COLUMBUS, N.M. - Ninety years ago, this New Mexico border town was the flashpoint for the last significant raid on the continental United States before the terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. Now it is hosting some of the first National Guard members who are helping to make the border between the United States and Mexico more secure.
After 500 guerillas led by Gen. Francisco "Pancho" Villa killed 10 Columbus residents and 14 Soldiers on March 9, 1916, thousands of U.S. Army troops descended on the dusty settlement three miles north of Mexico.
Led by Gen. John Pershing, they hunted Villa. The U.S. Cavalry first used motorized vehicles and airplanes in combat during what proved to be its last campaign.
Now, New Mexico Guard Soldiers in the 2nd Battalion, 200th Infantry Regiment are using trucks and helicopters while conducting a peaceful mission: Helping Border Patrol agents tighten the country's southern border against illegal immigrants as part of Operation Jump Start.
The Border Patrol is part of Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security. Agents patrol 19 sectors in the continental United States – four of them along the U.S. border with Mexico.
"We are not militarizing this area," insisted Staff Sgt. Harold Baker, 29, as he watched the border in the 97 degree heat from Johnson Mountain in southern New Mexico in mid-June. "We're saving lives – literally.
"The more people we can stop here from trying to cross 30 miles of desert with only a gallon of water, [the more] we're saving lives," Baker said.
Thirty-one people died in the Border Patrol's El Paso Sector this year through June 9, according to news reports.
For the Soldiers of the 2nd Battalion, annual training meant taking part in Operation Jump Start thanks to President George W. Bush's decision to send up to 6,000 National Guard members to help watch the international border from California to Texas.
About 6,000 National Guard troops are expected to be on the border by Aug. 1. The mission could continue for up to two years while the Border Patrol increases its force from about 11,000 agents to about 17,000.
Leading the way
The 185 men and women of the New Mexico battalion are among units leading the way for Jump Start. The lessons they learn will help other units. Their cooperation with Border Patrol agents and local residents will set the tone. They're helping to write the procedures for future Soldiers and Airmen to follow.
"This battalion has been in the middle of the biggest events in this country's history," said Lt. Col. Eric Judkins, the commander.
The 200th Infantry is descended from the 200th Coast Artillery which earned four U.S. Presidential Unit Citations and a Philippine Presidential Unit Citation during its gallant defense of the Philippines in 1941-42. Known as the "Battling Bastards of Bataan," they were forced to surrender to the Japanese in April 1942. The survivors suffered terribly during the death march and interment that followed.
That tradition of service and sacrifice continues today. About 15 percent of the 2nd Battalion's Soldiers have served in Iraq; about 25 percent pulled homeland security missions; around 60 percent deployed for Hurricane Katrina; and, through June 17, some 30 percent had volunteered to extend their Operation Jump Start duties for up to a year.
"That just shows the heart of these Soldiers," Judkins said. "They are staying motivated because they know it's an important mission. They know they're contributing to the security of the border."
The unit started annual training June 10 and was scheduled to go home to Las Cruces, N.M., June 24. The Soldiers were to be replaced with other units, building up to about 500 on the border in New Mexico by Aug. 1, according to Lt. Col. Kimberley Lalley, the New Mexico Guard's spokesperson.
"New Mexico's plan is to continue what we've started here and then grow the mission out," Judkins said.
Immigration is a fixture of daily life for southern New Mexico residents.
Traffic merges into one lane and filters through an inspection station near mile marker 121 on Interstate 10 that leads west from the Border Patrol's El Paso Sector headquarters.
"Are you a United States citizen?" a Border Patrol agent asks. "Is this a rental car? … How far are you going today, sir? … Have a good day."
All traffic stops for a similar checkpoint at mile marker 13 on Highway 11, which runs from the border with Mexico through Columbus and 30 miles north to Deming.
The Guard members work in support roles, freeing Border Patrol agents to screen or intercept more people. The Guard provides a highly visible deterrent.
"We've fully integrated with Border Patrol," Judkins said. "It is truly a team effort."
Operations run around the clock, every day, and are divided into three overlapping shifts. Activities vary. Twenty people were sighted and the Border Patrol apprehended 13 on June 16. Seventeen were spotted the next day, but none were apprehended, according to records tracked at the Deming National Guard Armory.
The Guard unit counted 325 sightings through June 19, and Border Patrol agents had apprehended 121 people.
Soldiers and agents say there's an element of cat and mouse to watching the border. As troops help lower incursions in one trouble spot, activity moves elsewhere.
