Austen led the search at sunset.
He walked through the southern Arizona desert looking left and right with his nose close to the ground.
Austen, a groenendael, or Belgian shepherd, sped through brush, tall weeds and rocky trails, leading Border Patrol agents to bags and sacks used to smuggle drugs. But the drugs, and those who transported them, were long gone.
The drug spot is close to a dirt road not far from a house south of Green Valley.
Agents said the area is known as a meeting point for people carrying drugs across the border and drivers who take them north.
What Austen smelled was drug residue left on the bags used to carry drugs, most likely 25 to 50 pounds of marijuana.
The canine unit is one of the Border Patrol’s tools for finding people and drugs smuggled across the border.
The Tucson sector has more than 70 dogs as part of its K-9 unit.
“We are seeing an increase in dogs in our sector, helping us get to situations faster and screen vehicles much quicker,” Border Patrol spokesman Michael Scioli said.
So far this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, agents in the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, which has about 3,100 agents, have arrested 281,201 people trying to cross the border illegally. That’s a 26 percent decrease from this time last year, when there were 378,239 arrests, Scioli said.
Last year agents seized 897,535 pounds of marijuana and more than 177 pounds of cocaine. This year they have seized 720,121 pounds of marijuana and more than 70 pounds of cocaine, Scioli said. Not all of those seizures are the result of dogs.
At least one dog is always working at the Interstate 19 checkpoint, which is a high-traffic stop.
Michael Lawler, Tucson sector K-9 coordinator, said checkpoints are the most difficult environment for dogs to work in because of the distractions.
“There’s wind, distracting odors, agents working around them, other dogs and, of course, the 1,500 vehicles that drive by every hour,” he said.
One of the sector’s top dogs – which agents did not want to name for security purposes – has found 42,889 pounds of marijuana with a street value of $34 million, 249 pounds of cocaine valued at $8 million, 10 pounds of methamphetamine worth $300,000, 1,500 suspected illegal immigrants and $70,000 in cash since 2001.
Lawler didn’t want to provide more details on how the dogs are used because he said smugglers use that information to adjust their smuggling tactics.
In the past couple of months, agents have come across false alarm signals from their dogs at the checkpoints.
Christopher Jbara, an agent and K-9 instructor, said he was recently working the checkpoint with Brita, his 3-year-old dog, when she alerted him to a car.
“We searched the car thoroughly and found nothing.”
He said the car had most likely been contaminated on one side of the border or the other and it was likely the driver was not aware.
“They do this so my dog hits the smell, forcing us to pull the car over for a second inspection, while the car with the load tries to sneak by a few cars behind,” Jbara said.
The contamination could have come from a small amount of marijuana left on the car, cocaine residue or water from a bong used to smoke marijuana.
“Any little residue and my dog will alert me to it,” Jbara said.
He said the car’s windshield had been washed by a window washer on the street before crossing the border, and the water used to clean it could have been contaminated with bong water.
“We have no confirmation of how these cars are being contaminated, but we are checking each car, and when our dogs alert us, we check the cars behind it, too.”
Every dog in the canine unit is trained to find both drugs and people.
“I couldn’t even try to explain how these dogs find that one concealed person in a van full of people, but they do,” said Lawler.
“That’s the part of the job an agent couldn’t do alone. That’s why we have these dogs working with us every day,” Lawler said.
The Border Patrol is neither breed- nor sex-specific when it comes to buying or breeding their dogs.
“It’s all up to the dog’s drive,” said Robert Lukason, staff instructor of the U.S. Border Patrol National Canine Facility.
Each dog working for the Border Patrol has gone through an extensive training program that starts as early as eight weeks after birth.
After the “puppy test,” dogs are tested at four, seven, 11 and 14 months, then begin the 10-week training program, said Lukason, who is in charge of training at least 150 dogs per year at the national training center in El Paso.
The dogs are trained to work along the U.S. borders with Canada and with Mexico. This year, 650 dogs are working nationwide with the Border Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The working life of the dogs varies depending on their location.
Some dogs work in the field, even in mountain areas. Others work at checkpoints. For the most part, they work from seven to nine years, Lukason said.
“The fitness level of these dogs doesn’t compare to a house dog,” he said. “These dogs are trained to work hard, long hours almost every day.”
Lawler’s dog, Baldo, is a 92-pound, 6-year-old Belgian malinois and German shepherd mix. He has helped agents find 20,000 pounds of marijuana, 8 ounces of cocaine and 560 people since the end of 2004.
“We spend most of the day with our dog. They live with us, and they work with us,” Jbara said. “I end up spending more time with my dog than with my family sometimes.”