Sign Cutting and the Border Patrol I – Tracking

If you hang around Border Patrol circles long enough, you will inevitably hear mention of something called “sign” and a process of tracking border crossers called “sign cutting”. One definition of sign (not mine) is “physical evidence of disturbance by the passing of people, animals or objects.” The presence of sign is one of the most important ways Border Patrol agents know that desert-crossing immigrants or drug smugglers have passed by. It is, of course, agents’ jobs to track and interdict these individuals.

Sign Cutting: What To Look For

Perhaps the most common (though by no means, the only) type of desert sign is footprints. The floor of the Sonoran Desert, which stretches across most of southern Arizona and where a good deal of illegal crossing occurs, is impressionable enough to leave evidence of others’ passing.

Border Patrol agents communicate with each other according to the type of footprint they encounter. They may refer to a heel or sole type such as a ”running W” or a waffle pattern.

Border Patrol Agent Sign Cuts

Border Patrol Agent Tracks Sign in Early-Morning Arizona

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Trained agents also recognize different types of footwear such as a cowboy boot (a plain sole with a separate heel mark), a work boot, cross-trainer shoe, a Vibram-type lug sole or Chuck Taylor, to name just a few. Sign evidence that someone wearing carpet booties or huaraches has passed, the latter of which is a type of slipper, will also let agents know they’re likely tracking poorer migrants who can’t afford anything fancier.

But sign isn’t only footprints.

One Border Patrol officer speaks about the months’-long training he had to go through with a veteran agent to learn how to identify other, less noticeable sign that can reveal itself in the desert to the sharp eye including kicked dirt, dark soil, broken plant limbs or stomped plants, bits of clothing, water bottles and wrappers.

Experienced border crossers, including  guides-for-hire called coyotes who lead others across the desert for a fee, can make sign cutting difficult for Border Patrol agents by brushing away the footprints they have left behind, often with a bit of creosote bush.

Travel at night also provides two distinct benefits for border crossers. First, it’s much cooler than crossing under the scorching daytime desert sun and therefore crossers expend less energy. Second, the darkness makes it much harder for agents to detect or cut sign.

Sign Cutting: Border Patrol Techniques

Border Patrol agents are not always at a disadvantage when it comes to sign cutting, however. While crossers do what they can to evade detection, agents use a process called leapfrogging to try to get ahead of groups of crossers whose sign they have encountered.

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Typically, when agents are in their trucks in the desert and encounter sign, they line out the sign and take an educated guess about a future location where they believe they can cut off the crossers.

Lining out sign involves a few steps.

Judging by the sign, agents will try to figure out in which direction the crossers seem to be heading. They will simultaneously gauge factors that might be important considerations.

A set of prints that doesn’t seem to be heading in any particular direction but wanders aimlessly around could mean the agents have come across dehydrated (and delirious) crossers, in which case they have a medical emergency on their hands and need to call in medical assistance as soon as possible.

But if the sign is moving in a consistent direction, the tracking agents might figure out what nearby topographical features are motivating crossers to head in that particular direction. A nearby highway could indicate that crossers are heading for a rendezvous with a friend who has a car, for example. A Tucson-based humanitarian group called Humane Borders leaves blue water tanks in various locations throughout the desert to ensure thirsty crossers don’t end up dying of thirst. Crossers may rely on the location of these tanks as a way station to someplace place.

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The depth of the footprint also speaks to the speed at which border crossers are traveling. Shallow prints indicate speed. These individuals have not stepped in any one spot long enough to leave a strong mark. Deeper, darker prints indicate slower, plodding steps.

Once agents have made an educated guess about how far away and where they feel border crossers are heading, they determine where they need to drive to make an interception.

Border Patrol agents have wheels; the border crossers do not. Hence driving up ahead to intercept them is called leapfrogging.

In my next post, I’ll talk more about the history of sign cutting.

About Joe Kovacs

I write literary fiction and am currently pursuing literary representation for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, which is about a young Border Patrol agent in southern Arizona. Subscribe to The Write Place Blog by submitting your email address in the box in the right column of this page.
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