Each year tens of thousands of migrants face a daunting and harrowing journey to get to the United States across the southwest border that claims some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world. Desert temperatures peak well into triple digits during the day, contrasted with freezing temperatures at night. There are rugged mountain peaks and hazardous valleys, as well as insects, wild animals, skin-tearing plants and unscrupulous and violent marauders. Since 2000 more than 6,000 people have been found dead on the U.S. side alone.
To meet what many groups call a humanitarian crisis, the Mexican government launched a search and rescue organization called Grupo Beta. The orange shirt rescuers quickly became a welcome sight for struggling migrants, providing much needed relief and life support before they made it to the U.S. border. As an apolitical organization, Grupo Beta has no law enforcement or immigration authority. Their only concern is to provide emergency care—no questions asked.
Grupo Beta started as a pilot project in 1990 along the U.S.-Mexico border near Tijuana. Twenty-one years later the organization became an official federal entity in Mexico’s National Institute of Migration with the goal of providing not only first aid to migrants but humanitarian aid, and access to social and legal services. It has since grown to 22 units along both the northern border with the U.S. and the southern border with Guatemala and interior areas of the country that are consistent with the northern flow of migrants. Both borders have been especially busy with the influx of Central American immigrants to the U.S. over the past three years.
While this humanitarian mission is noble and necessary, it isn’t without its detractors in the U.S. who feel Mexican law enforcement needs to be more closely involved to stem the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs into the U.S.
“There was a time early in the organization's development that they appeared to facilitate smuggling of humans and drugs,” says Victor M. Manjarrez, Jr., Center for Law & Human Behavior The University of Texas at El Paso, and a former U.S. Border Patrol sector chief. “I don't think that is the case now, with the exception of a few rogue instances."
Luis Carlos Cano, spokesman, Grupo Beta, said regardless of whether an individual is a drug or human trafficker, if they are in need of medical care Grupo Beta will provide it and will not report them to Mexican authorities. “We provide the assistance and warn them, but then allow them to be on their way,” Cano says. “We don’t ask questions or judge, we just provide care."
Acceptance into the unit is rigorous entailing a stringent background check, psychological testing and, of course, first aid. A large part of the mission is public relations. While they can’t detain migrants heading north, they can warn them of the realistic risks and danger they are assuming based on the topography and perhaps the limited supply of food and water they may appear to be carrying. Grupo Beta will notify U.S. Border Patrol if there are any tangible breaches or attempts to breach the nearly 800 miles of border fence, a tactic narco traffickers are notorious for.
Regular patrols scour known migrant routes both in the ubiquitous orange SUVs and even foot patrols in the deserts looking for migrants in trouble, not only physically, but if they are lost. These patrols frequently come upon the remnants of migrant paths such as sun-baked clothes, empty water or sport drink bottles, garbage bags used for crude luggage and tragically, the remains of those who succumbed to the elements. Aiding their mission is the establishment of water stations and SOS call boxes.
Cano said 75 percent of the Central American migrants travel through Tamualipas state on their way to the U.S. largely due to the path of the notorious rail system known as La Bestia, which transports migrants precariously clinging to the roof of the train, exposing themselves to triple digit temperatures in an unyielding sun or monsoon rains. Fueling the potential exposure to violence is an on-going war between the Gulf and Los Zetas cartels, which most recently resulted in the recent massacre of 14 in the state’s capital of Ciudad Victoria
Mexican officials have seen an increase of over 50 percent in the number of migrants found in distress since the beginning of 2016 compared with the same period last year. Cano said in Chihuahua state 6,784 migrants required assistance in 2014 and 3,865 in 2015 alone.
Like the U.S., it is not illegal to leave Mexico so the migrant issue is essentially being controlled by Grupo Beta to ensure safe passage. Efforts have been made by Mexico to control the flow of migrants entering its southern border with little impact. And once they negotiate the trials and travails to the U.S. border if they need help by Grupo Beta in the field, who also provides water stations in well-traveled remote areas, there is virtually no continuity with the federal immigration officials tasked with deporting the migrants back to Central America unless they request it.
Recognizing that despite the efforts to mitigate immigration, both countries realize they must provide humanitarian efforts when emergencies arise, regardless of the political environment or rhetoric of politicians.
The dangers of migration are not lost in Grupo Beta’s mission plan.
“We have a campaign identifying the risks migrants assume in their decision,” Cano says. “Announcements are made in places where migrants congregate on their journey, as well as weather and terrain hazards.”
Cano said Grupo Beta and U.S. Border Patrol have worked together in rescuing migrants in trouble. On the American side the U.S. Border Patrol has a special search and rescue unit known as BORSTAR (Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue) whose mission is to rescue lost, ill or injured migrants. The difference in this case is that after the migrant recovers they will be placed in deportation proceedings.
Joseph J. Kolb, MA, is an adjunct instructor in the Criminal Justice Department at Western New Mexico University and a master instructor for the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy.