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Smuggling — Out Wickenburg Way, Part III: When Backpacks Talk…Studying Discards at Smuggling Sites

Part 2 of this series analyzed four clusters containing thirty-eight sites that are used for human smuggling and trafficking south of Wickenburg and Aguila. A network of foot trails established a link between one drop-off point and multiple transfer sites several miles away. Further analysis established the transportation corridors between Interstate 10 and U.S. 60, and we examined a region near the Mexican border as a likely source of illegal migration through our area. Part 3 is a discussion of what can be learned by studying the discards that litter these sites

Like a moment frozen in time, discarded piles of clothing, backpacks, food and other items found at transfer sites provide useful insight into smuggling activities. If the site has not been excessively disturbed, you can determine the number of individuals in each group; the ratio of male/female migrants; and the number of juveniles or children. You can distinguish between groups that have made long treks on foot from those that hiked relatively short distances (eight hours or less) from a drop-off point, where they had earlier been re-supplied with food and water. You can even infer the level of confidence — some might say “arrogance” — of the smuggling organizations by whether the transfer point has celebratory cases of empty beer bottles littering the scene. In this third segment we will examine a few of the observations I have made. I would caution you to not generalize my findings at these thirty-eight sites. Discard piles at other locations, such as at Antelope Peak, in the Table Top Wilderness south of Interstate 8, might have very different characteristics from those I have examined. I speak only about what I have seen.

Discarded Ski Mask

Figure 1, Ski mask lying atop bare soil, indicating a winter arrival.

Site Usage Varies by Season

The majority of transfer sites south of Aguila appear to be used primarily in the fall, winter and spring seasons. No “fresh” discard piles or backpacks were found at any of the 26 sites in the July to October 2010 time frame. The most recent discards found at several sites were from the April-June 2010 period. It can be reasoned (but not conclusively) that illegal migrants passing through these sites depend upon smuggling routes that are more dangerous during the summer months, such as the Cabeza Prieta NWR and the Goldwater Air Force Range. With a return to cooler temperatures, activity at these sites will probably resume.

Unlike the Aguila clusters, activity at transfer sites south of Wickenburg can be characterized as year around; with the discovery of new discard piles and backpacks made throughout the summer. Why some of these sites remain active during the warmest part of the year is uncertain. In any case, the discard piles also contain winter clothing, including sleeping bags, and an uptick in activity there is also expected.

Apparent mix of male-female and children or juveniles

Based upon discarded items in the dump piles and the contents of backpacks, 22 of the total sites were exclusively used by males. The remaining 16 show evidence of use by both males and females. At the sites where women’s clothing and personal items are found, I estimate the mix to be no greater than 33% female, although the average is probably closer to 20%. [FOOTNOTE 1] This necessarily excludes the single known instance, where more than 40 women were victims of human trafficking. Based solely upon evidence on the ground, I cannot say whether trafficking is common or rare at the sites used for this study.

I found less than a half dozen backpacks containing juvenile or children’s clothing or other personal items, such as a little girl’s purse, small mittens or jackets. The time required to sift through multiple layers of discards in the dump piles is prohibitive, and children’s clothing could easily be missed. [FOOTNOTE 2] Nevertheless, I estimate the number of children and young juveniles to be a very small component at these sites. Migrants passing through these sites appear to be overwhelmingly adult or older juvenile males (15 years or older).

Personally identifiable information

Only one backpack provided information on the identity of an individual — Panki Pinchupa, from Ecuador. Several backpacks contained items that could be traced to Central or South American countries — particularly Guatemala. That does not prove country of origin, only that some number of illegal migrants are passing through Guatemala to reach Mexico.

Commonality of backpacks

If you visited several of these sites and merely looked at backpacks lying on the ground, you would quickly realize that the business of human smuggling is highly organized. [FOOTNOTE 3] Variation in type of backpacks is very limited, and is typified by what you see in Figure 2.

Identical Backpacks

Figure 2, Sixteen identical backpacks in one dump site at SMG4. Dark objects are black, hooded pull-over jackets removed from three packs.

I estimate at least 85% of discarded packs are identical in style and manufacture to those shown above. These are cheap, poor quality day packs with one large compartment and one smaller zippered pocket on the outside. Although they have a deep black color when new, they quickly fade to a greenish color. It takes no more than two or three months for the sun to bleach the exposed side to a light gray, as seen above. When new, they look like the black backpack shown in Figure 3 (center-left).

