Construction crews maneuver panels of a 30-foot fence into a trench along the U.S.-Mexico border east of Lukeville. Five miles of border wall construction are being built in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, with another 38 miles set to start in coming weks.

LUKEVILLE — In the desert east of Lukeville, 30-foot poles mark the next stage of the Trump administration’s border wall.

Last week, construction crews gingerly maneuvered the poles into a trench dug along the U.S.-Mexico border east of this border town 150 miles west of Tucson.

The poles, known as bollards, are the same height and dark color as the bollards being installed along a 26-mile stretch near San Luis, the border town south of Yuma.

Plans are in the works to spend $646 million on 63 miles of wall in Southern Arizona.

Starting in October, the wall will replace vehicle barriers or shorter fencing along the rest of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument near Lukeville and much of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. The wall also will run along 19 miles in Cochise County and cross the San Pedro River. Another five miles are planned along the Colorado River near Yuma.

The chants at President Trump’s political rallies have changed from “build the wall” in 2016 to “finish the wall” in recent weeks. So far, the Trump administration has replaced about 60 miles of fencing with 30-foot bollards.

Critics, meanwhile, condemn the wall project as ineffective and a vanity project for the president.

A Mexican worker takes a break from turning mesquite branches to charcoal and heads toward Sonoyta, a Sonora border town south of Lukeville, for sodas and snacks.

Pouring concrete

While the political debate about the wall swirls in the United States, a man on a horse heads to Sonoyta, the Mexican border town south of Lukeville, to buy sodas and snacks.

He was taking a break from turning mesquite branches into charcoal during the hot afternoon hours on Wednesday. He didn’t want to give his name, but he chatted in Spanish about cutting branches from trees along the banks of the Rio Sonoyta.

The river runs parallel to the border and feeds the green fields of squash, cotton and alfalfa a few hundred yards from the border wall, providing a livelihood to many local residents.

With a handshake and a wave, he and his horse trotted off toward Sonoyta.

Farther down the dirt-and-gravel road that runs along the south side of the border wall, construction crews were pouring concrete into a trench dug for the new sections of the border wall.

Panels of bollards, each with eight of the 30-foot poles, were stacked on the road north of the border. The crews were installing the third panel Wednesday afternoon.

Heavy machinery stamped with the logo of Southwest Valley Constructors, an Albuquerque-based firm that was awarded a $646 million contract to build the wall in Southern Arizona, lifted out metal-mesh fencing that stood about 15 feet high.

The mesh fencing closer to the port of entry was riddled with patches where smugglers had cut holes. Two strands of razor-sharp concertina wire ran along the upper part of the fence, at least until it was time to replace the fence with bollards.

The plan is to replace five miles of mesh fencing near the Lukeville Port of Entry, known to many Arizonans as the gateway to the beaches of Rocky Point.

With an almost cartoonish “boing” sound, each strand of razor-sharp concertina wire would suddenly drop and dangle when a worker clipped the wire, less than a year after the wire was hung with much fanfare by National Guard troops who were sent to the border to assist Border Patrol agents.

The plan is to replace three miles of mesh fencing on the east side of the Lukeville Port of Entry, known to many Arizonans as the gateway to the beaches of Rocky Point, and another two miles on the west side of the port of entry.

To the east of Lukeville, the mesh fencing turns into rail-and-post barriers that run to the horizon. In the coming months, those barriers will be replaced with 30-foot bollards.

Border traffic

The area west of Lukeville was the site of numerous crossings of large groups of migrant families from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador last fall and through the spring.

Since May, those crossings have shifted east to the Sasabe area, including nine groups of 50 or more people who surrendered to agents, the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector said Friday.

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While funds for the San Luis portion of the wall were appropriated by Congress last year, the portion near Lukeville was paid for by the Pentagon’s anti-drug smuggling funds.

At least 9,000 pounds of marijuana were seized in the smuggling corridor north of Lukeville from October 2017 to June 2018, according to a review by the Arizona Daily Star of records at U.S. District Court in Tucson.

The vast majority of hard drugs like cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl are seized at ports of entry, not in the desert areas where the wall is being built, according to federal court records, Customs and Border Protection data, and annual reports by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The drugs often are hidden in compartments inside vehicles or strapped to people’s bodies under their clothing.

In a break from the norm, the Tucson Sector issued several news releases in recent months saying backpackers had been caught hauling meth.

Many marijuana-smuggling cases involve men dressed in camouflage hauling 40 pounds of pot in backpacks through the desert, often when they do not have enough money to pay their mafia fee to cross the border.

Some are arrested hiding under brush with marijuana backpacks nearby, while others try to flee or fight Border Patrol agents, court records show.

The backpackers are guided through the desert by scouts camped for weeks on top of nearby mountains.

The scouts use encrypted radios to communicate with guides leading the backpackers, making sure the groups are staggered and warning them when Border Patrol agents are approaching.

This photo from 2003 shows what the U.S.-Mexico border fence along Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument looked like before construction of short bollard-style vehicle barriers.

One Border Patrol agent, who whistled to two Star journalists Wednesday so they would turn toward him as he took a photo with his camera phone, said he was “indifferent” to the new wall being built.

The same day, as the construction crews poured concrete, Trump tweeted to 63 million followers that the wall was “vitally important” and posted a video of a finished portion with soaring music playing.

To the east of Lukeville, mesh fencing turns into rail-and-post barriers that run to the horizon. In the coming months, those barriers will be replaced with 30-foot bollards.

Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or cprendergast@tucson.com or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar