JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – Epifanio Diaz Suarez has spent the past three decades helping stranded travelers in the desert and mountains of northwest Juarez.

“Sometimes the smugglers leave them up in the mountain with no food or water, lost with no sense of where to go or what to do next,” says Diaz, president of Zorros del Desierto (Desert Foxes), a nonprofit of citizens-band radio aficionados. “We give them water; we render aid because some of them have snake bites or were injured trying to climb the (border) wall.”

Diaz’s beat is Anapra, a Juarez neighborhood across the border from Sunland Park, N.M. The U.S. Border Patrol says the area is a hotbed for migrant smuggling activities; Juarez police say it’s also a high-crime area with its share of drug trafficking and murders.

The spotlight shone brightly on Anapra in the past week after members of Mexico’s National Guard allegedly held at gunpoint and roughed up six Central Americans who wanted to cross into the United States. The incident happened the same week the U.S. sent envoys to Mexico City to ask the Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador administration for help containing the latest major migrant surge from Northern Triangle countries.

The Mexican army denied a man caught on a cellphone recording pointing a rifle at the migrants on Mount Cristo Rey was one of its soldiers. The man wore army fatigues, boots and carried an FX-05 “Fire Serpent” rifle specifically licensed to the Mexican armed forces.

Enrique Valenzuela, a Chihuahua state official in charge of Juarez’s Migrant Assistance Center, said it’s common knowledge that smugglers operate in the Anapra area. He urged migrants to avoid hooking up with traffickers there or anywhere else and warned the mountain is difficult terrain especially for families and children.

“We encourage migrants not to be drawn in by offers from smugglers to safely cross them to the other side. That is a practice that puts them and their families at risk and in no way is a guarantee they will safely reach their objective,” he said.

An unidentified man looks out for people trying to walk up a trail on the Mexican side of Mount Cristo Rey. (photo by Roberto Delgado/Special to Border Report)

The National Guard and Mexico’s National Migration Institute patrol the foothills. But on Monday, a Border Report/KTSM crew found men apparently acting as lookouts on a walking trail leading up the mountain.

“If you live here, you’re either a smuggler, a migrant hiding out, a (drug) dealer or a sicario (assassin),” joked a neighbor at the foothills of Mount Cristo Rey. He said it’s routine to see groups of migrants be led up the mountain by smuggler every evening as the sun falls.

Just west of the neighborhood, Border Report was tipped off to a spot along the U.S. border fence where smugglers have cut up square holes in the old steel mesh structure. The holes have been repaired by the Border Patrol, but evidence of clandestine crossings can be seen south of the wall – half-filled water bottles, abandoned baseball caps and other belongings. In one spot, smugglers or migrants had tried to dig under the border wall.

A rectangular piece of mesh marks the spot where migrant smugglers have cut holes on the border wall west of El Paso, Texas. (Border Report photo)

Residents explained that the older, 18-foot mesh border wall is easier to scale than the Trump-era 30-foot steel bollard fence because smugglers and migrants can put their fingers through the mesh and grab a handhold as they scale the Mexican side and come down the U.S. side. Border Report also found evidence of digging under the wall.

But there is no wall atop Mount Cristo Rey. Once migrants make it that far, it’s a sprint to the Southern Pacific railroad tracks. If Border Patrol does not apprehend them, the smugglers usually lead their charges to waiting cars in Sunland Park, Anapra neighbors told Border Report.

Diaz said Zorros del Desierto operates from Anapra to Guadalupe, on the opposite side of Juarez. They help not only migrants but also stranded motorists and have participated in searches for clandestine graves and bodies.

“Sometimes, we’re first on the scene and just throw a blanket over the (deceased) person,” he said.  “We always carry a bottle of water or sodas in the vehicle,” he said. “Sometimes, we do more than the police because the police often stop us and ask what we’re doing, as if we were doing something wrong. That’s not the case. On the contrary, what are they doing out at night other than looking for money? That’s the situation we live in here.”

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