SONORAN DESERT, Ariz. — In May 2001, 26 undocumented aliens walked into one of the most brutal stretches of the Sonoran Desert along the Arizona - Mexico border for reasons as varied as the number of men. At some point in the journey, their guide, a.k.a. the coyote, abandoned the group, leaving them to fend for themselves. When agents of the U.S. Border Patrol found five of the men from the group ranting and delirious from so many days in the blistering sun with no water and no food, what followed was a rescue operation and tragedy of such proportions that it would forever leave its mark on the history of the Border Patrol.
“Ellos se mueren (They’re dying),” said one of the men to the agent who first came upon the group. All told, 14 souls paid the ultimate sacrifice for attempting to cross El Camino Del Diablo – The Devil’s Highway.
In response to what became known as “The Wellton 14,” U.S. Border Patrol initiated “Operation Desert Grip” in 2002 to try to ensure that the events of that fateful May night would never happen again. Headquarters for the operation became known as Camp Grip and ever since the operation, the camp, and the agents who man it have maintained their vigil.
Deep in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refugee, Camp Grip is the definition of “the middle of nowhere.” Giant saguaros stand sentinel over the wildlife that call this area home as seven mountain ranges enclose the valley once swept over by lava flows. Cell phones don’t work here and you'd better have a really rugged four-wheel drive truck to even think about getting here – cars and low-clearance vehicles need not apply.
The camp is manned by agents of the Wellton and Ajo U.S. Customs and Border Protection. They volunteer to come out here for seven days at a time, working 12-hours on/12-hours off shifts. Agents such as Angel Ochoa, who’s made the “trip to Grip,” as it’s known in Border Patrol vernacular, nine times.
“You’re almost guaranteed to find something when you come out here,” said Ochoa. “Whether it's illegals, or drug smugglers, it’s always interesting.”
A two and a half year veteran of the Patrol, Ochoa notes the harsh terrain and the near constant wind that sweeps across the valley floor makes sign cutting here, the art of reading the landscape and footprints to track a group’s progress, some of the most difficult anywhere in the U.S.