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— It's a strange place for an interview. The group lies sprawled on the rocks, under bushes. The Grupo Beta men catch their breath below. The breeze blows gently. Crows and hawks circle high above in the silence. But Ezequiel Rodríguez is suddenly hard to stop. "I'm coming north because where I'm from it is not a good life. No life! No money. I want a better future. To live an honest life. I have four sons in Sinaloa, a father and a mother and a wife to look after there. My dad said, 'What are you going to do, going north? They kill pollos like you -- they could kill you.' But what else can I do? I've got to try. If I get killed, oh well. That's what happens. It's a big decision, but you have to move forward, make things better. A visa is impossible unless a patrón writes a letter on your behalf.

"I'll work probably in the fields. I hear the pay is best in Washington and Utah and Oregon. I'm going to Washington to pick apples and pears. Apples go through May, June, July. It's hard work. I've done it before. In '97. We worked 14 or 15 hours a day. But the money is good. Back home if I'm lucky I make 30 pesos ($3) a day. The Migra say there are too many of us up there. But that's not true. In '97 I found work all the time. This time I'm looking to work maybe eight months and then return to my family in November-December.

"The first time I tried to come, in '86, it was the U.S. Border Patrol who attacked me. They ran me down. Trapped me. Hit me. Made my ear bleed. Guess the guy didn't like my attitude. Two of them kept hitting me. I asked them why. One said, 'Because you ran.' He hit me badly, but where it would not show. His blows bruised me internally. They left me for dead. But after they had gone, I was able to get up and crawl back to Tijuana. I went back down to Sinaloa, because they said if I stayed here they'd kill me. They hit me for nothing! We are just looking for a better life.

"That's why we're happy about Grupo Beta. We had never heard of them before. But first they save us from the asaltapollos yesterday, and then..." -- he brings out a folded 2I- by 3H-inch folded pamphlet -- "they give us this."

He hands it to me. Its cover reads: "Migrant: You Have Rights!"

Inside is a Mexican government-sponsored virtual Bill of Rights for the Illegal migrant. "IT IS PROHIBITED for 'La Migra [the U.S. Border Patrol] to use excessive force to detain you. Patrolling officers only have permission to use minimum force necessary.

"While holding you in custody 'La Migra' MUST NOT:

* aggress or insult you

* handcuff you too tightly

* neglect medical attention

* transport you in a dangerous way

* keep you in filthy or over-crowded cells

* deprive you of drinking water

* leave you without food for more than six hours, or take your money, jewelry, eyeglasses or medicines

"NOTE: 'La Migra' cannot separate minors from their parents who accompany them. If you have children they must give them food and warm covering without delay.

"IF 'LA MIGRA' MISTREATS YOU: Mexican consulates must intervene on your behalf. And you can also contact human rights groups.

"To give yourself a stronger case against patrolling officers, read their license plates and remember the numbers. At least note [the officers'] physical characteristics. Note the date, hour and place of the abuse. Note if there are any witnesses. And hold on to your [Border Patrol-issued] voluntary return papers.

"Keep this pamphlet, or give it to another migrant." Consulate and human rights groups' numbers are listed on the back.

"This is our job," says Arias. "To protect migrants from abuse. That's what Grupo Beta is for." The force started in late 1991 when border banditry was getting out of hand. San Diego's police had sent undercover patrols to the border. Shoot-outs were common. The patrols became suddenly famous when Joseph Wambaugh turned their exploits into his book Lines and Shadows.

Mexico's response was Grupo Beta, an elite independent group of Mexican law enforcement officers drawn from municipal and state police and the Mexican immigration service. They were paid their regular salaries plus an additional federal wage. That made them the highest-paid cops in Baja. The job of the original 35 was as it is now: to wear plain clothes, blend in with migrants and face down bandits on their own turf. Grupo Beta agents became known for their honesty and independence. They were given the moniker "Mexico's Untouchables." There have been some recent voices saying Grupo Beta has seen better days. According to American media, such as the Union Tribune, illegal immigrants deported back into Mexico have told tales of being abused and shaken down by Beta agents, instead of being protected by them. But agent Roberto Moreno, one of the original Tecate members, says the past year has seen a weeding out of bad agents, better training, and more attention and equipment supplied from Mexico City. "We are back to our original mission," he says.

Torres says today was easy. Patrolling these same trails at night, when most polleros -- guides -- take their "chickens" over the mountain and into America, is something else again. You don't get four-wheel rides through this country.

I ask Torres why he does it. "I'm protecting our citizens and the law," he says. "Somebody has to stop these bad people." The sun is slanting west of Cerro Cuchumá. "We're going to eat," says Rodríguez. "We still have some water and food the robbers didn't take. Sardines, frijoles, chiles. Then we'll wait for our guide. This is where we're supposed to meet. He'll come before nightfall. We paid $700 for him, in Sinaloa, before we left. About $70 each. We know he is good and responsible."

But what if the guide doesn't come? "We can't go back," says Rodríguez. "We have no money to go home. We'll just have to try again. But we are tercos. We're stubborn." On the way down, we come across a small clearing with a big wooden cross. "We had a shoot-out with bandits here," says Leonardo Torres. "The brother of Eduardo Alvarado -- he's the agent up ahead with Mr. Arias -- was killed. Carlos Alvarado. May 17, 1996. You wouldn't want to talk to Eduardo about it yet. He still feels it too strongly."

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