Troops use surveillance techniques. So do smugglers, who set up their own observation posts, sometimes on the U.S. side of the border, and try to learn the Guard's and the Border Patrol's tactics and routines. A network of people smugglers – known as coyotes – and drug runners even conduct their own probes of border defenses.
"We are intimately familiar with the border issues," Judkins said. "It is intrinsically more important to us than it is to a lot of other states. It's hard to understand the magnitude of the problem without seeing 184 miles of open desert."
In southern New Mexico there is no river to separate the countries. Often there is not even a fence. In places, the border is defined by parallel dirt roads on each side of a slight berm or depression.
On June 18, Spc. Griselda Rivera watched the border from a skybox on Radar Hill. The 24-year-old criminal justice student from Las Cruces has volunteered to extend her stay beyond her two weeks of annual training.
"The purpose of the mission motivated me to volunteer," Rivera said. "I feel proud to help out the Border Patrol – to be here for them and for my country."
The landscape Rivera surveys from an armored, air-conditioned box has a harsh beauty – sharp rock ridges punctuating flat desert where dust devils pick up sand and race across the horizon.
Irrigated crops on the 100,000 acre Johnson ranch that borders Mexico make a bright patch of green on the dusty tan landscape. Locals say that one settlement immediately south of the border serves as a stopping point for would-be immigrants and smugglers.
Migrants walk through prickly pear cacti and thorny mesquite bushes, sometimes carrying backpacks or water jugs.
Staff Sgt. William Duffer was the noncommissioned officer in charge of Rivera's position. "Everybody here's been real great, so it's been kind of easy for me," the Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran said.
Duffer dropped bottled water into an ice chest and contemplated what he would tell a Soldier or Airman volunteering to support Operation Jump Start who has never been to the border.
"It takes a few days to get used to the heat," he said. "They need to start getting a lot of water into them a week or two in advance. Your hands and you lips get dry. The wind and dust just thrash your nose and eyes and everything else. When the wind kicks up a little bit, it's like … when you open an oven."
Agents' eyes and ears
When Rivera sees something from her skybox, she calls the Border Patrol. The National Guard does not apprehend people. It gathers intelligence to help the Border Patrol agents who will deter the migrants or detain them.
Then Rivera calls a Guard field tactical operations center situated in a camouflage net next to the Columbus Border Patrol office.
Spc. Jacob Bermudez receives reports in the traditional SALUTE format, adapted to Operation Jump Start.
Size: How many migrants?
Activity: Were the migrants being dropped off? Walking? Driving?
Location: Where were they?
Uniform: What were they wearing?
Time: When were they seen?
Equipment: Did the migrants have backpacks? Water jugs? Knives?
Bermudez also receives reports of blown tires or field equipment that requires maintenance.
"We're the problem solvers," said the 19-year-old from Alamogordo, N.M., who enlisted because of the impression the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks made on him when he was still in high school.
"I like doing it," Bermudez said. "We're really helping out here."
Reports say the cost to be smuggled in a car or guided across the border has increased since the Guard members arrived.
"Seeing us has an impact," Judkins said.
Bermudez has volunteered to stay an extra year.
The Guard members at the field operations center also are helping to make sense of individual intelligence reports. What are the patterns? What areas stand out as particularly vulnerable? Are there daily or seasonal variations in the number of attempts to cross the border illegally?
For the Soldiers in the field, shifts start with a briefing at the Deming Border Patrol Station where supervisors brief Guard members and Border Patrol agents about the latest sightings, weather, and logistics or communications issues. A Border Patrol slogan declares the station "America's frontline."
Deming has had the highest immigrant traffic in the Border Patrol's El Paso sector and the third highest in the nation, according to news reports. The migrants are trying to work their way north to Deming and Interstate 10.
The New Mexico Guard Soldiers have focused on 24 miles of border where crossings were particularly high.
Support for the Border Patrol also takes place back at the Deming National Guard Armory where dozens of Soldiers sleep on cots.
First Lt. Gary Stewart commands the 729th Field Support Company that provides the cooks, maintenance, transportation and fuel for the 2nd Battalion, 200th Infantry Soldiers and for the Border Patrol.
Unit members have refueled Border Patrol vehicles, pulled a truck out of the desert sand, loaned a generator and worked side-by-side with agents maintaining vehicles.
"Just in logistical support alone, the Border Patrol is seeing a result," Stewart said.
Lessons learned will help future troop rotations. For example, Stewart moved a maintenance team closer to the border to reduce the down time for vehicles and equipment by having mechanics closer to the action.
"There's numerous ways we've assisted," Staff Sgt. Martin Serna said as he worked on a Humvee. "Not only on border security, but also with the maintenance of the vehicles. Any little bit makes a difference."