Operation Desert Safeguard

By: Thomas Edgar

Operation Desert Safeguard was initiated June 3, 2003. It was created by Robert C. Bonner the Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection as well as Dr. Javier Moectezuma Barragon the Mexican Undersecretary of Population, Migration, and Religious Affairs. The overall mission of Operation Desert Safeguard was to reduce the number of migrant deaths on the U.S.-Mexican border. Migrants attempt to cross the border through what is known as the West Desert Corridor (also known as the “Corridor of Death”), which is the area of the Sonoran Desert that spans Sonora, Mexico, and Arizona. Many of these migrants attempt to navigate the difficult terrain in temperatures well into the triple digits. Some get lost on their own, while others are led astray by human smugglers. This can often result in death. In fact, there are hundreds of migrant deaths each year. The hope was that with a greater presence of border protection measures, the number of deaths would diminish.[1]

First and foremost Operation Desert Safeguard increased the Border Patrol presence by 150 agents. These agents came from two divisions of the Border Patrol. The first division is known as BORTAC (Border Patrol Tactical Unit) which is responsible for apprehension of illegal immigrants, drug smugglers, and other illegal groups. The second unit is known as BORSTAR (Border Patrol Search Trauma and Rescue Team). BORSTAR agents aid in the rescue of individuals who have become stranded in the desert. [2]

Operation Safeguard also increased the number of locations at which the Border Patrol agents would be stationed. The operation created remote camps that Border Patrol agents would cycle through. To help cover the larger area, the Border Patrol received an influx of technology, including more surveillance vehicles and land vehicles to help overcome the difficult terrain. The operation also included twenty new rescue beacons which were placed in strategic locations throughout the desert. If an individual were to become lost they would be able to press a button which would summon a rescue team.[3]

Operation Desert Safeguard is not just being operated by the United States; the Mexican Government is also involved. Both nations ran a media campaign in an attempt to deter potential migrants from trying to cross the border. The campaign warned against the inherent risks of the journey. The U.S. Border Patrol also helped to train one thousand Mexican fire and law enforcement agencies on life-saving techniques.

The overall effectiveness of Operation Desert Safeguard is difficult to determine. Human rights activists believe that the Operation only pushed migrants further into dangerous terrain.[4] For example, the founder of Humane Borders, Reverend Robin Hoover, stated “The Migrants are walking in more treacherous terrain for longer periods of time, and you should expect more deaths.” A specific example came during a six month period from October 2008 to March 2009 in which the Border Patrol experienced a 25% drop in arrests, but saw an increase in deaths.[5] Operation Desert Safeguard has helped to increase training making agents in both the U.S. and Mexico more adept at saving lives.

Further Reading

 “About Humane Borders.” Humane Borders. http://www.humaneborders.org/about/about_index.html (accessed March 27, 2012).

“Border Patrol Search, Trauma, and Rescue (BORSTAR).” U.S. Customs and Border Protection. http://www.cbp.gov/linkhandler/cgov/newsroom/fact_sheets/border/border_patrol/borstar.ctt/borstar.pdf (accessed March 27, 2012).

“CBP Mission Statement and Core Values.” U.S. Customs and Border Protection. http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/about/mission/guardians.xml (accessed March 27, 2012).


[1] “Operation Desert Safeguard -U.S. and Mexico cooperate to prevent migrant deaths,” Customs and Border Protection Today, http://www.cbp.gov/xp/CustomsToday/2003/august/op_desert_safeguard.xml (accessed March 26, 2012).

[2] “CBP Launches Operation Desert Safeguard Aimed at Preventing Migrant Deaths,” Customs and Border Protection, http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/newsroom/news_releases/archives/cbp_press_releases/062003/06032003.xml (accessed March 26, 2012).

[3] “CBP Launches Operation Desert Safeguard Aimed at Preventing Migrant Deaths,” Customs and Border Protection, http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/newsroom/news_releases/archives/cbp_press_releases/062003/06032003.xml (accessed March 26, 2012).

[4] “Border Patrol beefs up its presence in Tucson area,” Yuma Sun, http://www.yumasun.com/news/border-5283-tucson-patrol.html (accessed March 26, 2012).

[5] “Migrant deaths rise on U.S.-Mexico border,” MSNBC, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30114888/ns/us_news-life/t/migrant-deaths-rise-us-mexico-border/#.T3EeRDHeD4B (accessed March 26, 2012).

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