U.S.-Mexico Barrier Spurring More Illegal Foot Traffic, Enviro Damage

Craig Guillot
for National Geographic News
June 22, 2007

A year after a barrier was completed along its boundary with Mexico, Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has seen a significant decline in vehicle traffic from drug smugglers and illegal immigrants, officials say.

But while the barrier is stopping vehicles, it may also be prompting more people to cross the desert on foot.

Fred Patton, chief ranger at the monument, said that since the 30-mile (48-kilometer) barrier was completed in July 2006, it has been almost 100-percent effective in keeping out illegal vehicles.

The remote monument had been a popular crossing point for illegal immigrants and drug smugglers since 2001, Patton said.

Upwards of a thousand people a day were crossing through the park, as vehicles loaded with people and drugs barreled through the desert.

"We were getting multiple vehicles that were bringing in either narcotics or illegal entrants," Patton said.

"They were crossing into the park fairly randomly 24 hours a day. They were driving on park roads at high rates of speed and posing a threat to the public."

(Read related: "Arizona Park 'Most Dangerous' in U.S." [January 13, 2003].)

In addition to the human dangers, the effects of this traffic on the landscape have been profound.

Major trash dumps have formed that can be smelled hundreds of yards away, Patton said. And more than 300 miles (482 kilometers) of entrenched roads now run through the monument that have altered the flow of rainwater during the rainy season.

But while the barrier has virtually eliminated the vehicle traffic that led to these problems, it may be exacerbating other ones.

Patton suspects that the barrier may have actually caused an increase in foot traffic through the monument, because vehicle traffic is no longer possible.

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