IMPERIAL SAND DUNES, Calif. – As the U.S. tries to wall off the border with Mexico to stop illegal immigration, there is a glaring hole where Arizona, California and Mexico intersect, a notorious drug corridor that agents are desperately trying to fix.
The Imperial Sand Dunes Recreation Area is a geographical anomaly, a network of sand dunes stretching 45 miles from northern Baja Mexico into parts of the two border states. On weekends the area can attract more than 100,000 visitors in ATVs, dune buggies and sand rails.
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Off-roaders love the terrain in the unmarked wilderness area, and they frequently drive their recreational vehicles across the border into Mexico without incident. Desert winds shift the sands and often cover their tracks.
Drug smugglers have taken note, and are dressing up in the full leather gear and masks used by the off-roaders. They blend in with the crowd, carrying kilos of cocaine and marijuana in their ATVs and SUVs.
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"We have alien smugglers and narcotic smugglers that try to mix in with legitimate folks and try to hide their activities so they can get up to the border," said Paul Beeson, chief of the Yuma sector for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. "They are wearing the same helmets just like legitimate traffic, the same sport ATVs, and they are driving the same vehicles."
While the number of illegal immigrants arrested in Yuma, Ariz., is down dramatically from 56,085 in 2006 to just 5,159 this year, smugglers in the dunes have proven stubbornly persistent. Last year, agents intercepted 48,000 pounds of drugs in the area, mostly marijuana. But not without a cost.
In January, two drug runners, one in a Hummer and another in a Ford F-150, were racing to the border and veered into Agent Luis Aguilar as he tried to lay a spike strip. Aguilar died at the scene, leaving behind a wife and two children. Just one week earlier, police had seized 91 ATVs and dirt bikes in nearby Mexicali used to move narcotics through the dunes.
Some have proposed closing 8,000 acres of the recreation area, but off-roaders don’t want to lose their already-dwindling playground.
"I am a huge supporter of getting the border secured," said Lisa Markley, from Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. "But it really gets me upset they are not only breaking the law coming into this country, but they are putting me in danger. I think it is important to keep this open for everyone, but I really would rather go home at the end of week rather than in a hospital or body bag."
With a newly erected triple border fence in San Luis, Ariz., credited with knocking down human traffic, Beeson has beefed up the sand dunes area with ATV teams and 25 agents.
Border agents have plugged the hole for now, given that the busy season is over, Beeson said. He hopes an additional ground radar system coming later this year will help separate America’s weekend warriors from Mexican cartels waging war on our southern border.