In Part 1 of this series, the smuggling route that Panki Pinchupa followed from Ecuador to his last known point in Arizona included three commercial flights and numerous travel segments by foot, train, and car or truck. These changes in mode of travel occurred at locations that can be described as transfer points and may include layup (rest) sites and resupply points. Broadly characterized as smuggling sites, these locations can reveal much about the groups that pass through them: how long they have been on the move; their mode of travel; and the logistical system of the smuggling industry that profits from them.
If you have ever unexpectedly come upon an illegal alien smuggling site, your first reaction was probably shock – it would take a few seconds for your brain to catch up with what you have seen. There would be black ski masks and dark jackets; oversized garbage bags with holes cut in them for makeshift ponchos; discarded backpacks; dirty clothing; food containers; water and other beverage containers; medicine bottles and human waste. Taken as a whole, these places register on the senses – at least initially – as a chaotic field of trash; but there can be a surprising degree of organization to what you find. If you want to make some sense of these sites, you must evaluate them in the context of their location, not just by the litter that is present.
Figure 1, Debris pile at “Smuggling Site 10”
Requirements of a Smuggling Corridor
Just as there are major and minor corridors of human and drug smuggling in Central America and Mexico, there are corridors extending from the Mexican border into the Southwestern U.S. No description of a corridor, in which dozens (or even hundreds) of routes exist, would be complete without satisfying the following criteria [FOOTNOTE 1]:
- The corridors have wilderness and/or de facto wilderness safe havens where legal vehicular traffic (including law enforcement activity) is either severely restricted or banned.
- They have east /west highway access north and south of the corridors. Examples include I-8, I-10 and US-60 as east/west highways.
- They have rugged and complex north/south mountain and drainage orientation, which provide channels of movement.
- They are almost entirely (or are heavily) dominated by federal land agency management. For example, Organ Pipe National Monument and the Cabeza Prieta NWR. Additionally, there are several less well- known BLM wilderness management areas, such as the Hummingbird Springs and Big Horn Mountain Wilderness, located south and west of Wickenburg. These minor wilderness areas comprise more than 250,000 uninhabited acres with restricted access.
- The concentration of American private property is limited, as is the presence of resident American citizen habitation.
- All corridors have high, strategically located points of observation.
I would add a seventh item to this description: The principal corridors in Southern Arizona contain numerous washes and old two-track trails that lead to or intersect access points on paved highways. If you are familiar with this region, you will know there are many historic abandoned mines and old prospects dating from the mid-1860s to the 1950s. Smugglers are very astute at acquiring knowledge of good routes, and some have probably been in use for decades. Overall, these seven criteria effectively define large segments of southern Arizona, including the areas around Wickenburg and Aguila.
Figure 2 illustrates four areas (highlighted in red) where I, and others, have found 38 smuggling sites. There are two clusters containing twenty-six sites in the area south of Aguila and two clusters containing twelve sites south of Wickenburg. [FOOTNOTE 2] Additional smuggling points are located in the area highlighted in yellow, but were not documented for this article. [FOOTNOTE 3]
Figure 2, Areas known to contain smuggling sites. Numbers in ovals denote the number of smuggling sites found in each cluster thus far.
Each of the thirty-eight sites satisfies the criteria described above. There are north/south roads that intersect major east/west transportation routes. The mountains and drainage areas (Hassayampa and Harquahala Plains) provide the required north/south foot routes with an abundance of old trails and washes that are concealed by desert vegetation. Moreover, the vast majority of the area is under federal land administration and is virtually unpopulated. Some of the paved north/south roads may see no more than one or two vehicles per hour during the day. That modest traffic rate drops precipitously after dark.
One important characteristic of these sites is their proximity to paved roads. Transfer sites are typically within a few feet of the highway’s edge, but concealed by vegetation and/or a decline of several feet below the roadway. Washes that intersect or parallel paved roads are ideal because the mesquite, acacia and Palo Verde trees can form extremely dense thickets. [FOOTNOTE 4]
The pile of discarded clothing above the wash in Figure 1 is part of a major smuggling transfer point and has been in use for at least four years. [FOOTNOTE 5] It is the terminus of an overland trek, a place where illegal migrants change out of their soiled clothing, dump their uneaten food, toiletries and backpacks. The discard pile is one of many at this site, and there are indications of extended loiter time while people wait for pick up. For example, there are several campfire pits and places where individuals have rested under trees.
