Police tread lightly in New Mexico town overrun with migrant-related calls

Border Report

Ride-along with Sunland Park police yields multiple run-ins with migrants in hiding or in need of aid

SUNLAND PARK, New Mexico (Border Report) – The sun has barely come up and Officer E. Gallardo is already fielding his second migrant-related call of the day.

This one involves a man being questioned by plainclothes agents in a shopping center where the stores won’t open for another couple of hours.

Earlier, he assisted fellow Sunland Park police officers and U.S. Border Patrol agents in looking for a large group of people accused of passing through private property on their way to NM Highway 273.

“They hide in the brush, behind houses, under mobile homes … they’ll go to sleep and rest a bit and won’t come up for hours,” says the officer from this Southern New Mexico town that has become the epicenter of migrant smuggling in the greater El Paso region.

Juarez, Mexico-based smuggling organizations find this community attractive because of its geography. A mountain called Cristo Rey sits right on the border and offers cover for large groups of migrants and their guides waiting for U.S. Border Patrol vehicles to move along before running across the border.

Border wall is virtually non-existent on the mountain and, just below it, smugglers have mastered the art of quickly moving ladders to the steel bollards barrier and helping migrants to the top in a matter of seconds.

To understand how the town is coping with collateral damage from the migrant surge, a Border Report and KTSM crew on Friday rode along with an officer of the Sunland Park Police Department.

Most residents of Sunland Park are Hispanic, and many are the children or grandchildren of immigrants. And, unlike their Texas neighbors, New Mexico state authorities aren’t pushing to help enforce immigration laws. That means municipal police officers must tread lightly when they come upon migrants.

“Ultimately, if I can see them on a private property, I can make a consensual stop. I gotta protect the dwelling and the safety of the residents,” Gallardo says.

He is a veteran of the Las Cruces, Anthony and Sunland Park police departments. He has seen many trends in his law-enforcement career but says he has never had to respond to so many migrant-related calls from residents.

Most calls involve trespassing on private property or suspicious vehicles lingering in residential neighborhoods. In some cases, he’s investigated abandoned homes used by passing migrants.

Gallardo says he’s learned to read the signs.

“Dirty clothes thrown about … noise under the house, dogs acting in a certain behavior. The call volume is extremely high,” he says.

He drives through a business and residential area near Mount Cristo Rey where trespassing calls are frequent. It doesn’t take him long to see someone hiding next to the fence of a local business.

“How are you? Are you hurt? What are you doing there?” the officer asks a man behind mesquite brush. “Do you live there? No? Did you know that is private property? Is this your house? No? You live in Juarez, you say?”

A guard dog barks at a migrant hiding in the brush on the other side of the fence of a business in Sunland Park, New Mexico, a short distance from the U.S.-Mexico border. (Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

The man volunteers that he had been sleeping in the brush after crossing the mountain the previous night. He said he’s 29 years old, a painter and that he was on his way to see his girlfriend and a niece.

Gallardo said he’s learned to engage migrants in conversation in Spanish – the native tongue of most migrants passing through the town – to defuse potential confrontations.

The occupants of a roving Border Patrol vehicle witness the officer talking to the migrant and approach. They take custody of the migrant.

Sunland Park police say they have noticed “peak hours” of migrant traffic.

Early morning just before sunrise is when people come down the mountain or chance dropping over the border wall, police said. The migrants quickly seek a hiding place in neighborhoods near the wall and “lay low” for a few hours. Just after noon, they tend to make their move either toward the highway or certain pre-arranged spots where American “contractors” pick them up in vehicles and take them to stash houses or drive them to the interior of the country, authorities say.

“Almost everyone carries a cell phone now,” Gallardo says of the migrants and how they stay in contact with the smugglers or their ride. In some cases, the smugglers instruct them to call an Uber or Lyft driver.

On Friday, the officer drove to the Encinos neighborhood of Sunland Park, where a vehicle was going up and down the street and the driver was on a cell phone.

“That’s probably an (Uber),” Gallardo says. The driver notices the police car and heads out of the neighborhood alone.

Police say they don’t stop drivers just for picking up passengers near the border wall. However, if the vehicle looks like it’s carrying more occupants than what it was designed for, the officer can make a stop. If it’s speeding or runs a stop sign, he can make a stop. Federal officials may be documenting the license plates of vehicles they suspect are transporting undocumented migrants, and that may affect the driver’s record.

Later, Gallardo investigates possible trespassing at an abandoned house on Fifth Street. The two “No Trespassing” signs have been ignored, judging by the multiple footprints leading to the back of the house. Gallardo hears a noise coming from inside the house and, fearing someone inside might need help, enters through the broken window, voicing an offer to render aid.

The search comes up empty, but the officer documents a heavy smell of feces and urine, dirty clothes, empty water bottles and jugs strewn about inside.

Gallardo responds to a few non-migrant related calls during his shift: a car crash on McNutt Road and possible vandalism at an elementary school.

The shift closes with a call to assist a Honduran national who hurt his knee coming over the border wall. Then, all available units are summoned to Santa Teresa Middle School, where a large group of people has been spotted walking behind the campus.

Gallardo says protecting children is a priority in this community.

“Many elderly persons take care of their grandchildren; they’ll call if they see something” that causes them concern, he says.

Border Report spoke to several residents of Fifth Street. Three elderly residents expressed concern for their safety, not from the migrants they’ve grown used to seeing pass by in the last couple of decades, but of the increasingly bold smugglers and the U.S. drivers they’re hiring.

“I am (concerned), but I don’t want trouble. Some of them (the drivers) may be people from here and I don’t want trouble,” said an elderly woman who declined to be identified or recorded.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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