Half an hour after the Border Patrol’s call for help, Schaefer steers around the burned-out shell of a van sitting in the middle of the road. Drug smugglers ram 500-pound loads of dope through the refuge, scarring the land with ghost roads.

The smugglers have increased their armaments in recent years. "They’re better equipped than we are. They have firepower, numbers, and drugs." In January 2005, gunmen fired automatic weapons at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter pilot in the refuge when he landed to track footprints. In March, agents discovered observation posts, complete with shade structures and sleeping bags, overlooking a Border Patrol encampment in the refuge, Schaefer says.

"You’ve got to be ready for anything out here now," Schaefer says. And he is: Armed with a .40-caliber Glock, night-vision goggles, bulletproof vest, and a small arsenal in his truck, Schaefer has a plan for the day he comes under fire. "I think I’m a better shot," he laughs, "so hypothetically, I can run away for a little while. Then, fire, move. Fire, move."

He won’t need these tactics today, though. After over an hour of driving, Schaefer finally finds the Border Patrol agent. Grinning with relief and gripping his steel baton tightly, the agent leads Schaefer to his captives. They were sleeping under the branches of a mesquite tree when he found them. Someone in the group with desert smarts had snapped off creosote branches to surround the tree’s outer limbs, making a canopy that concealed 24 people. Four others hide inside a second canopy.

Crouched inside, Leonardo Montero tells a familiar tale. He couldn’t find decent work in Chiapas, Mexico, but family arranged a job for him in Los Angeles. He arrived at the border in Sonora four days ago, joining a group of immigrants who walked 35 miles in two days.

He might try crossing again, might not. "I can’t say," he says quietly.

Another hour passes; two more Border Patrol vehicles arrive. The immigrants crawl out from under the trees and climb into the backs of the waiting trucks. But even as they are hauled back across the border, thousands of others are successfully crossing, making their way into the United States.

Among them, says Schaefer, are murderers, carjackers and gang members. Catching just one dangerous criminal makes the whole game "totally worth it," he says. As for immigration enforcement beyond the borderlands, Schaefer sees it as woefully inadequate.

"It’s like a game of capture-the-flag. They cross through here, or Texas, or California, and get to Phoenix and, ‘I’m safe!’ All enforcement stops within 80 miles of the border. So, if you make it through that, you’re golden.

"You saw all those marches," he says. "What percentage of those people was illegal? Did you see any Border Patrol or immigration enforcement buses out there ready to process them? No."


This story is a sidebar to the feature:

The Immigrant's Trail

This special issue of High Country News takes an on-the-ground look at the human landscape of illegal immigration in the West