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Behind The Scenes of National Geographic’s ‘Border Wars’ Documentary

Audio

Aired 1/5/10

A new National Geographic television series takes viewers to the front lines of U.S. Customs and border protection. We speak with the producer of "Border Wars."

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. During the past two years, San Diego has become familiar with the term ‘drug cartel war,’ the fight in Tijuana and within Mexico between drug cartel operators that has led to assassinations, hundreds of murders, and a government crackdown on the cartels. A new series of documentaries from National Geographic Channel concentrates on another kind of war, what it calls the Border War, the effort by the U.S. government to stem the tide of Mexican immigrants and illegal drugs into the United States. During filming, the National Geographic crew was fully embedded with U.S. operational branches including Customs and Border Protection, and Border Patrol, Office of Field Operations at the Ports of Entry. I’d like to welcome my guest, Nicholas Stein, producer of the National Geographic Channel’s “Border Wars.” And, Nick Stein, welcome to These Days.

NICHOLAS STEIN (Producer, “Border Wars”): Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: I just said that you, as producer, were embedded with U.S. law enforcement during the filming of this show and that does sound a little like going to war. How did you get permission to film the border enforcement operations?

STEIN: Well, it’s not easy actually. National Geographic is pretty well known for getting access to places. It always helps, you know, to have the yellow border on your side and, in this case, the yellow border meets the real border.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

STEIN: And it’s a negotiation. I think the CBP, Customs and Border Protection, really trusts us to tell their story in a serious way and to tell it in an accurate way. So after the negotiations were successful, we headed to Nogales, Arizona, and we got to know the officers and agents quite well.

CAVANAUGH: Give us an overview, if you would, about this first series of shows called “Border Wars.” What will we see?

STEIN: Well, like I said, the first four shows that we produced were in Nogales, Arizona. And Nogales is a town that not a lot of people have visited but it’s a fascinating town and actually it’s known as kind of a smugglers’ haven going all the way back to prohibition. It has a history of their – it’s actually a very interesting part of the border. It’s one of the largest, you know, border towns other than, of course…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

STEIN: …of San Diego and San Ysidro that’s right there. Now when we got involved with these agents and officers, we told them—and this is what we did—which was, we were there to tell their story.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

STEIN: We were there to pull back the curtain and let people see exactly what it’s like day to day, car by car, mission by mission, shift by shift, what it’s really like to try to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. And in many ways Nogales became a microcosm, if you will, of some the issues and problems that are up and down all the way from San Diego all the way to Brownsville, Texas. So it’s a real look at the work and the dedication of the men and women there. We didn’t talk policy, we didn’t talk about, you know, what people should do in terms of policy and legislation and laws. We were there with the law enforcers and we saw how difficult their job really is.

CAVANAUGH: Right. I did see the first few episodes and it reminded me a little bit of the series “Cops.” There’s a lot of action, a lot of chases, and it is seen – does seem to be made exclusively from the law enforcement point of view. Was this concept your idea, the idea that you were going in with, that it was going to be exclusively basically the border agents’ point of view?

STEIN: Yes. There was an original show that National Geographic did called “Border Wars” that was a one-hour show that was done by their Explorer Unit and it was sort of a – more of an overview of all the things that go on there. But, really, this is a look from the point of view of the federal law enforcement folks. There is, I think, many opportunities for many filmmakers of every stripe and news organizations to do a more comprehensive look at all of the issues there. There’s so many points of view. But we decided that a lot of people really didn’t understand what these men and women are being asked to do on our behalf and with our tax dollars. And we thought that it was important to get on the ground and really see that happening. The truth is there’s no border like the U.S.-Mexican border in the world because there’s no border that has perhaps the world’s richest country hard up against one of the poorest and one that’s now going through the spasms of this narco war.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

STEIN: And it’s unique, and we just thought it was important that people understood what we’re asking our Homeland Security people to do on our behalf and that’s why we concentrated that way.

CAVANAUGH: My guest is Nicholas Stein. He’s producer of the National Geographic Channel’s “Border Wars,” which premieres this Sunday night. I – This is, as I say, with the chases and the action, filming this seems to have been a dangerous undertaking and I know that you were involved firsthand in many of the operations. What did that feel like? Were you in danger at times? Were you perhaps concerned about your safety?

