Arrival of the elite Border Patrol unit signals change in tactics
The unprecedented effort includes covert officers from a celebrated unit and will draw on 200 extra agents, for a total of 2,000 in this sector.
By GABRIELA RICO
Members of the Border Patrol’s covert tactical team are set to take the lead in the longest and most intense desert operation ever seen on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Officials are looking to these BORTAC agents to repeat last year’s performance in which a 30-man team accounted for more than 20 percent of illegal immigrant apprehensions during a 120-day mission.
In previous years, the Border Patrol stepped up its presence during deadly summer months. This year’s campaign is expected to start earlier and last longer than previous efforts and will include a “large contingent” of BORTAC agents, the unit’s commander, Kevin W. Oaks, said, declining to give numbers.
And these efforts could effectively seal the Arizona-Mexico border, said Gus De La Viña, the nation’s Border Patrol chief.
“We will continue to build Arizona up until we can control the border,” he said during a visit to Tucson last week. “We’ve got an excellent shot at shutting down that border.”
To complement BORTAC, more than 200 regular patrol agents will be sent to the Tucson sector, bringing the number of agents in the area to more than 2,000, De La Viña said.
The Department of Homeland Security is working with Mexican officials to start a repatriation program under which people caught crossing the border in Arizona would be returned to the interior of Mexico. Illegal immigrants now are dropped off in Mexican cities along the border, including Nogales and Agua Prieta, Son.
More than 200 remote video surveillance systems will be added along the borders, said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security, at a congressional subcommittee hearing last month.
The “real-time,” remotely controlled cameras provide 24-hour coverage and detect border intrusions, he said.
The arrival of the elite BORTAC unit signals a change.
For the first time in recent history, the agents were brought into the Tucson sector last summer to deter the human traffic coming across the border.
In 120 days, a 30-man BORTAC team caught 8,331 illegal immigrants. That represents more than 20 percent of illegal immigrant arrests in the west desert during that same period, according to statistics from the Tucson sector.
The west desert, which encompasses 121 miles of border from the Yuma County line to near Sasabe, is expected to be the focus of increased enforcement again this year.
And when these agents roll into town, local operatives take notice.
BORTAC’s ability to track and manage movement of people in the desert is “unparalleled,” said Mark Johnson, the patrol agent in charge of Tucson sector air operations, which will work closely with the unit on special operations in coming months.
Johnson said a call for support from these special operations will become a priority mission for his pilots.
“When they tell us that they are tracking a group of 50 people, including three small children and a man who is limping, that is exactly what we’ll find,” he said.
’7 really tough guys’ survive BORTAC tryouts
By GABRIELA RICO
McGREGOR RANGE, N.M. – When Rich Treglia joined the U.S. Border Patrol 3 1/2 years ago, he hoped to one day enter the ranks of the agency’s little-known tactical unit, BORTAC.
Last month, the 31-year-old agent from the Border Patrol’s Tucson sector joined 36 men from around the country at BORTAC tryouts.
For 17 days, the men were punished physically and challenged mentally, all for the privilege, they said, of one day lying in a hole in the ground along this country’s borders, almost daring someone to break the law on their watch.
Thursday, after enduring scenes reminiscent of the reality television show “Survivor,” seven of the agents – battered but victorious – crossed the finish line to graduation.
They survived by helping each other, they agreed.
“At one point, my injuries were slowing the team down, and I thought they hated me, but they kept me going,” said Treglia, who described his feet as “ground hamburger.”
“This is why I joined the Border Patrol,” he said.
The announcement from BORTAC commander Kevin W. Oaks that it was over and that the seven had earned spots in the unit was greeted with skepticism.
“I don’t think we really believed it at first,” said Greg Johnson, 34, an agent from Del Rio, Texas. “They had played so many mind games with us that we didn’t believe it.”
When the BORTAC hopefuls arrived Feb. 15, looking well fed and rested, some spoke about what they anticipated.
“A lot of pain,” Treglia said at the time.
“And very little sleep,” said San Diego agent James White, 35, an eight-year veteran. White didn’t make it through the training because he was medically discharged for severe dehydration.
“It would be great to be a part of some pretty exciting missions and work with motivated agents,” said Fausto Hernandez, 39, a Border Patrol agent from San Diego, at the start of tryouts.
He was gone by the end of the first week, as were 29 other candidates who succumbed to fatigue, failed physical tests or simply broke under the pressure of constant reprimands by the cadre.
