West of Naco, Sonora, Mexico—Grupo Beta agent Waldo Montiel had just finished a brief off-road spin through a gully known to be a waiting area for migrants when the red Chevy Suburban roared past, headed west along the dusty border road.
“Do you recognize that truck?” asked fellow agent Bertha Alicia De la Rosa from her seat beside Montiel.
“No,” he said.
“It’s not from one of the ranches around here?”
“I don’t think so,” he answered as he pulled the bright orange Dodge Ram truck back on to the road and took up pursuit of the Suburban.
In a few minutes he was on its tail, honking his horn and flashing his lights.
Reluctantly, the Suburban pulled over to a stop, a quarter-mile east of the San Pedro River, a few feet south of the wire fence separating the Mexican state of Sonora from Palominas.
Montiel bounded from the cabin and was met on the dusty road by the driver of the vehicle, a nervous young man in his early 20s.
“How many do you have in there?” Montiel asked.
“Fourteen,” the driver answered.
“Do you mind if I open the back?”
Montiel pulled open the hatch to reveal 14 dusty men, women, boys and girls packed together inside. The youngest members of the group appeared to be around 11 or 12. The majority looked to be teenagers.
“Where are you going?” Montiel asked the group. When nobody answered, he asked again, this time more authoritatively. Montiel came to Grupo Beta from law enforcement and brought his policeman’s stern, non-nonsense demeanor with him.
Still no answer.
“You, skinny, where are you going? Phoenix? Denver?” he asked a thin, weary looking man in his mid-40s.
“Yeah, Phoenix,” the man replied.
With the ice broken, others began to chime in. “North Carolina,” “Los Angeles” and “Washington,” they said.
“You know it’s dangerous out there in the desert,” Montiel told the group.
“I want you to take a look at this,” he said as he passed out a pocket-sized brochure filled with simple, cartoon drawings offering survival tips such as, “If you get hot while walking in the daytime, don’t take off clothing or you’ll dehydrate faster” and “Rub garlic on your skin and clothing to repel biting animals.”
The brochure is reminiscent of the 32-page “Guide for the Mexican Migrant” comic book produced last year by the Mexican Foreign Ministry that angered some Americans—including U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz.—who saw it as a government-sanctioned effort to promote illegal migration to the United States.
Unlike the Foreign Ministry guide, however, the Grupo Beta booklet offers only safety tips; there is no advice on how to go undetected by immigration officials while living in the United States.
“And remember,” Montiel added, “although you are entering the United States illegally, you still have rights.”
He handed out a second, larger booklet titled “Human Rights Handbook for Migrants,” which, in addition to a crash course on basic rights, lists contact information for Mexican consulates in the Southwestern United States and hotline numbers for the 15 Grupo Beta offices throughout Mexico’s northern and southern border regions.
“If you get into trouble on your journey, call Grupo Beta and we can help you,” Montiel said.
“Take care of yourselves,” he added as he shut the hatch and headed back to his truck.
Grupo Beta is the agency within the Mexican National Immigration Institute charged with assisting migrants—both nationals and foreigners—traveling on Mexican soil. The Agua Prieta office, staffed with nine field agents and three administrators, is responsible for the border region stretching from the Sonora-Chihuahua state line to the east to the areas fronting the Huachuca Mountains to the west.
De la Rosa, an energetic 50-year-old grandmother who has served as coordinator for the Agua Prieta branch for the past two years, bristles when asked if Grupo Beta’s assistance efforts could be interpreted as a government-sponsored agenda to help migrants cross illegally into the United States.
“We give them an orientation on personal safety, we give them food and water, we advise them of the dangers of crossing the desert and we try to convince them to turn around and go home,” she said. “But we don’t tell them anything about how to cross the border.
“We are concerned only with trying to keep them from dying.”
Johnny Bernal, a spokesman for the U.S. Border Patrol Tucson Sector, said his agency viewed Grupo Beta as a partner in border safety—not as an advocate for illegal migration.
“We’ve actually done a lot of cooperative training efforts with them on medical skills, GPS (Global Positioning Systems) and things like that,” he said. “It’s a joint effort to try to save lives out there.”