Reaching a site like this requires cross-country hiking that may include treks through open country before reaching concealed areas. Figure 3 shows a web of foot trails that lead north from a drop-off site for a distance of several miles. These foot trails merge into a wash that leads to the transfer site shown in Figure 1. [FOOTNOTE 6]
Figure 3, Northbound smuggling trails south of Aguila. USGS Orthoimagery file.
The image in Figure 3 is five years old (2005). Aerial photos, dating from 1997, show that these trails did not then exist. Trail systems such as these take years of persistent use to acquire the level of wear seen above. This route has potentially been in use for ten years or more. They illustrate the essential linkage between drop-off and pick-up sites.
The Wickenburg Cluster – Disturbing Discoveries
Wickenburg area residents can take little comfort that only twelve sites have been documented. All 38 locations share the same physical characteristics, but the Aguila clusters appear to be seasonal. Some of the sites near Wickenburg, though, are active throughout the year. There are other disturbing differences, as well.
In October 2009, one of the Wickenburg sites was used for human trafficking of women. [FOOTNOTE 7] A local resident and friend discovered a jumbled pile of more than 40 freshly discarded backpacks that exclusively contained women’s clothing and other personal items. There were no indications these women had been given an opportunity to change into fresh clothes upon their arrival, since there were no discarded items in or near the pile of backpacks. There was, however, evidence of torn clothing and blood — signs that at least one woman had been raped.
Figure 4, Trafficking – 40 Women’s Backpacks found near Wickenburg. Photo courtesy of a local resident.
In April 2010, a neatly stacked pyramid of more than twenty backpacks — each containing fresh clothing, water and food – were discovered at one site. This indicates a resupply operation was in progress.
In another incident, occurring in August 2010, eight backpacks were discovered by a local resident. Two of the packs were found to contain loaded handguns, probably belonging to the “coyote” guides of six illegal migrants.
Based upon the types of usage, sites south of Wickenburg appear to be limited to human smuggling and trafficking. Illegal migrants arrive at these transfer points on foot using washes and old mining trails (now BLM managed trails) to await transportation to other unknown intermediate destinations – presumably to the north and west. There is only one known instance of a site being used for both transfer and resupply, but the removal of fresh backpacks by newly arrived groups at this and other sites makes it impossible to know how often this type of operation occurs. [FOOTNOTE 8]
Are there more smuggling sites near Wickenburg? Yes — it remains only to verify and document other reported sites and to continue the periodic search for new ones. More investigation of the southern cluster below Wickenburg is required for two reasons: First, it has not been thoroughly surveyed, and second, this may be a feeder route to the sites closer to Wickenburg.
Smuggling transfer points would serve no purpose if they did not advance the progress of illegal migrants to their destinations. If you look at these transfer sites as pick up points (not unlike bus stops), the transportation corridors become apparent, as depicted in Figure 5.
Figure 5, Clusters Viewed as Transportation Routes
When viewed at this scale, the map shows two nexus points. The point on the left is where Aguila Road and Eagle Eye Road merge south of Aguila. The point on the right is where Wickenburg Road splits at the beginning of Aguila and Vulture Mine Roads. The undocumented area (yellow) may begin near the Wickenburg nexus and probably terminates somewhere near the APS high voltage transmission lines where they cross U.S. 60; however, further surveys are required before this can be verified. One thing is certain – smuggling sites have been found in that area.
Drop-off points are notoriously difficult to locate at ground level, particularly if they occur on two-track roads that pass through dense thickets. Because the objective of a drop-off point is to get illegal migrants moving quickly away from the road, there is no loiter time and these locations contain little or no debris.
Looking at a Drug Site
Thankfully, none of the smuggling sites south of Aguila and Wickenburg has thus far shown evidence of drug smuggling; but that is little cause for celebration. Human and drug smugglers share the same routes and their transfer points have identical characteristics. Figure 6 illustrates a drug transfer site near Interstate 8, found in August 2010. The foreground shows improvised shoulder straps and olive drab shirts. At the center of the photo are large water containers. In the background are the empty Styrofoam cases used to haul the drugs. [FOOTNOTE 9]
Figure 6, Drug smuggling site near I-8. Photo provided by a concerned citizen.
