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A Day in the Life of a Border Patrol Agent: Sign Cutting

The bread and butter of seasoned border patrol agents is their ability to sign-cut, Border Patrol lingo for tracking. It's an art that is passed down from one generation to the next. Sadly this ancient art is slowly being lost by the majority of agents due to the influx of new personnel over the past few years, inundating the stations and being semi-trained by journeymen who have barely made it past probation.

Many groups of would-be immigrants cross in the middle of the night to avoid detection. Groups attempt to successfully make it past the first thin line of agents then head inland; sometimes with destinations only a short distance to a pickup area but sometimes they may walk for several days of hard travel before coming out at a road.

Guides will take the groups on paths that aren't so easy to detect, nor to follow; hoping to remain unnoticed or to arrive at their pick-up area before the agents can find them.

Most border stations have specialized units that work almost exclusively sign-cutting operations. Although some may cut sign off of horseback and some while on ATV's, depending on the station and the terrain, the majority of Border Patrol sign-cutting is done on foot in the hostile terrain of the southern border.

The agents call it sign-cutting because in most cases they don't follow the sign like a bloodhound would; instead using the leapfrog method and jumping ahead, often cutting sign a mile or more ahead of where a group was last cut.

Agents cut sign all day long but the best time to look for sign is early in the morning as the sun will help an agent determine the age of the sign. They will watch suspected crossing areas for a scuff mark, heal print or sometimes just a kicked rock. A small bit of a shoe scuff is enough for a seasoned agent to begin his in-depth search.

Once sign is cut, they will find the best tracks available to scrutinize. Fresh tracks are crisp, with fine edges while those that are even a few hours old begin to crumble. The most recent impressions will "shine" especially in the early morning sun. Morning dew, previous rain and even small animal tracks can help to determine how long ago the track was made. Many units assign a newer agent to pull tires along a dirt road paralleling the border so that sign of crossings can be more easily and quickly located.

Other clues such as distance between steps, type of shoes worn, and pattern of the steps all tell a story about the people who have crossed over the area. Small shoes indicate women and or children; huaraches-inexpensive sandals, are worn by the poorer segment of the population, while combat boots with newer tread are a yellow flag for the pursuer as this represents someone outside of the normally encountered immigrant.

All this will be determined in only a few minutes by an agent. Once the direction the group is headed has been determined, the hunt is on and their superb knowledge of the area, the natural landmarks and the obstacle the group will encounter kicks in. Veteran agents know the routes most often followed, they know the landmarks, the watering holes, the pick-up areas and they learn how the illegal immigrants think.

Swollen streams after heavy rains may funnel groups to railroad crossings; extreme heat and arid locations will cause groups to walk in the night hours and early morning and then seek shade during the midday heat; heavily laden individuals will often represent drug smugglers and these will target lay-up areas near roads. These factors and many more are taken into account by the pursuers.

During my dozen years at the Uvalde, Texas station, which is approximately 70 miles away from the border, I was amazed at the number of groups, including some with women and children, we apprehended who had walked the 70 or more miles from the border in several days. Often these would-be-immigrants had blistered feet and were close to exhaustion yet they continued inland.

In the hot deserts of the Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol, each year hundreds of people are rescued after being deserted by their guides, becoming lost or just poorly preparing for the journey across this inhospitable terrain. Many die each year along the southern border as they make their trek towards the American Dream.

In Uvalde, most of the groups were between 2 and 10 with a group of a dozen or more being fairly rare. Along the border though, much larger groups are common; this caused the often scant manpower available to concentrate on the larger groups and ignore the pairs and trios that crossed through their areas. 

Sign-cutting is an important attribute of the Border Patrol and continues to be an important part of the job of a Border Patrol Agent.