STEIN: I won’t lie to you. Yeah. We wore bulletproof vests and we did things that were – let’s just say it focuses the mind pretty quickly…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

STEIN: …when you jump out of a Blackhawk helicopter in the middle of the night in the mountains, chasing dope trains that might have 12 backpackers with 70 pounds of marijuana on their back and being escorted with guys with AK-47s. When you jump out of that Blackhawk, you really start to concentrate pretty well pretty quickly because you just don’t want to be, one, get lost, two…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

STEIN: …left behind, three, get in the way of the agents doing their jobs but you also don’t want to miss the action. We had night vision cameras in those situations that can shoot in pitch dark. It was very interesting, to say the least. But I want to make one little point that I’d forgot. You mentioned the show feels a little bit like “Cops” because of the action and the law enforcement.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

STEIN: I want to make one quick distinction there because I’ve certainly had many friends and colleagues who’ve worked on law enforcement shows like “Cops” and others that are done right here domestically. What I found so interesting about working law enforcement on the border is that everything about that is different than, say, watching crime in Baltimore and Newark or Cleveland or goodness knows where because everything that happens at the border, even though some of it involves some of the same law enforcement techniques, has enormous implications, you know, has enormous security implications, immigration implications. You know, every single person that tries to come in here illegally, they’re worried about terrorism. They’re worried about so many things, and it brings up so many emotions and issues that it really, to me, I just found it—and I still find it—just endlessly interesting even though some of the action, like you say, is like “Cops.” But the international piece of it and the border protection piece of it just has layer after layer after layer of complexity, heartbreaking immigration stories, you know, stories about what it means to be an American, what it means to be a Mexican, what it means to be a Honduran or Guatemalan or all – these folks are coming from everywhere.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

STEIN: And it really, to me, it makes it just so much more interesting than a straightforward law enforcement piece.

CAVANAUGH: Well, in the first episode, for instance, you talk about being in a Blackhawk helicopter. A Blackhawk crew tries to save a group of border crossers who were in danger because of the desert heat. Tell us about that experience.

STEIN: Well, that was extraordinary and I’m really glad we were able to capture that scene. I understand that later—we left in early April—and as the temperature rises, above 95, 96 degrees, you know how hot it can be in Arizona, the air and marine unit that we were with in the Blackhawk, their percentages, and I won’t have these perfectly accurate, but they go from, you know, in the cooler weather, a large – most percentage is just law enforcement detaining these folks and processing them and deporting them, doing whatever they need to be done. As the temperature rises, the percentage tips over to rescue missions. And that day was unseasonably hot and, sure enough, I think it was our first day in the Blackhawk actually, and there was a signal fire and these – and a cell phone call came in. And long story short, it turns out that the coyote who had brought in this group, who’d probably told them they had like an hour’s walk and they’d be picked up by a car, well, they had been walking for two days at this point. And there was no car and they were getting dehydrated and they were getting, you know, really in danger. That coyote abandoned them in the desert and threw them this cell phone and then left them. I guess a small moment of compassion because the cell phone turned out to be critical to their rescue. But they called and then they lit a fire and we started looking for them out of the Blackhawk and, I’m telling you, it’s like a needle in a haystack. It’s very hard to find people in this big Sonoran desert. And by the time we landed, these folks were in terrible shape. I mean, I know they all survived but I’m – when we first got there and landing in this brownout of the rotor wash of the Blackhawk, which is this huge beast of a machine, and disgorging these intense air interdiction agents, they rush in there and immediately they go from law enforcement into medical rescue mode.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

STEIN: And they bring in reinforcements and they have these guys called Border Star agents and they’re giving them water and oxygen and IV fluids. And it’s, you know, you really just – it’s such a moving scene. It’s so touching to see these guys, and they will do this – they’ll rescue one guy. I was over – There were times when they found out about one guy lost on a mountain somewhere and they’d send in a huge Blackhawk with six crew members who put themselves at risk to rescue one lost individual. So you can’t say enough about the compassion of these guys.

CAVANAUGH: And I wonder, in talking with the border law enforcement officers and agents, I wonder if some of them didn’t express to you some feeling about what might impel people to go to that kind of length to get into the United States. I know that you didn’t focus on policy issues at all but did any of these agents express any concerns about that or – or…?

STEIN: Oh, certainly. Absolutely, yeah. I mean, the economics are – obviously drives everything in terms of illegal immigration. I mean, when you’re talking about narcotics, it’s another story. But let’s just talk about people coming to work. You can imagine being in a village in Mexico, and I’m not just talking about near the border, I mean way down in Mexico or, again, anywhere in Central America, even South America, where you might, if you’re lucky, get paid, I don’t know, four or five, six dollars a day to do labor. And if you simply cross this border and you get up and you hang out and get some work up here, you might get six dollars an hour. So when you’re really in these terrible economic straits – Even the agents and the officers sympathize, empathize, with these folks. They have tremendous compassion for them. And I was impressed – That’s why even when they had to chase them – And I don’t know about you but if you’re in a position of authority and you see somebody and you say stop and they don’t stop and they run from you, you know, your normal reaction would be to get pretty angry with them when you finally catch them because you could’ve hurt yourself awfully badly just by chasing them, right, in these environments, at night, God knows where. Time and time and time again, they chase them, they’d catch them and they would just handle them without anger and deal with them professionally. I mean, this is what I saw. Now, we had camera crews there…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

