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— The mesquite bushes are thick and sharp. Agent Gabriel Arias weaves up through them, climbing the steep trail ahead of me. He pulls the black pistol out of his back left jeans pocket. Click-clack! He cocks it behind his back, then jams it into the pocket again. Further up, in a rocky clearing, the group of 11 men sees us coming. "Cinco!" Arias says into his walkie-talkie. It's the code for Leonardo Torres, his rear man in our group. "We're here." He moves up with his hands clear and empty, probably to indicate he is not an asaltapollo -- robber -- or La Migra from the United States.

Suddenly we're among them. "This reportero would like to ask you some questions," says Arias.

We're on the lower slopes of Tecate Peak. This is where illegal immigrants die. Either from the cold or from bandits. Last weekend it was the cold. At least nine people died and more than 140 were rescued from mountainous areas like this after the freezing weather hit.

Today (before the cold snap) we're more worried about smugglers and bandits. I have been climbing this mountainside with four Grupo Beta agents for 45 minutes. Grupo Beta is the Mexican migration department's task force, set up to fight banditry and violence on Mexico's side of the border zone. Tecate Peak -- or, as the Mexicans call the mountain, Cerro Cuchumá -- straddles the border, slopes down into a valley, and shelters Rancho La Puerta, the long-established spa for the rich and stressed.

We started off in the crisp, late-morning sunlight and drove up the lumpy road to the border. It was a regular patrol from Grupo Beta's headquarters on Calle 18, on Tecate's eastern outskirts. The patrol's job is to protect Mexican citizens crossing over into El Norte, even if their migration is illegal in U.S. eyes.

This is the badlands. The part migrants fear most. Where they're most vulnerable, where bandits roam the hills looking for pollos to pluck -- and rape, rob, beat, and murder. They know the migrants are easy pickings: They have money for their journey, maybe jewelry, and are desperate to make it through this last barrier.

We started walking westward, single file along the rusty border fence for a mile. Signs -- "Peligro: animales venenosos" ("Danger: poisonous animals") -- dot the fence, with pictures of scorpions, snakes, spiders.

And then...nothing. The fence just stopped. Beyond lies a horizon-full of native forest rising up to Cuchumá. Impossible to know where any border lay. Gabriel Arias, the man in charge of Grupo Beta Tecate, led us up through scrub and trees and scattered signs of migrants' expeditions. Blackened stone-circles where fires had burned. Biscuit boxes, one-gallon plastic water bottles tossed aside. Sun-faded yellow, blue, and white Squirt cans. Abandoned paint-spattered shoes. Toilet paper and scuffed earth, where people had defecated beside the trail. Even a rough shelter made with bushes, perhaps a family lost at night before making the crossing.

Down in the valley to the south: perfect-looking ranchitos and Rancho La Puerta itself, with people bending over, picking vegetables from their garden. Up to the right, the only sign of life on the American side is on the summit of Cuchumá, a tiny-looking hut with aerials bristling. "La Migra," says Torres. "Border Patrol."

"Cinco!" says his radio. It's Arias, further ahead. Torres listens, then suddenly says, "Down there!" He points away to a little road snaking along the valley floor. What looks like a black centipede winds slowly out of a bend and along the lane. It's a group of migrants making their way east. Now they cut north toward us and disappear under the slope. "Cinco!" spits the radio again. This time Torres points across the mountain. We spot another line of heads disappearing behind bushes. "I think that's the group that was attacked yesterday," he says. He hurries to get to a ridge, where Arias and the others are catching up with the second group. "One of that lot almost got killed yesterday," says Torres. "We were there. When we came across them, they were lying with their pants down being robbed by three gunmen."

* * *

"Show the reportero your shoulder," Arias says to the closest man in the group. Mario Alejandro Crisóstomo unbuttons the top of his shirt and exposes his left shoulder.

"Look," Arias says to me. "This is a lucky man."

An angry quarter-size scoop dents the flesh. "That's where the asaltapollo shot me with his .38 yesterday," says Alejandro.

The migrants laugh the laugh of survivors. But the man who seems to speak for the group, Ezequiel Rodríguez, a rapid-fire, clear-spoken 30-year-old man from Sinaloa, is serious. "Yesterday we were down there passing through Eagle Pass," he says. "We were resting, waiting for our guide. These three men came up. One had a cleaver, the other a .38 pistol, and the other an Uzi machine gun. They said, 'We're thieves. Lie down. Drop your trousers.' They took our jackets and shoes and watches and money -- everything we had. We asked them to leave enough to catch a bus back to Sinaloa. They refused. They are good for nothing! Assaulting their own people! Then they shot at Mario. Hit his shoulder. They would have killed him if these Beta people hadn't come up just then."

This was the miracle for Rodríguez's group. Grupo Beta appeared just as the robbers were collecting their loot. "We had been getting reports of these three," says agent Roberto Moreno. "We had been coming and waiting for them for days. Yesterday we were lucky."

The Beta agents persuaded the three men to give up without a shooting war. They took them in on suspicion of robbing and perhaps killing northbound migrants. "The great thing," says Moreno, "is we have lots of witnesses."

"We were lucky we have no women in our group," says Rodríguez. "They treat women and children badly. Sometimes they make women undress. Then they violate them." He says his group came from Tijuana on the Tecate bus. "We got off at Rancho La Puerta, then we came up here, and we're waiting for nighttime to cross. If the guide doesn't come we have to go back, because we'll get lost. That's what happened yesterday. We can't make it alone to America."

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