that appeared in The Nation in May 2003, Sanders says he is astonished the deaths that occurred didn’t bring into question the Border Patrol initiatives of the 1990s. “…you’re killing people. If you had airplanes crashing in this country with the same numbers, you’d have everybody after the FAA. But since these people are Mexicans, no one seems to care. Somebody ought to be looking at them and saying, ‘Why aren’t you saving these lives?’”
Billy Maddox has his own reasons for joining the Border Patrol that have nothing to do with increasing border traffic. But by the time he joins, he enters a world where a strong concentration of agents and resources on the border has increased the number of arrests and also led to increasing numbers of alien deaths.