USMC Color Guard - Mounted on BLM Mustangs
Immigration enforcement and drug smuggling continue to be top priorities for the Department of Homeland Security, and the Border Patrol's budget has swelled accordingly.
They've added more agents, more technology, and higher fences.
increasing from just $262,647 in 1990
Despite such progress, human smugglers and drug traffickers have simply pushed further into mountainous, difficult terrain to avoid detection.
That's where horses come in.
Since the Border Patrol was founded in 1924, horseback patrols have been widely utilized. In fact, mounted patrols are said to have begun as early as 1904, in El Paso, where men on horseback policed against Chinese immigrants. Horse patrol units now exist along the border in various sectors, through California, Arizona, and Texas
Horse patrols are specialized work. Of the 2,600 or so agents in the border patrol's San Diego sector, only 18 work in the horse unit. That's a big change since the Border Patrol began in 1924. Horses were then its primary mode of transport.
The region is isolated and mountainous. Agents say horses have several advantages over vehicles, including lasting longer, better visibility and greater accessibility on difficult terrain. Ranchers in the area often prefer horses on their land to trucks or ATVs.
And agency-wide, the use of horses is apparently on the rise. According to statistics on the Customs of Border Patrol website, in 2011, there were 334 horse units in the Border Patrol. That's a 33 percent rise from 2008.
In the San Diego sector's horse unit, just 10 of the 75 agents who recently applied to join the horse unit were accepted for training, Cluff said, and eight graduated.
"You can go into an area at night on horseback and practically go undetected, which is a big advantage in what we do," said Jaime Cluff, a supervisory Border Patrol agent.
Bolstering border security, including horse patrols, is a key part of the comprehensive immigration reform bill debate in Congress. The San Diego sector's planned expansion of its horse unit is not part of that bill, but future expansion hinges on its fate in Congress.
In June, the Senate passed a bill calling for $46 billion more over 10 years for border security. The money would support hiring more agents and horse patrols, using 24-hour surveillance systems and building 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Border Patrol's annual budget for fiscal 2012 was $3.5 billion.
And more U.S. citizens than ever before are now being caught smuggling, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting. In fact, 75 percent of people caught with drugs by the Border Patrol are U.S. citizens, according to the report. It examined 40,000 seizures and suspect information, and drew the conclusion that 80 percent had involved U.S. citizens. The rate has increased every year from 2005 until 2011.
Peter Nunez, a former U.S. attorney in San Diego, says that border security should remain a priority. Nunez attributes the drop in arrests to the recession and its effect on the job market.
"There are still hundreds of thousands of people coming to this country illegally every year," Nunez said, calling drug smugglers and terrorists part of the problem. "So, the border's not secure, and there's plenty of work to do."
OROVILLE, Wash. - Astride sturdy mustangs named Okanogan and Spurs, US Border Patrol agents Darrel Williams and Justin Hefker ride quietly along a ridgeline above the Similkameen River valley.
The mustangs are among a dozen the Border Patrol's Spokane Sector has bought to patrol a 308-mile-long section of the US-Canadian border from the crest of the Cascade Range in Washington state to the Continental Divide in Montana.
"The reason we went with the horses was to get into those hard-to-reach areas," said the patrol's assistant chief of the region, Agent Lee Pinkerton.
The Border Patrol, a division of the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection service, routinely uses horses on the southern border with Mexico. But the mustangs owned by the Spokane Sector are the first to watch the northern border, said Pinkerton.
The Border Patrol's "Operation Noble Mustang" adopts horses from the US Bureau of Land Management's wild horse and burro program, blending today's technology with yesterday's law enforcement traditions, the agency said.
On a recent day, Richard Graham, agent-in-charge of the Border Patrol station in Oroville, rides along as his agents patrol a small section of the border. The avid horseman sings the praises of mustangs and their ability to patrol the border with minimal environmental damage.
In the valley below, aspen, cottonwoods, and a few pine flank the river that flows from Canada into the United States. Along the river is a Prohibition-era dirt "whisky trail" that shows recent activity from modern smugglers bringing different contraband, most likely potent "B.C. Bud" marijuana, from Canada.
The mustangs' big bones and large hoofs give them a sure-footedness that makes them a perfect fit for scaling the steep hillsides and thick forests along the border, Graham said. They also have less of an impact on the fragile wilderness ground than motorized vehicles, he said.
"These horses are truly American. They are a product that's unique to the United States, and we are putting them in a position to help us protect the US," Pinkerton said. "There's something inherently right in doing that."
The BLM Freeze Brand
The patrol contracts with local ranchers to board and feed the animals. Because they are owned by the government, the agency saves money it used to spend on leasing horses from local ranchers, Pinkerton said.
The mustangs were rounded up in the BLM wild horse adoption program, broken by inmate wranglers at a Colorado prison, then sent to the Border Patrol's Colville station in Washington state for final training.
Graham's station is responsible for an 80-mile stretch of border that includes about 50 miles of the Pasayten Wilderness Area, a 529,477-acre tract where motorized vehicles are prohibited and there are few roads.
Along the Spokane sector, agents also patrol the smaller Salmo-Priest wilderness of northeastern Washington state, as well as Montana's Glacier National Park, where it abuts Canada's Waterton Lakes National Park.
Graham's station has four mustangs, as well as three mules and a handful of horses leased from local ranches. Others are assigned to stations in Metaline Falls and Curlew in Washington state, as well as Whitefish, Mont.
Law enforcement aircraft have limited use in the wild, Pinkerton said. It is difficult to see people hiding beneath the tree canopy, and wilderness laws limit how low aircraft can fly, he said.
"We're going back to the 1800s style of doing this because it is successful," he said. "On the ground, a horse is going to be the best mode of transportation in those areas."
Agents on horseback look for signs of border crossings and watch for low-flying aircraft that drug smugglers are increasingly using.
The drawbacks are the heavy snow that keeps horses out of some high country areas for months at a time during winter, and the spring runoff, which makes some creeks and streams impassable, Pinkerton said. But those natural hazards also keep smugglers out, he said.
The need for the mustangs became more urgent after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Graham said. Previously, the Border Patrol's focus in the area was rounding up illegal workers in orchards. Now the threat of terrorists sneaking in is a bigger concern.
Command Sgt. Maj. David Hudson, right, and Lt. Gen. H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, and the chief's senior enlisted advisor, ride Border Patrol horses during a visit to the U.S. border with Mexico near Columbus, N.M. Photo by Sgt. Jim Greenhill, USA
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