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|Other side of the wall|
|Written by Kevin G. Andrade|
|Thursday, 08 March 2012 02:27|
NOGALES, Sonora— After 20 minutes of climbing a dusty, rocky trail on a steep gradient, the orange truck finally reached the summit of Diamond Mountain.
“Here is the beauty of Nogales,” said Rafael Camacho, the head of Grupo Beta Nogales, as he and another agent Leocadio Velázquez stepped out to survey the terrain.
Holding vigil at a mountain summit, Grupo Beta continues in the mission of helping migrants as it has for 21 years, following their motto of “vocation, humanitarianism and loyalty.” Beta’s mission of assistance aims at saving lives caught in the middle.
Grupo Beta is a Mexican federal entity that was founded in 1991 as a sort of Border Patrol. Unlike the U.S. Border Patrol, however, this group’s mission is not to detain migrants but to help them.Beta itself is not a police force. The Mexican government does have military as well as municipal, state and federal police officers stationed along the border to staunch the flow of drugs and its accompanying violence up north.
Beta looks for paramedical training among their recruits. First aid is a must as an agent but they are also specialized in water and air rescues.
The group provides services to migrants, such as medical help, search, rescue and shelter for up to three days. In Nogales alone, they provided services to 18,143 migrants in 2011.
Velázquez has been an agent with Beta for the past 13 years. Like others in the force, he had spent much of his life in the service of municipal and state police. The first impression of Velázquez shows him to be a very serious man; however, his warm side, the sincerity and the passion that he has for his job becomes obvious.
Driving through the twists and turns and crazy drivers of Nogales, Velázquez talks about his reasons for joining Grupo Beta, saying, “The police go after the criminals, but what about the victims and their families? They don’t look after them after the crime has been processed. Here, we do that.”
After a trip of about 10 minutes, we arrive at the Alberge (Shelter) San Juan Bosco, a Catholic men’s shelter that the Beta’s work with in the city of Nogales. Women are housed at another facility. Here, passing migrants will be allowed a place to stay for three nights. After having spent the night in the shelter, they gather for an orientation session with Beta. Their need for a shower becomes evident as they pack into the room.
“I know what your problems are,” Velázquez tells them during a 20-minute orientation before a trip to a kitchen run by the Kino Border Initiative, a Jesuit organization dedicated to aiding migrants and deportees. “After you have breakfast, we’ll be able to help you with whatever other needs you may have. But breakfast comes first.”
He also does his best to ensure that one other fact is made clear: any aid involving transit is to get back home, not to facilitate arrival in the U.S.
“Our job is to let you know what you will face if you attempt to cross,” emphasizes Velázquez.
One migrant, from Jalisco, raises his hand, his face sunburnt from days on the journey. He speaks of how he has family in Tijuana willing to take him in and that he would like to stay with them for a while, asking if he can get a bus ticket there.
Velázquez responds, “Our program includes providing you with aid and the necessary tools to get you back home. Our program is not looking to try and help you to cross the border.”
To prove his point, he tells the tale of how one migrant arrived at Beta with his feet near destroyed. He was nursed back to health and given a discounted bus ticket. He then used it to get to Altar where he attempted the crossing again. He did manage to cross the border, but soon died in the Arizona desert.
Indeed, the migrant experience is not an easy one.
“On the way up here, we’ve only had bad experiences,” recounts Oscar Águilar, a migrant from Jalisco who was on U.S. territory mere hours before being detained by the Border Patrol. “We all have hurt our feet. He injured his ankle. He hurt his knee,” pointing to members of his group as he recounted the injuries they had suffered.
Such tales are not uncommon, although these are not the worst that can happen to a person. At the end of the day, these men are alive and their spirits are intact. Soon after hearing these tales, we drove to the Kino Soup Kitchen and all got out from the back of the truck to have their meal.
Later on in the day, Camacho driving a Jeep, with Velázquez following along in the truck, drive down a desert trail to the west of the city. The air is still and dry. As the patrol continues, the dust kicked up by the vehicle wheels clogs the air. All of a sudden, a black dot appears in the distance, and as the Beta driver gets closer, they notice a man walking.
“We’re going to pull over here and let the truck go ahead,” Camacho says.
Velázquez hits the gas on the pickup and passes Camacho, faster than it should on such a rocky road, and then comes to a stop near the man. Velázquez gets out of his truck and checks on the man’s condition.
“No,” he responds, “I stopped and they went on without me.”
Velazquez continues. “Did you tire out or did you just know you wouldn’t make it in those shoes?”
His shoes have almost completely disintegrated. Yet there he was, in the middle of the desert walking toward the city of Nogales, where the nearest help was most likely to be found.
“They use this road often,” says Camacho. “They do it to get around the border.”
The main problem with traveling in the desert is the lack of water. Many people die from thirst. But on this path there are two water stations placed by Humane Borders, a faith based organization out of Tucson and one with whom Beta works closely.
It is difficult to pass through this area in a Jeep. Migrants do not have that luxury. Up until the last decade, the most commonly used route went through the more urban areas of the border but with the U.S. construction of a border wall and the addition of more Border Patrol agents, this has changed.
“Migrants are always going to try to cross,” Camacho says, “The heightened security only makes people go farther out of their way, into the unpopulated areas, where there are fewer agents.”
Of course the more isolated the territory, the less likely they will find other people. In this harsh environment, filled with canyons, mountains and arroyos, blue flags line the path. It directs walkers to water stations and also lets them know that the area is patrolled by Beta.
Of these strategic points, the highest is Diamond Mountain, a journey of an hour and a half by Jeep from the city of Nogales. The climate up here is windy and chilly. From its garbage-strewn summit, one can see Tucson, plus the miles of desert between here and there and the accompanying ups and downs of the terrain. The difficulties of passage are all too evident from this vantage point.
Once at the top, Camacho and Velázquez take their time and scan the horizon looking for any signs of activity. Some days the action is great and some days, such as today, it is light. In one of those moments of lull, Agent Velázquez recalls some of his experiences with Grupo Beta.
“It was either my second or third day here when a group of migrants who had just spent the night in the desert passed by. Amongst them was a woman who carried a baby in her arms, and he was clearly very cold. Everyone had tried to cover it up in with their blankets. So the next morning they all arose and she went to breast feed her child. That’s when she found that he had died overnight.”
“Of all the stories I’ve heard, that one touched me most of all,” he said.
Camacho has his own theory as to why with all the ordeals facing them, people still come to this area.
“All of these people have the same dream, the American dream. Whether the dream is real or not that is their reason for making the trip, to obtain a better life.”