Skip to comments.Drug runners, migrants crushing national parks along U.S.-Mexico border
Posted on 06/13/2002 12:05:26 AM PDT by sarcasm
EL PINACATE BIOSPERE RESERVE - Drug traffickers have scarred a unique volcanic desert with illicit runways, and law enforcement officials have led high-speed chases through once-tranquil parks.
Thousands of migrants have traipsed across delicate backcountry areas - so much so that campers have fled to ranger stations, fearful of crowds marching by their tents in the night.
Wilderness areas on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border are taking a beating from an entourage of migrants, drug traffickers and law enforcement officials, a binational study completed last month shows. Some national treasures in both countries have been lost forever.
Few parks have taken a greater toll than the UN-designated biosphere reserve El Pinacate and Arizona's adjoining Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Last year, officials caught 200,000 migrants and 700,000 pounds (315,000 kilograms) of drugs in Organ Pipe alone.
Pinacate and Organ Pipe officials completed the border's first binational, environmental impact studies of illegal activities. The findings were eye-opening: It could take 20 years to recover from the damage, while some archaeological sites were gone forever.
"Organ Pipe National Monument is becoming Organ Pipe National Catastrophe," said Randall Rasmussen, program manager of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association.
On the Mexican side, migrants and drug traffic hit just as Pinacate gained long-awaited federal protection in 1993.
Officials estimate smugglers last year drove 5,000 cars through protected wilderness. Towering Sahuaro cacti, hundreds of years old, have been carved by migrants with names of Mexican villages.
On a recent afternoon, discarded water bottles, backpacks, hot sauce containers and Spanish-language comic books were littered around a sprawling Ironwood tree, estimated to be 1,000 years old.
People trampling prehistoric stone sleeping circles - created 10,000 years ago by Amerindians on their salt trail - have eroded them away.
In Pinacate, the Mexican army has dug deep trenches to destroy 19 clandestine airstrips - marring hundreds of acres of volcanic desert that took 4 million years to form.
Soldiers also destroyed archaeological areas - including one with a 10,000-year-old drawing on it - mistaking them for illicit runways, Pinacate Park Director Carlos Castillo said. The soldiers' markings could remain for another 100 years.
Both parks are home to rare animals. The cactus pygmy owl has abandoned one of its few nesting areas in Organ Pipe since smuggling took off in the area.
The endangered Sonoran pronghorn antelope population has shrunk by 68 animals since 1993. Mexico has an estimated 346 pronghorn antelopes, while 140 remain in the United States, according to the last census.
U.S. Border Patrol traffic can disturb the animals, said Bill Wellman, director of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
Environmentalists also fear a barbed-wire fence along the border may be dividing the gene pool, further threatening the species already under stress from a decade-old drought. They plan to remove the barbs from the wire this year to allow the animals to cross.
But that may not be enough.
"With all this illegal activity and the law enforcement to stop it putting another stress on them, we may start losing more animals," Wellman said.
The area's harsh conditions have also taken the lives of migrants, who flooded the region after the Border Patrol increased its presence along more populated spots in 1993.,Last year, eight bodies were found in Organ Pipe and 14 other people passed through the park before dying in neighboring Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.
On a recent evening, Paolo Solis and his friend flagged down the Border Patrol after spending 12 hours walking in 100-degree (38 degree Celsius) weather through the park. They sat collapsed on the pavement surrounded by four water jugs - only a swallow remained.
"We didn't know this was a national park," said the 31-year-old farm worker from Ciudad Obregon. "We just heard this was the easiest place to cross, but it's not. You suffer a lot. Thank God we didn't run out of water."
Organ Pipe administrators need funding to fence sensitive areas, let migrants know they are crossing national parks and add more rangers to keep smugglers away. In Pinacate, officials are working with the army to find alternate ways to destroy airstrips and minimize the damage left by the drug traffickers.
But it's not easy. Smugglers have threatened rangers in both parks, and law enforcement often has shrugged off their complaints in the face of more immediate security concerns.
"We don't have the answers, and it's probably beyond us," Wellman said. "But what we want to do is make this part uncomfortable for smugglers so they'll go someplace else."
Then, Wellman said, officials hope to "get things back as close as we can to their natural conditions" in areas considered only a few years ago to be largely untouched by humans.
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