STEIN: …but this is what I saw, and I saw it, you know, again and again and again and again. But the other interesting thing is, and, again, I don’t have the exact number here, but a huge percentage of Border Patrol are guys and women who come from Hispanic backgrounds and, you know, they have a very interesting cultural tug of war here. And some of the immigrants and others that they catch say some terrible things to them about being traitors to their culture, and all kinds of things. So it’s a very complicated scene down there.

CAVANAUGH: My guest is Nicholas Stein. He’s producer of the new National Geographic Channel series “Border Wars.” And, Nick, when you were down there, the – in Nogales, filming in Nogales, it was right when the swine flu epidemic or outbreak started to gain national headlines and there’s this episode where everybody is wearing face masks. Tell us about that.

STEIN: Well, it’s – it was pretty interesting. I mean, I think your listeners will remember when the swine flu story broke, it was almost a panic situation everywhere. It actually affected the story we were covering. I’ll tell you how. It was fascinating. We went with disrupt agents, which are plain clothes Border Patrol agents, to take down what they call a stash house in Nogales. And this is where illegals are put as they wait to be transported further into the country. And you’ve probably read these things; they’re treated horribly in these stash houses. Sometimes they call them safe houses but they’re anything but safe, and they’re practically enslaved in these places and then kidnapped in the sense that often they’ll get there and then the cartel members who run this organization will demand more money from their relatives and won’t let them leave the house until they get it. So it’s a terrible situation. And we went with these plain clothes guys and we took down this house and we pulled out 23 illegal immigrants from the house and they separated out the coyotes or the guides or the caretakers. And they were going to prosecute one of these guys because they’d seen him before and they were really sure he was up to no good. We get back to the Border Patrol station in Nogales, which is the biggest one in America, and we start processing them and we’re all – the masks were on and people were being quarantined who had flu-like symptoms. And it was kind of crazy because the swine flu thing had hit. We weren’t even aware of it until we got back to the station. And they were ready to call the Assistant Attorney in Tucson and say, you know, we got this guy, we’d like to prosecute him, send him up to Tucson for further processing. And the Tucson said, don’t send anybody…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

STEIN: …from Nogales. Shut it down. We, you know, we can’t – the swine flu thing is happening. Don’t send anybody. And they only have facilities to hold people basically 24 hours and they have to be processed and go someplace, either deported or further into the judicial system, so they had to let this guy go. So we interviewed this guy, of course he said he was innocent of all – everything, and maybe he was, who knows, but we then followed the Wackenhut bus, which is the contractor who transports folks back and forth, and watched him walk right back into Mexico, saved by swine flu.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, my goodness. That’s a story. Now, Nick, I understand that even though this first series concentrates on Nogales, that you’ve done some filming and some episodes here in San Diego at San Ysidro.

STEIN: Yeah, and I was really thrilled to do it. The – When we finished the Nogales shows, we sent in the first cuts into National Geographic headquarters in Washington and they were so excited about what we were able to capture on film and the way we were telling these stories, they pretty well gave us a green light right away to continue in San Diego, San Ysidro. I had worked in San Ysidro before. I’d worked on a show called “Homeland Security USA” on ABC, which was short lived once it was scheduled next to “American Idol.” But that did get me a chance to have sort of – where I’d first gotten introduced to the border and, of course, I’m thrilled to do this with National Geographic, which is such a great outfit to do this with. So – But we headed off to San Diego and it was really interesting to see the differences between Nogales, which is this landlocked, desert, mountainous, you know, porous border area. I mean, they’re working as hard as they can but it’s still a tough, challenge out there. To come to San Diego and San Ysidro and Imperial Beach and Chula Vista and see a border which, as you know, is much more secure and has been more secure for some time. I mean, they really – it really started in that part of the country in terms of putting up the new technologies, the triple-fencing, the sensors, the cameras, the lights, and all of this sort of thing. Southern California got all that before any other part of the country did. And, you know, I kind of joke with the officers a little bit that, you know, what’s good for America can sometimes be tough on a TV producer because, you know, they got this place much more locked down than Nogales and yet the action is still happening. The numbers are different. In Nogales, we’d get 20, 30, 40 immigrants in a group who’ve been coming across the desert over the mountains. In San Diego, you’d get 2, 3, 4 in a group. And often—and this is interesting—the people you’d find, particularly in Imperial Beach, are pretty rough guys, pretty bad guys, tattooed up, gangbangers, cartel guys. And there’s a reason for that, it’s quite fascinating, and I hope I got the facts straight but I’m pretty sure of this. That if you’ve served time, if you’re a Mexican national and you’ve served time in the California penal system and you get out finally, I mean, you’ve done your time, you are repatriated back to Mexico not to where – the village you came from or what town you’re from; right there at the Port of Entry at San Ysidro, you head on back into Mexico. Well, a lot of these guys are pretty rough, bad guys, and they don’t intend to stay in Mexico for more than, you know, an hour or a day or a week. And, boom, they come right back over the fence at Imperial Beach. So the guys down there are really ready for anything because the population they’re dealing with is not migrants, not a lot of, you know, people working for – looking for construction jobs or picking fruit, they’re some of these guys just got out of prison.

