NOGALES — Three men prop a ladder on top of a tree branch and lean it against a 15-foot border fence made of steel tubes so close together a man can't fit his head through.
One by one, they climb over and shimmy down the other side, landing in the United States at the bottom of the Mariposa Wash, about two miles west of Nogales. They jog north across a concrete road, fading into the brush.
On a nearby ridge, a U.S. Border Patrol agent watches, then jumps in his SUV and speeds down the new access road that, like the fence, is part of the biggest, fastest and most expensive buildup of border infrastructure in U.S. history.
The three illegal border crossers run, but it isn't long before several agents converge and eventually find their hiding spot.
The scene illustrates the debate over the effectiveness of border fences that now cover one-third of Arizona's 378 miles of U.S.-Mexico border, up from 7 percent three years ago.
"These fences present between a 30-second to two-minute speed bump for most healthy individuals," said Matt Clark, Southwest representative of Defenders of Wildlife, a group that works to protect endangered species. "We are paying how many millions of dollars for this?"
Walls, particularly unguarded, have historically been shown to be ineffective, he said.
"It's just a piece of scrap metal that will be jumped over, tunneled under, gone around," Clark said. "At the end of the day, it's just a big waste of money."
Clark and other critics say the economic recession, and not the fence, is responsible for the decline in illegal immigration in the past two years and that border crossers will always find a way to defeat it, no matter how many miles it stretches or how menacing it appears.
"They can build a fence to the heavens, and they will find a way to get across," Mexican rancher Juan Soto Moreno said in Spanish. He owns four acres along the border east of Sonoyta, Sonora, where a new five-mile steel- mesh pedestrian fence lines the southern border of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. "Forget about it. They are never going to stop them."
The Border Patrol sees the same scene as an example of how the fences help the patrol.
"When you are crossing a fence 15 feet in the air, it's a lot easier for me to see," said Alan White, Border Patrol Nogales station chief. "With a barrier that they have to negotiate, it gives us a little more time to react and catch these people."
Border Patrol officials acknowledge that the barriers are not a panacea but say they deter, slow and funnel traffic, providing them with a tool that gives them the upper hand in the eternal cat-and-mouse game with smugglers. They credit the fences, along with the increase in agents, for a 36 percent decrease in apprehensions in the Tucson Sector over the past two years.
"These fences are absolutely necessary," White said. "I can't look you in the eye and tell you I'm doing a good job without these barriers."
The international border flows up and down rolling hills covered with green shrubs and brown mesquite as it stretches east and west out of Nogales.
Five years ago, it was difficult to decipher exactly where the international line was. Marked only by three- or five-strand barbed-wire fences, an occasional border monument every couple of miles and only a few miles of dirt roads, it required close inspection to figure it out.
That's not the case anymore.
The George W. Bush-led buildup has hardened large stretches of international boundary, transforming it with 308 miles of menacing fences and broad access roads. Combined with an additional 300 miles of vehicle barriers, there are 608 total miles of barriers along the nearly 2,000-mile Southwest border that stretches from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas. That total falls just short of the 670 miles mandated by Congress in 2006.
Nowhere is the overhaul more evident than in Arizona, where today four-fifths of the border has pedestrian fences or vehicle barriers, up from about one-fifth three years ago.
For nearly eight miles to the east and 2 1/2 miles to the west of Nogales, towering steel fences and dirt and gravel roads cut across the desert floor like a white stripe across a yellow, green and brown canvas.
The new fencing bookends about 2 1/2 miles of steel landing-mat fence put up in the 1990s for a total of 13 miles of continuous fencing in the Nogales area.
Pedestrian fences and roads also stretch across 40-plus continuous miles of border in Cochise County from the foot of the Huachuca Mountains to east of Douglas with the only breaks in the washes and rivers.
The fencing covers seven miles around Sasabe, five-plus miles flanking Lukeville and 45 miles from San Luis east across the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range.