This dumpsite is within 100 yards of a large culvert, allowing the transfer of drug loads to waiting vehicles from either side of the highway (for east or westbound transportation) without observation. While the general area contains a mix of both human and drug smuggling sites, the absence of clothes, backpacks and food at this scene indicates it is used exclusively for drugs. Smuggling groups like this one typically return to their point of origin, where they will meet and shepherd the next load brought across the border.
Looking for a Common Denominator
The map in Figure 2 illustrated four clusters of documented smuggling points and a fifth area where other sites have been found. Figure 5 translates these clusters into transportation corridors that use north- trending roads. Another important aspect of Figure 5 is the proximity of Interstate 10, which runs east-west.
Where (in Arizona) were these groups before they arrived at these locations? It is a reasonable question, but to say “they came up from the south” is an unacceptably vague answer. The map in Figure 7 provides some useful clues.
Figure 7, Most Likely Corridor
Before illegal migrants can reach points near Wickenburg and Aguila, they must cross two heavily traveled and patrolled Interstate highways (I- 8 and I-10). It is simply too risky to do this on foot. The tactical solution of smuggling organizations is to transport migrant groups from rally points south of the Interstates to drop-off sites a short distance to the north of each highway. Even a casual examination of aerial mapping sites reveals a maze of dirt roads and trails on both sides of these Interstates. The area west of Arizona State Route 85, which leads from the border town of Lukeville to Gila Bend, contains portions of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Goldwater Air Force Range. Even though these are restricted and/or closed areas, smuggling trails abound. Smuggling layup sites and transfer points have been found in a 48 mile east-west section south of I-8, between Dateland and Gila Bend, as recently as September 2010.
The most active smuggling corridors throughout the summer have been east of State Route 85 (leading north to I-8). In the fall, as the cool season approaches, there is every reason to expect that activity at the Wickenburg and Aguila clusters will increase once again.
In the third segment of this article we will examine the backpacks and other discarded items found at these sites.
- “The Arizona Smuggling Corridors, a Profile of Government in Disarray” by David B. Ham and Stephen L. Wilmeth, The Westerner, July 14, 2010. See the article at: http://thewesterner.blogspot.com/2010/07/arizona-smuggling-corridors.html
- The distinction of two clusters south of Aguila is based upon an analysis of smuggling routes. The small upper cluster uses different routes than the second, larger cluster. The lower cluster below Wickenburg is still being researched and more findings are expected.
- Documentation includes the recording of GPS coordinates; extensive photographic records; analysis of the contents of backpacks, as well as discarded items; identification of signaling methods; determination of use as a drug site; and area searches for footprints. Also studied are the types
of clothing (masks and gloves denote cold season activity), expiration dates on bottles of electrolyte beverage, and whether items were discarded on top of spring growth, to list only a few.
- Thirty-two of the 38 documented sites are within fifty feet of pavement. The remaining six are within 450 feet of pavement, with access via two-track trails leading from a highway. All but two of the sites are concealed from view by trees or a steep decline. Thirty-five of these smuggling sites are associated with the presence of a wash.
- This site was first photographed on January 28, 2007 by hiking friends.
- Drop-off sites typically begin at the edge of a road. Foot trails emanate from that point and lead to a layup, resupply or transfer site. A drop-off site is used for quick dismounting of illegal migrants onto a system of trails.
- Human smuggling is defined as “the procurement, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit, of the illegal entry of a person into a State party of which the person is not a national or a permanent resident.” Human trafficking is “the ‘recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons, by means of threat or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraught, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose exploitation’. The main forms of exploitation are prostitution, forced labor, slavery, or the removal of organs.” From: “Illegal Immigration, Human Trafficking, and Organized Crime,” University of Helsinki and University of Notre Dame. By Raimo Väyrynen. November 2005.
- At least 109 discarded backpacks have been removed from four of the seven smuggling sites in the northernmost cluster below Wickenburg — either for analysis of the contents or for donation to charitable groups.
- The shirts were used as a covering for the containers. Burlap cloth is more commonly used. Styrofoam canisters are unusual and may have been used to protect the contents from weather conditions.