CAVANAUGH: It sounds to me, as you talk about this, Nick, that this whole experience of making “Border Wars” really sort of was a pivotal point in your experience. I don’t want to say in your career. But I wonder if you have any memories or experiences that really stand out, especially from the first series of “Border Wars” located in Nogales and in the Arizona border?

STEIN: Well, there’s so many. I mean, when I got back from my first month of shooting in Nogales, I think I had just an inkling, you know, just a small, tiny taste of what it must be like to come back from Iraq or Afghanistan in the sense of not that I was in that kind of danger but still the immediacy and the camaraderie and the intensity of the experience with my crew and with the agents in Blackhawk helicopters, on ATVs, on horseback, on SUVs, patrolling on foot in the middle of the night. It – You really bond with the people you’re with and sometimes you get home, you know, and your friends can hardly relate to you because…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

STEIN: …you know, you’ve just been in the zone for a while. So…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

STEIN: …it was profound to me in that regard. I hadn’t done anything quite like that. But in terms of experience and straight forward – I’ll give you one example which I will never forget. We went out to the western side of Nogales to their – what they call the forward operating base. And it really is a couple of containers that have been turned into kind of a Quonset hut kind of very bivouac, rough way to live. And these guys volunteer to go out and live for a week and they do it because they’re protecting the western flank, if you will, of Nogales. Where the fence end, the mountains begin and there was traffic, just huge amounts of traffic, people and dope and guns and all kinds of stuff coming through. So they put this little bivouacked camp out there to take care of it. Well, we went out there. We had a tent, we slept on the ground, and went out at night with them for 3, 4 nights in a row. And there was one time we went out with them through, literally, a ghost town called Ruby, Arizona. Now, I mean, really a ghost town, middle of the night, you know, on well known smuggling routes. And we went out there and we had two cameras, night vision cameras, and we had two – my soundman took one and my cameraman took the other and I was with one – with my soundman. And what happened was they laid in. And this is what they do, the sensor activation happens, they’ve got underground sensors. They’re seismically triggered. This was triggered, obviously by footsteps further up the trail. They lay in and wait, they get very, very quiet, and sometimes you can lay in and wait for hours and hours and hours and hours and hours. And it’s amazing what these guys can do and how they can endure this cold, dark waiting. In this case, it was Officer Jose Salas and Officer Jay Johnson. Well, Jay Johnson was in one part of the trail, on one side of the trail and Salas was on the other side of the trail and Salas uses night vision goggles and he sees a train full of backpackers with – carrying these huge bundles of dope. And he thinks he sees a gun, and he radios to Jay, he says, it’s a 46, it’s a 46, which means narcotics. And Jay, because it’s so sketchy out there in terms of radio frequencies and communications, Jay’s radio wasn’t picking up so—you’ll see this on the show—when we edit back and forth, where you can see where Salas is freaking out and going, Jay, Jay, it’s a 46. I gotta go in. And his partner’s oblivious to what’s happening.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, wow.

STEIN: So he finally says – And he turns to the camera and he goes, I’m going in, I’m going in. And he rushes down into the darkness by himself. One guy against at least 10 guys. And this is the kind of bravery people don’t know about. They don’t understand this happens every night out there. And, sure enough, he’s yelling, para se, para se, Border Patrol. And I don’t want to give away the ending but…

CAVANAUGH: No. No, I was just about to say we’re just about out of time but people, if they want to see the conclusion of this remarkable night that Nick Stein spent in the Arizona desert, you can see the premiere of “Border Wars” this Sunday, January 10th at 9:00 p.m. Thank you so much, Nick Stein, producer of the National Geographic Channel's "Border Wars." Thanks, Nick.

STEIN: You’re so welcome.

CAVANAUGH: And you’ve been listening to These Days. Stay with us as we talk about the disintegration of the Tiger Woods brand. These Days continues in just a few moments here on KPBS.

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