Within a radius of 50 feet of Figure 2, there are two more discard piles — one containing nine backpacks and another with eleven. All are identical, and this scene is repeated at nearly every smuggling transfer site. These are not the type of packs you would purchase for a journey that frequently begins in Central America — their capacity is simply too small and their durability is very poor. How can there be such uniformity involving a common product when there are dozens of manufacturers from which to select?

The answer, I believe, is that the smuggling organizations either control or greatly influence the type of packs used for border crossings — at least in the clusters near Aguila and Wickenburg. Here are several likely reasons:

  • These packs are always black and are difficult to spot at night. Maintaining that type of uniformity is beneficial.
  • Their limited capacity makes it unlikely that a migrant will separate from the group and strike out on an independent course. If you have only enough water or food to survive one or two days, you are likely to remain with your guide — especially if you don’t know where the next re-supply point or water source is located.
  • If the pack is to be used for only a few days before discarding, why invest in a more durable (and costly) product?
  • Human smuggling organizations probably have a financial interest in the sale of these packs, as well as the food and water which they contain. By purchasing thousands of backpacks each year, they surely obtain volume discounts.
  • Using backpacks with only two compartments makes it easy for the guides (Coyotes) to check through them before they are discarded at a transfer site.

Though much less common, the discovery of larger, multi- compartmented backpacks is always a matter of interest to me.

Figure 3 shows several of these packs, as well as one of the “standard issue” type discussed above. Because they have greater capacity and several small zippered compartments, they contain a wider variety of items and, frequently, reveal more information about what a migrant considers important. Non-standard packs may contain more clothing, medicines or personal hygiene items. The contents frequently (though not necessarily) indicate the owner was involved in long distance treks on foot. There is always the possibility with non-standard packs that a small compartment might still contain documents revealing the country of origin and route taken by its owner. Some packs have been found containing hand drawn maps of routes.

Recent Arrival

Figure 3, Lack of fading shows recent arrival.

The discards shown in Figure 3 reveal other useful information, as well. This group arrived at a site near Wickenburg during the summer, yet all of the packs contained lightweight jackets or long-sleeve fleece pull-over tops, similar to hooded sweat shirts. There was a wider variety in changes of clothing. Notice also the unopened bottle of electrolyte drink in the center of the photo. These packs also contained unopened food containers, indicating this group had been re-supplied within the previous day or two — well after crossing the border into Arizona. The short elapsed time and distance between the re-supply and pickup sites did not require consumption of the food items or drinks that were found in these packs. [FOOTNOTE 4]

Natural Signs

Winter and spring rains bring new growth to the desert each year. Wildflowers, common weeds and tall grasses burst from the ground, turning the desert floor green for a brief time. Low lying areas, especially near washes, may develop dense undergrowth. Illegal migrant groups who use these areas during the growing season leave an unmistakable imprint that confirms when they passed through a transfer point. See Figure 4.

Discards on Spring Growth

Figure 4, Discards lay on top of flattened spring growth, indicating a late spring/early summer layup and transfer site used by a small group.

In this image, a small group discarded their travel clothing in tall grass beneath a mesquite tree. Each discarded article lies on top of bent grass. The group then settled in under the tree while awaiting pickup at the road’s edge, (about thirty feet to the right). For comparison, look again at Figure 1. The ski mask has been moved slightly up and left of its original position. You can see there is no plant growth under the mask. The person who discarded it was at that transfer site before spring growth began. The grass grew up around the mask, where there was sunlight.

Multiple Discard Piles

Whether large or small, nearly all transfer sites contain multiple dump piles of discarded clothing, backpacks, and other items. This observation might seem confusing, at least initially; but after studying the patterns at each site, the reason becomes more evident. For example, Figure 5 shows there are two dump piles at this transfer point. The common factor is that they are both located at a particular mile post sign near a wash on Wickenburg Road.

Transfer Points Over Time

Figure 5, Transfer points may be used repeatedly over long periods.

The most ideal transfer points are not always located at or near a highway mile marker simply because the terrain may not be suitable, or the area is too exposed. Figure 6 illustrates a transfer site that is between mile markers and provides exceptional night-time concealment and rapid loading.

Discard Piles

Figure 6, Discard piles at SMG18, in wash below road.

