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Grupos Beta aids migrants south of the border

Mexican agency's mission is to help those in need

NOGALES, Son.— After 20 minutes of climbing a dusty, rocky trail on a steep gradient, the orange truck finally reached the summit of Diamond Mountain.

“Here is the beauty of Nogales,” said Rafael Camacho, the head of Grupos Beta Nogales, as he and fellow agent Leocadio Velázquez stepped out to survey the terrain.

Holding vigil on the mountain, Grupos Beta continues its 21-year-long mission of helping migrants, following their motto, “vocation, humanitarianism and loyalty.”

Grupos Beta is a Mexican federal entity that was founded in 1991, similar to the U.S. Border Patrol. But unlike the Border Patrol, the group’s mission is not to detain migrants. The agency's sole mission is to provide aid to migrants in need.

Beta is not a police force. The Mexican government has military, as well as municipal, state and federal police officers stationed along the border to staunch the flow of drugs and violence north.

“Anybody who is a migrant is a human being and deserves respect and attention,” Velázquez said.

Beta looks for paramedical training among their recruits. First aid is a must as an agent, but they are also specialized in water and air rescues.

The group provides services to migrants, such as medical help, search, rescue and shelter for up to three days. In Nogales alone, they helped 18,143 migrants in 2011.

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Velázquez has been an agent with Beta for the past 13 years. Like others in the force, he had spent much of his life in the service of municipal and state police. The first impression of Velázquez is that of a serious man, but his warm side and the sincerity and passion he has for his job becomes obvious.

Driving through the twists and turns and traffic of Nogales, Velázquez talked about his reasons for joining Grupos Beta,.

“The police go after the criminals, but what about the victims and their families? They don’t look after them after the crime has been processed. Here, we do that," he said

After a 10-minute trip, we arrived at the Albergue San Juan Bosco, a Catholic men’s shelter that the Betas work with in Nogales. Women are housed at another facility. Here, passing migrants are given a place to stay for three nights. After a night in the shelter, they gather for an orientation session with Beta.

“I know what your problems are,” Velázquez told them during the 20-minute orientation before a trip to a kitchen run by the Kino Border Initiative, a Jesuit organization dedicated to aiding migrants and deportees. “After you have breakfast, we’ll be able to help you with whatever other needs you may have. But breakfast comes first.”

He also does his best to ensure that one other fact is made clear: any aid involving transportation is to get back home, not to help them cross into the United States.

“Our job is to let you know what you will face if you attempt to cross,” Velázquez said.

A migrant from Jalisco, his face sunburned from days on the journey, said he has family in Tijuana was willing to take him in and that he would like to stay with them for a while. He asked for a bus ticket there.

“Our program includes providing you with aid and the necessary tools to get you back home. Our program is not looking to try and help you to cross the border,” he's told by Velázquez.

Velázquez tells the tale of a migrant who arrived at Beta with his feet nearly destroyed. He was nursed back to health and given a discounted bus ticket. He then used it to get to Altar where he attempted the crossing again. He did manage to cross the border, but died in the Arizona desert.

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“On the way up here, we’ve only had bad experiences,” said Oscar Águilar, a migrant from Jalisco who was on U.S. territory only  hours before being detained by the Border Patrol. “We all have hurt our feet. He injured his ankle. He hurt his knee,” he said about his group.

Such tales are not uncommon, although these are not the worst that can happen. At the end of the day, these men are alive and their spirits are intact. Soon after hearing the stories, we drove to the Kino Soup Kitchen.

Later on in the day, Camacho driving a Jeep, with Velázquez following along in the truck, drove down a desert trail to the west of the city. The air was still and dry. As the patrol continued, the dust kicked up by the vehicle wheels clogs the air. A black dot appeared in the distance, and as the Beta driver got closer, they noticed a man walking.

“We’re going to pull over here and let the truck go ahead,” Camacho said.

Velázquez hit the gas on the pickup, passed Camacho and came to a stop near the man. Velázquez got out of his truck and checked on the man’s condition.

“Did you travel alone,” he asked the man.

“No,” the man said, “I stopped and they went on without me.”

“Did you tire out or did you just know you wouldn’t make it in those shoes?”

His shoes were almost completely disintegrated. Yet there he was, in the middle of the desert walking toward the city of Nogales, where the nearest help was most likely to be found.

“They use this road often,” said Camacho. “They do it to get around the border.”

The main problem with traveling in the desert is the lack of water. Many people die from thirst. But on the path there are two water stations placed by Humane Borders, a faith-based organization out of Tucson and that Beta works with.

It is difficult to pass through the area in a Jeep. Migrants do not have that luxury. Up until the last decade, the most commonly used route went through more urban areas of the border, but with the construction of a border wall on the U.S. side and the addition of more Border Patrol agents, that changed.

“Migrants are always going to try to cross,” Camacho said, “The heightened security only makes people go farther out of their way, into the unpopulated areas, where there are fewer agents.”

The more isolated the territory, the less likely they will find other people. In the harsh environment, filled with canyons, mountains and arroyos, blue flags line the path. They direct walkers to water stations and also let them know that the area is patrolled by Beta.

Of these strategic points, the highest is Diamond Mountain, a journey of an hour and a half by Jeep from the city of Nogales. The climate is windy and chilly. From its garbage-strewn summit, one can see Tucson, plus the miles of desert between. The difficulties of passage are evident from the vantage point.

Once at the top, Camacho and Velázquez took their time and scanned the horizon looking for any signs of activity. Some days the action is great and some days, it is light. In a moment of lull, Agent Velázquez recalled some of his experiences with Grupos Beta.

“It was either my second or third day here when a group of migrants who had just spent the night in the desert passed by. Amongst them was a woman who carried a baby in her arms, and he was clearly very cold. Everyone had tried to cover it up in with their blankets. So the next morning they all arose and she went to breast feed her child. That’s when she found that he had died overnight.

“Of all the stories I’ve heard, that one touched me most of all,” he said.

Camacho has his own theory as to why, despite the ordeals, people still come to the area.

“All of these people have the same dream, the American dream. Whether the dream is real or not that is their reason for making the trip, to obtain a better life.”

TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

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Kevin G. Andrade/Arizona Sonoran News Service

Rafael Camacho, the head of Grupos Beta Nogales, scans the mountains for signs of migrants who may be in distress on Thursday.