In addition to the 124 miles of pedestrian fences, there are 183 miles of vehicle barriers along Arizona's border, including most of the 75 miles along the Tohono O'odham Reservation, across most of the 88 miles of border across the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Southwestern Arizona, and east of Douglas toward the New Mexico state line.
The new pedestrian fences — built mostly by private contractors — make the fences of the 1990s look weak.
Those fences, made of Army-surplus landing mat and put up by Border Patrol agents and the military, stand about 10 to 12 feet high and are easily scaled or cut through — and difficult to repair. Most look like old quilts today, a patchwork of welded pieces covering the breaches.
Most of the new fences are 15 feet or higher, made of double steel mesh or concrete-filled steel tubes, and are much more difficult to cut through, said White, the Border Patrol agent in charge in Nogales. There have been only two breaches to the new fencing at Nogales since last year, he said.
Homeland Security paid $166 million in 10 contracts for the construction of nearly 45 miles of pedestrian fences in Arizona in 2007-2008, information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shows. The per-mile cost ranged from $2.59 million for 7.5 miles of fence east of Nogales to $7.425 million for 2.08 miles west of Nogales.
White said using subcontractors to build fencing resulted in more effective barriers.
"They hit the ground running, have engineers troubleshooting. They have all the right equipment for the job. They are the professionals," he said.
The new and improved roads have also been invaluable in areas that were previously accessible to agents only by foot, ATV or horseback.
The roads also mean lower vehicle-maintenance costs and faster response and transport times, he said.
Blockade or speed bump?
East of the Lukeville port of entry in Mexico, an unpaved road runs parallel to a double steel mesh pedestrian fence.
On a recent visit, scouts could be seen driving back and forth along the road eyeing the movements of Border Patrol agents on the U.S. side. Shortly after an agent drove west toward the Lukeville, two taxis emerged from a cluster of homes and ranches in Mexico and drove east along the border on the dirt road. When they reached the end of the fence about three miles west of Lukeville, they stopped and dropped off about 10 people.
The group casually walked over the waist-high vehicle barriers and into the United States, fading into the sea of cactus and shrubs. Whether they succeeded in evading the Border Patrol is unknown, but they had no problem defeating the fence.
Smugglers staging the crossing of people or drugs is a daily occurrence near Soto's ranch.
Going around is just one tactic smugglers use, Soto said. They commonly cut through the mesh fence or use ladders to go over it.
"It doesn't do anything," Soto said in Spanish.
Lee Baiza, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument superintendent, says the verdict is still out on the five-plus miles of pedestrian fencing put up last year on the monument's southern border.
"The thing that amazes me is that they still bother to just cut through it," Baiza said. "It has deviated some traffic but not in totality the way I would have expected it to."
Glenn Spencer, who runs the non-governmental organization American Border Patrol from his 100 acres along the border west of the San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area, says it depends on the type of fencing.
The 18-foot-high steel bollard fence that stretches from the San Pedro River across his ranch nearly six miles west to the foot of the Huachuca Mountains has completely stopped illegal immigration, Spencer said.
But a shorter steel mesh fence on the other side of the San Pedro that is easy to climb hasn't slowed smugglers and illegal border crossers much, he said. And he considers vehicle barriers useless for stopping people and gets annoyed when Homeland Security counts them in its total miles of fencing.
"It has to be tall enough, it has to be effectively designed," Spencer said.
The same bollard fencing Spencer raves about can also be found east of Nogales and in two stretches around Douglas. Variations of the bollard fencing are up west of Nogales, flanking Sasabe and east of Naco.
"It is the best investment we could make on our border," said Spencer, who flies the border in a small plane to track the fence construction. "We are going to be cutting back on the drugs entering the United States, criminals entering the United States, illegal aliens. We are going to cut down on Border Patrol costs."
By the numbers
Fencing along Arizona's 378-mile stretch of U.S.-Mexico border:
miles of pedestrian fencing
miles of pedestrian fencing as of September 2006
miles of vehicle barriers in Arizona
miles of vehicle barriers in Arizona as of September 2006
Source: U.S. Border Patrol