The roadway at this location passes over two adjacent washes and is protected from erosion by a vertical concrete and stone wall. Smuggling organizations use this site because small groups can wait at the base of the wall without fear of detection.

Unlike the site in Figure 5, where discards are widely scattered, each of the dump piles here are compact and well defined. This could mean the coyote guides maintain tighter discipline over their groups at this site. It is also possible these groups have not been as rushed. They may have had longer wait times for transportation. All of the packs at this location are identical to those shown in Figure 2.

Contents of Backpacks

Illegal migrants may spend six or more days traveling from the border to any of the sites described in this article, yet their backpacks are incapable of holding a week’s supply of food, clothing and other personal items. They surely do not carry 15 or more gallons of water. Instead, their survival depends upon a logistical system that ensures they are supplied with provisions along the way. The fact that many backpacks contain uneaten food and unopened bottles of Electrolit supports this observation.

Electrolyte Beverage Bottle

Figure 7, The standard issue electrolyte beverage found at nearly all sites. Produced in Mexico by PiSA Pharmaceutica.

Here is a representative sampling of the “typical” contents found in a discarded pack:

  • One pair of jeans
  • One black or dark pullover jacket
  • One T-shirt or long sleeve shirt
  • One or two changes of underwear
  • One pair socks
  • One or two heavy duty black oversized garbage bags
  • Toothbrush and small toothpaste
  • One small bar of soap
  • Disposable razor
  • Deodorant
  • Comb or brush
  • One roll toilet tissue

Food items:

  • One or more bottles of electrolyte beverage — usually unopened
  • One loaf of Bimbo Blanco Super Pan bread — partially consumed
  • One jar of marmalade — unopened or partially consumed
  • One or more packages of Crackets or Saladitas saltine cracker packs
  • One package Marias Gamesa cookies — unopened
  • One or two cans of tuna — usually unopened
  • One can of refried beans — usually unopened
  • One or two pieces of fresh fruit

The discarded clothes are usually soiled articles from previous days of travel that have been exchanged for fresh clothes in the pack. The toiletries typically show use over the duration of the trip. The only appreciable amount of protein would come from the tuna and beans, but these cans usually remain unopened.

Regardless of a person’s physical condition, it seems unlikely that migrants could travel six or more days and arrive at these transfer points with food left over from the beginning of their trek. I believe the food items are provisions for the final day (or final few hours) of trekking on foot. This can only mean that two or more re-supply operations occurred before arriving at these sites. Moreover, the “sameness” of the food — across 38 smuggling sites — strongly indicates a common source of provisions — an assembly line of standard issue food meted out in prescribed quantities. In other words, the smuggling organizations have a logistical system that not only moves people, but it knows where they are, when they will require fresh provisions, and when they can pick them up for transport to more distant locations across the state or country.

Who’s winning?

The smuggling sites near

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Aguila and Wickenburg seem to represent an end to traveling primarily on foot and the beginning of motorized transportation over longer distances. Otherwise, the backpacks and trail clothing would not have been discarded. The location of these transfer sites almost certainly means that U.S. 60, SR 71, U.S. 93, and SR 89 are transportation corridors for groups who have transitioned to cars, vans or trucks. In that sense, you might think of these sites as the last best chance to apprehend human smugglers, traffickers and their cargo before they vanish into the vast Interstate highway system. Instead, the discard piles demonstrate the long term and continuing success of transnational smuggling organizations.

Discarded Ski Masks

Figure 8, Thirty-one ski masks found in a single discard pile.

Are there more human smuggling sites near Wickenburg and Aguila? In a word — yes. I began finding layup sites and routes three years before beginning research for this article — sites that are not included here. Importantly, I believe more sites will be found as time permits.

There is a small cave near one of the largest smuggling sites. The view of the desert and mountains from this location would be spectacular, were it not for the nine transfer points visible from its entrance. The cave may serve as an observation point for smugglers; it holds the high ground and is well positioned to perform that role. Inside, you will find votive candles like the one shown in Figure 9. Judging from the volume of trash littering the desert floor below, and the chronic indifference of federal immigration authorities in this area, it would seem that the Patron Saint of Smugglers has been winning for a very long time.

