McGREGOR RANGE, New Mexico (Border Report) – A black K-9 officer with a bell around his neck sprints up a hill in the hot desert of southern New Mexico. A group of men in military fatigues follows the sound with a sense of urgency.
The canine comes upon two men near the top of the hill. The uniformed men who carry rifles quickly surround the one wearing a black El Paso Chihuahuas shirt while the paramedics in their squad kneel to examine one lying motionless on his back.
“Le tiraron! Le tiraron! Por favor, ayudenlo (They shot at him! They shot at him! Please help him),” the suspected unauthorized migrant yells.
The U.S. Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) team members pull out field dressings and an intravenous fluid kit. They discover the man also has a gunshot wound to the torso and begin to treat that as well when shots ring out.
“We got shots! What’s the direction?” one of the agents shouts. “They’re in the bush! 100 meters to the east, they’re behind the bush!” another one responds. The paramedics move the injured man downhill on a stretcher while others aim their rifles to where the gunfire is coming from.
The shots were blanks and the injured man was a volunteer actor. But the field exercise on this humid August afternoon at McGregor Range in Otero County was meant to prepare the men and women of BORSTAR for all-too-real situations along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“All of these guys put themselves in harm’s way because they feel a duty to protect this country,” said Timothy McNeil, a BORSTAR paramedic. “A big part of what we do is medical aid and part of that medical aid is combat medicine. Things like gunshot wounds, we specialize in treating those.”
CBP officers and border agents have carried out 18,897 search and rescue missions along the border since Oct. 1. That’s almost four times as many as the 4,920 they conducted in 2019. Most rescues deal with migrants who are lost or suffering from heat-related illnesses or injuries from scaling the border wall. But some involve smuggler-on-migrant assaults. The rescues can turn into ambushes, as people have shot at agents from the other side of the border wall.
CBP officials attribute the spike in rescues to the unprecedented volume of migrants entering the country illegally. The Border Patrol and Office of Field Operations officers have “encountered” unauthorized migrants more than 2.2 million times so far in the fiscal year 2022.
“The number of encounters has increased, so it’s not unusual that rescues increase as well,” said Border Patrol spokesman Claudio Herrera. “Also, you have to take into account the risks of crossing the border illegally, especially the rough terrain – remote areas with limited access and no water. We must also take into account the sun and high temperatures.”
The federal government created BORSTAR in 1998 in response to a growing number of migrant deaths along the southwestern border. The unit is part of the Border Patrol’s Special Operations Group based in El Paso, Texas. Its agents receive training as emergency medical technicians, and on conducting searches and rescues in the desert, mountains, bodies of water and along the border wall itself. They’re also prepared to respond to and manage active shooter situations on the border.
“We never know when something will go wrong. They could be on the scene assisting someone and, like it happened in the training, shots may ring out,” Herrera said. “But of course, Border Patrol agents are prepared to respond to (attacks).”
McNeil said he joined BORSTAR in 2008, inspired by the high number of injured migrants he encountered while performing his patrol duties.
“Here they prepare you to treat people in distress and help people in their worst day,” he said. “We serve anybody who needs it. Whether that’s a local 911 call, a rescue up in the mountain, a rescue in the desert. We’ve got agents everywhere in the desert in very inaccessible places to most EMS services.”
In addition to a willingness to serve others, BORSTAR requires rigorous conditioning and mental toughness from its members. Still, some agents in their mid-50s have managed to make the cut. The unit also includes an unspecified number of female agents, who have proven capable of building rapport with women migrants who end up providing critical information.