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Puppies join Border Patrol effort to sniff out smugglers

YUMA — The newest two Border Patrol agents in the Yuma Sector are also two of its youngest — but what they lack in years and experience they make up for in energy and enthusiasm.

Canine agents Kala and Kirpy joined just over 60 canine teams in the sector in mid-March. The five-and-a-half-month-old Belgian Malinois puppies are brother and sister, two of eight puppies born in El Paso.

Unlike many canine agents who are trained in Europe and come to Arizona when their training is complete at about two years old, Kala and Kirpy will train and acclimate at the same time.

"What we're able to do with the puppies is we can being then in and expose them to everything younger," said Border Patrol Agent Wes Burch, special operations supervisor and the canine coordinator for the sector.

While new to the job, the puppies have been given names that link them to the Border Patrol family.

Kirpy is named after Agent Alexander Kirpnick, who was killed attempting to arrest smuggling suspects near Nogales in 1998. Kala is named for Customs and Border Protection Officer Mickey Kunter, who died of cardiac arrest while off duty in 2011.

The puppies are paired with two Yuma Sector agents: Kirpy with Rolando Carbajal and Kala with Lupe Medrano.

Carbajal and Medrano were in the same class of Border Patrol recruits and have worked in Yuma Sector for five years. Their current canine partners, German shepherds named Aaron and Cooper, are close to retirement.

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The training program for agents who work with canines is rigorous. They must pass their training program above 90 percent to continue. Unlike a human partner, agents who work with service animals are also responsible for all aspects of their canine partner's life outside of work — including managing nutrition and veterinarian appointments.

"It's a big commitment," Carbajal said. "It's not over at the end of the day but it is very rewarding."

Carbajal and Medrano plan to adopt their current partners when they retired, and to keep working with Kirpy and Kala, who will have completed training and be reaching their full weight — expected to be 60 pounds for Kala and 70-80 pounds for Kirpy.

When Kala and Kirpy arrived in Yuma, agents Carbajal and Medrano quickly discovered that working the puppies would be different from the partnerships they started with older dogs.

For example, Kala used to get car sick until she got used to traveling.

"It's harder than it looks," Medrano said. "They have a lot of energy, it's a lot of fun."

The two teams will be led by Burch, who currently oversees just over 60 canine teams.

"One of the best ways I heard described was, the dog smells like we see," Burch said. "So if I'm looking for the color yellow, doesn't matter, I have all these other colors around it, you can still point to the yellow."

Each team's work depends on the dog's personality and their strengths and talents, developed during training.

"It's pretty much the same way guys train them to hunt birds," Burch said. "They're not traded to find marijuana, they're trained to find the odor."

After training to identify smells and signal when they've found them, the dogs can pick out specific scents even in a chaotic environment with many distractions.

Burch demonstrated how the dogs identify smells using a pack of different colored highlighters to represent different scents.

"Let's say this is marijuana and this is motor oil, axle grease, coffee, onions, there's still marijuana in there, the dog is still going to be able to smell that in addition to smelling all these other things," Burch said. "It's pretty cool how they're able to break down all of that stuff."

The Yuma Sector's canine teams include working dogs with training in three separate disciplines: patrol, detection training (to find concealed persons and the odors of narcotics), and three search and rescue dogs (two of whom are also cadaver dogs trained to help recover human remains).

Along the border, canine agents play a major role at border security checkpoints by searching vehicles for drugs and hidden people.

"If we're up against anything it's that these guys have unlimited resources," Burch said. "I mean it's a very profitable business, whether it's aliens or narcotics or terrorists or terrorist weapons, they have unlimited resources, money's no object to them, it's their imagination."

With a climate attractive to snowbirds and a busy border location, there's also a high volume of vehicles with trailers and luggage — which means more potential places for smugglers to hide things and for agents to check. 

Burch gave the example of a traveler whose vehicle was towing a small trailer that, at first glance, would seem to small to hold a significant amount of luggage let alone a person.

"This particular guy is just coming through there, dog alerted to the trailer," Burh said. "Open it up, the whole thing's been gutted out, everything's been taken out of there — there was at least three people and that's all it was used for."