Candle found in Cave

Figure 9, Cave Votive Candle


  1. Past removal of backpacks can skew this estimate, making it difficult to determine the number of migrants that have passed through a site over time.
  2. Excessive disturbance of dump piles also produces the risk of tipping off a smuggling organization that their sites are being monitored. Analyzing the contents of backpacks provides better context and they can be examined at a location away from the smuggling site.
  3. It is also highly profitable. The human smuggling market at the US- Mexico border is estimated to generate $6.6 Billion a year for smuggling organizations. Lise Olsen and Dudley Althaus, Houston Chronicle, “Lawmakers told border crime getting out of hand,” July 22, 2010.
  4. Based upon items found in the discard piles at this site, smuggling groups were active in October and November, 2009; and the six months of March through August, 2010. There may have been activity during other months of 2010, but I cannot confirm it.

Last 5 posts by Ben Leucking

7 comments to Smuggling — Out Wickenburg Way, Part III: When Backpacks Talk…Studying Discards at Smuggling Sites

  • Jean Warren

    What a great piece Ben! The information detail you have added certainly rounds out the story. In these three articles one can learn about the process these folks live by daily without investigating it themselves.

    I think the way you have broken this subject down and shown how you methodically went about your study makes for non stop reading! I am glad there are folks like you out there that are not willing to just “assume” that things are a certain way. Our particular area (Congress, Wickenburg etc) relies on gossip and non factual piecemeal comments on a daily basis. It’s a wonder anyone could make any deduction from other people’s second hand comments!

    Please continue posting information on various subjects, especially this one. Thanks again for the effort you put into the articles in an attempt to educate the average citizen.

  • Ben

    Thanks for your kind words and encouragement. As noted in a comment I left at the end of Part 1, the number of documented smuggling sites has increased from 38 to 41, and all are now being monitored on a regular basis.

    The smuggling industry relies on a system of many routes, a variety of transportation methods and bewildering array of tactics. Pressure in any given area (whether from Arizona law enforcement or federal agencies) will cause these groups to shift their sites periodically. Unfortunately, that keeps our law officers perpetually in a reactive mode. They have a very tough job.

  • Do you need help. I would help you with your work as I think this is very important. Write me soon and we can meet up. Use Wickenburg as the subject I don’t open things I don expect or recognize. Let me know I will have a eye on the spam filter also.

  • Philip Brown

    The Hassayampa River bed and the railroad tracks probably see some traffic,mostly a guess because I’ve been away for a while. Pick ups in Chapa
    rral.Plenty of culverts under the freeway and I bet they all have “owners”.Great work,Be Careful!

  • Ben

    Phil,You are correct – The area between Monarch Wash and San Domingo Wash (including the roadside rest area) has been used as a layup and smuggling pickup area for some time. Department of Transportation workers have removed discarded backpacks and trash to keep the area clean, so it can be difficult to gauge the actual level of activity along this stretch.

    Smuggling activity has continued through April and May in the area south of Wickenburg on Vulture Mine Road, however. The most recent incident involved a group of seven or eight teenage or young adult females in the past few days. Based upon the condition of their backpacks, I would say they were on foot most of the way from the border to Wickenburg. But, like so many of the packs found in this area, it was evident they (and their smuggling guide) had been resupplied before reaching Wickenburg. They had fresh bottles of electrolyte and uneaten food in their packs.

    It never ends…

  • Steve

    your report is great . Have you submitted this to the media or authorities? I see the same things south of the metropolis in the desert and have followed the trails right into town along the irrigation canals,,, no doubt their source of refreshment and become speedy paths through the valley that for the most part are undetected.
    many citizens share these concerns. this site may be a way to organize.
    if nothing else, to report and bring awareness because alot of people just don’t know these things.
    sadly, many times I mention my findings only to be met with the usual shock and sense of ineffectiveness in government. overwhelming!!! but WE can make a difference.

  • Ben

    The location of all 44 sites in the vicinity of Wickenburg and Aguila were reported to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office as they were discovered. Other sites (not discussed in the article) have been found in the area between Interstate 10 and Wickenburg, particularly in the vicinity of the Belmont Mountains.

    This series was written specifically to inform local citizens and seasonal visitors of the scope, magnitude and persistence of human smuggling and trafficking in our area. Posting the articles on this web site has generated far more readership across the state and country than would have been possible in the local newspaper – which ends up in the bottom of the bird cage the day after publication.

    In the long term, the best thing any informed citizen can do is make their positions known to their state and national representatives. I sincerely appreciate your interest.