The three are inspecting a truck carrying fish oil that has been pulled over to the shoulder of Interstate 19 at the Border Patrol checkpoint south of Amado at kilometer post 42, about 26 miles north of the border.
The inspection is commonplace, but the sight of green-and-blue uniforms working side by side is a relatively new sight along the U.S.-Mexican border in Arizona.
Even though Loya and Ortega work within the same Department of Homeland Security agency — U.S. Customs and Border Protection — their jobs are as distinct as the colors of their uniforms.
Loya and other Customs and Border Protection officers work at the ports of entry where they spend their days trying to sniff out illegal immigrants and drug smugglers among a sea of legitimate travelers.
Ortega and other Border Patrol agents roam the desert between the ports trying to catch illegal border crossers and drug smugglers before they make it into the interior of the country.
But in an intra-agency partnership initiated in mid-January, port officers are lending their experience at the checkpoint where Border Patrol agents are tasked with a job they don't have as much training in: finding the needle in the haystack.
In return, Border Patrol agents are spending shifts alongside officers at the ports, which allows officers to perform more vehicle inspections and complete them faster, said Customs and Border Protection spokesman Brian Levin.
It is believed to be the first partnership of this kind between Border Patrol agents and Customs and Border Protection officers in Arizona, said Levin and Border Patrol spokesman Rob Daniels.
The collaboration is an example of their parent agency's motto: "One face at the border," Levin said.
"Overall, we are all engaged in the same mission," Levin said. "What we learn from each other we can apply in our overall fight."
Their goal: slow illegal immigration and drug smuggling in the Southwest border's busiest corridor. Through the first seven months of fiscal 2008, the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector accounted for 51 percent of all marijuana seized and 46 percent of all apprehensions made on the Southern border. It's been the busiest sector for apprehensions since 1998 and for marijuana seizures since 2003, Border Patrol numbers show.
The Border Patrol has employed a checkpoint on I-19 for years, but the Tucson Sector is the only one of the nine Southwest border sectors without a permanent inspection station.
Until November 2006, Congress had withheld funding for permanent checkpoints in the sector since 1999 and required the stations to be moved every seven or 14 days since 2002, thanks to a congressionally mandated rule championed by former Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz.
Since that mandate was abolished, the checkpoint has stayed at kilometer 42. The Border Patrol has plans to build an interim facility at that spot on I-19 and says it is on course to have it completed by the end of the year, Daniels said. Long-term, the agency is in the planning stages to build a permanent facility on I-19, he said. No location has been chosen.
In many ways, the Border Patrol's I-19 checkpoint features many of the characteristics that customs officers see at the ports of entry. A steady stream of tractor-trailers, shuttles, passenger buses, cars, trucks and SUVs comes through the checkpoint each day. An estimated 19,300 vehicles travel along I-19 each day between the Tubac Golf Resort and Arivaca Junction, where the checkpoint is located, 2006 numbers from the Arizona Department of Transportation show, said spokeswoman Linda Ritter.
And as at the ports, most people driving through aren't doing anything wrong. The agents' job is to find those who aren't supposed to be in the U.S. or are smuggling drugs.
On most days, one or two Customs and Border Protection officers are at the checkpoint helping out with the inspections of cars and passengers pulled over for further questioning. They aren't allowed to conduct the primary questioning because of legal regulations, Levin said.
Officers' primary mission is helping to identify fraudulent documents being used by people who don't have permission to be in the country, Levin said.
From February through April, agents and officers have apprehended 103 illegal immigrants at the checkpoint, compared with 89 the previous three months, Daniels said.
It's also helped free up agents to work in the flanking areas where people try to circumvent the checkpoint. They've stopped 2,954 people in the area from February through Apri, compared with 2,044 the previous three months, he said.
The port officers' experience identifying hidden vehicle compartments filled with drugs has also proved helpful to the Border Patrol, Daniels said. In two examples, officers have helped agents find methamphetamine in the gas tank of a motorcycle and cocaine in a concealed compartment in the floor of an SUV, Levin said.
The amount of marijuana seized at the checkpoint has actually decreased slightly since the operation began. From February through April, 26,605 pounds of marijuana has been seized there, compared with 29,906 pounds in the previous three month period, Daniels said.
The presence of the blue-clad officers keeps smugglers on their toes, they say.
"The taxpayers benefit because there is more of a presence," Daniels said. "That presence works as a deterrent."
On a recent day, Loya stood behind a Border Patrol agent peering into each of the shuttles — particularly frequent carriers of illegal immigrants — that passed through to double-check documents and look for signs of hidden compartments.
A spokesman for the Border Patrol agents' union says the customs officers' experience is welcome at the checkpoint. "The more, the merrier," said Mike Albon, spokesman for Local 2544, a chapter of the National Border Patrol Council, the union for agents. "They have a lot of better training as far as searching for some of these hidden compartments."
About two or three times a week, a handful of Border Patrol agents go to the Nogales ports of entry where they shadow officers. In addition to providing more staff for searches, the agents learn from officers about inspections they're not accustomed to performing.
What agents learn about interviewing skills and vehicle inspections is particularly valuable, said Border Patrol supervisory agent Richard DeWitt. "It definitely helps them out," said Edith Serrano, Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman in Nogales. "When they get a tractor-trailer (at the checkpoint), they remember they were looking for this, this and this."
This scenario played out March 12-13 at the checkpoint when agents discovered more than 4,400 pounds of marijuana hidden within pallets of vegetables in the backs of two tractor- trailers.
"They gain from our expertise; we gain from theirs," Levin said. "We both win out of this."
? Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or [email protected]