And in a rural environment like Yuma, smugglers may try to hide drugs in transportation for livestock or agriculture.

"We have had several instances where marijuana's been concealed by hay," Burch said. "A couple years ago we got an actual big hay truck that had several hundred pounds up on top of it. They pulled out a couple bales, put the marijuana in, put the hay back in there, driving down the road you're never going to know but again that was our dog at a checkpoint that got that."

In fact, Yuma Sector's canine teams proved "highly successful" by seizing more than 500 pounds of cocaine, 210 pounds of methamphetamine, 162 pounds of heroin, and 4,452 pounds of marijuana - a total estimated value of more than $31,300,000 - in the fiscal year 2012, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol press releases.

Tucson Sector agents did not provide specific numbers, but did release basic information on their canine program, which has been in operation since three detection teams arrived at Nogales Station from the National Canine Facility in El Paso in 2000. 

Tucson's canine program is one of the largest in Border Patrol with teams certified in "varied disciplines of tracking/trailing, search and rescue, human remains detection, and patrol" though most teams are "dual-certified in concealed people and controlled substances," Agent Shelton McKenzie said in an email.

When it comes to results, the Tucson Sector has "one of the most robust and active canine programs within the United States Border Patrol; on a collective basis it frequently apprehends more suspects and seizes more marijuana than any other sector canine program, it participates in more search and rescue missions and makes more lifesaving finds, and it continues to assist in safely apprehending dangerous individuals," McKenzie said.

Yuma Sector dogs also work on search and rescue missions, including the 2003 North Dakota search for Dru Sjodin and helping in the aftermath of the 1988 San Diego earthquake and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Over 900 BP K9s

Service dogs work with law enforcement in many capacities including search and rescue missions and helping to detect explosives and drugs.

Starting with four dogs in Texas in 1986, the number of working dogs in the Border Patrol has grown to over 900 nationwide today.

As well as Kala and Kirpy, they include their brothers and sisters — two in the Tucson Sector, two in the Big Bend Sector and two who stayed to train in the El Paso Sector.

The pair of puppies sent to Tucson, Keenan and Knowles, are also named for Border Patrol agents: Keenan for Agent John D. Keenan, who was killed in 1989 when a drunk driver hit his patrol vehicle near Mission, Texas and Knowles for Agent John B. Knowles, the 1981 recipient one of the agency's highest awards, the Newton-Azrak Award.

Most detection dogs are sheepdogs trained overseas and purchased through regular vendors, arriving at their assignments at about two or two and a half years old.

Dogs trained to detect drug odors can recognize the scents of cocaine, heroin, meth and derivatives, while other dogs recognize up to 18 different odors related to explosives.

The detection dogs work primarily at ports of entry and checkpoints on the U.S. side of the border, checkpoints that Burch describes as linebackers and safeties in the war against illegal smuggling of people and narcotics.

"We don't have time or ability to search every vehicle coming through here," Burch said. "The dog expedites that whole thing."

Both the checkpoints and the use of canine agents have been challenged in court, usually regarding where or how evidence in criminal trials was obtained.

The decision in the 1976 case US v. Martinez-Fuerte allowed Border Patrol to set up established checkpoints on highways leading to the U.S.-Mexican border.

In 1983, the U.S. v. Place decision ruled that a dog's sniff is limited to the presence — or absence — of the smell they're trained to detect and therefore is not a search as defined under the Fourth Amendment which protects against unreasonable search and seizure. Decisions in two later cases, U.S. vs Waltzer and U.S. vs. Dovali-Avila, dealt with details of how and when the dogs were exposed to smells on suspects and in vehicles or luggage.

But to the dogs, their concerns have nothing to do with legal issues or security profiles, Burch said. Like service dogs who work with patients to detect insulin levels or strokes, they're looking for the smells they've been trained to recognize in games with their agent partners.

"The dog doesn't discriminate," Burch said. "He just knows that one of the things he's trained to find is there."

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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Rebekah Zemansky/TucsonSentinel.com

Kala and Agent Lupe Medrano (left) with Kirpy and Agent Rolando Carbajal.