In the first 24 hours, 16 men went home.
After two hours of sleep the first night in training, the candidates were taken to McGregor Range on the New Mexico side of the Fort Bliss Military Reservation.
The BORTAC school aims to create scenarios that induce the stress these men may feel in the field, Oaks said.
“We’re teaching them complicated team-building skills when they’ve had little or no sleep,” said Oaks, who went through these tryouts 14 years ago. “The natural leaders will come forward.”
Sit-ups, push-ups, chin-ups, sprints, target shooting, 45 minutes of treading water and a 6-mile hike with a 38-pound rucksack weeded out those who were not in top physical shape.
“The pain only lasts for a while,” Oaks said. “This is all about finding a guy that – when everything is against you – will be there, protecting you and pulling you through.”
The graduates said it takes more than physical fitness.
“It takes a lot of heart, and it’s not about being the biggest, the strongest or the fastest,” said Gerald Nuñez, 38, an agent from El Centro, Calif. “It’s all about how bad do you want it?”
Some of the fittest candidates did not make it because their minds didn’t hold up, said Tucson sector agent Marshall Shniderman, 30.
“You get so little sleep and so little to eat that you have to be able to just go through the motions,” he said.
The men agreed that you either have it or you don’t, that it’s not possible to prepare for the mental beating the cadre put them through.
“You just can’t train for this,” said Efren Cornejo, 34, a Tucson agent for almost four years.
“All of our hands are so swollen and cracked that the simple task of tying our shoes or buttoning our pants is unbearable,” Treglia said.
But none of the seven graduates considered throwing in the towel. Each lost between 10 and 15 pounds during the tryouts.
“I would rather die than quit,” Nuñez said. “I’m ready. I’m ready to be in that hole on the line.”
The first order of business after graduation was food – anything but the MREs – meals, ready to eat – they ate for 17 days.
A trip to an all-you-can-eat barbeque restaurant in El Paso was followed by a stop at Wal-Mart for candy.
“We only graduated seven,” Oaks said. “But seven really tough guys that won’t ever quit out there.”
WHAT IS BORTAC?
The U.S. Border Patrol’s tactical unit was formed in 1984 because of the rising threat of riots at Immigration Service processing centers. BORTAC’s headquarters are at Biggs Army Air Field in El Paso, Texas.
The unit’s primary mission is to enforce immigration and narcotics laws and provide national security on U.S. borders.
BORTAC also provides administrative support and tactical training for local, state, federal and international law enforcement agencies.
OTHER DUTIES: civil unrest response, high-risk warrant service, dignitary protection, scuba operations
MISSIONS: Los Angeles riot, 1992; World Trade Organization riot, 2000; Los Angeles Summer Olympics, 1984; Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, 2002; Hurricane Andrew, Florida, 1992; Hurricane Marilyn, Virgin Islands, 1995; Hurricane Georges, Puerto Rico, 1998
AREAS OF SERVICE: Egypt, Albania, Honduras, Jordan, Belize, Latvia, Morocco, Bolivia, Lithuania, Oman, Brazil, Paraguay, Pakistan, El Salvador, Panama, Saudi Arabia, Estonia, Peru, Tunisia, Ghana, Republic of Georgia, United Arab Emirates, Guatemala, South Africa, Republic of Yemen, Haiti, Uruguay
SOURCE: BORTAC headquarters
PHOTO CAPTIONS: Photos by GABRIELA RICO/Tucson Citizen
After going to bed without properly cleaning their rifles the night before, BORTAC candidates (including Tucsonan Rich Treglia, left) are punished by having to hold the 7-pound weapons over their heads for several minutes. After taking a break to do push-ups, they repeated the exercise. The infraction did not occur again.
BORTAC candidates had to score 324 of a possible 350 points at the shooting range on the first day of tryouts. Two men were disqualified.
Tucsonans Marshall Shniderman (bottom) and Efren Cornejo (middle) and Gerald Nuñez of El Centro, Calif., drop onto the rocky ground along with other BORTAC hopefuls and do 50 scissors kicks after it was determined that their rucksacks were not uniform.
ABOVE: A BORTAC candidate, hands shaky from lack of sleep and food, quickly places cartridges into his magazines before his weapon proficiency test. RIGHT: The candidates, who may one day be working from a hole in the ground along the international border, receive instruction on proper shooting form.
Citizen file photo by XAVIER GALLEGOS
A BORTAC agent looks for illegal immigrants last summer near Sells.