SUNLAND PARK, N.M. -- In a throwback to the Wild West, freight trains thundering through this parched valley are being swarmed by bandits who plunder their cargoes, then flee back across the Mexican border -- which in some places is only 10 paces from the tracks.
The thieves stage their raids from a nearby squatters camp, a cluster of cardboard and wood shanties where 40,000 people live without running water, sewers or law enforcement. It is known as Colonia Anapra. But to Mexican authorities it is "la boca de lobo," or "the wolf's mouth."
In what has become a disturbing routine, the well-organized team of about 60 armed bandits trips a train's brake system, pitches freight -- from televisions to tennis shoes -- overboard, then hauls the loot across the border to hired help in cars and trucks.
They have tried to disable trains towing as many as 100 cars by pulling spikes from the tracks, heaping scrap metal on the rails or jamming switch boxes with rocks. They even have slathered the green lenses of signal lights with red paint to confuse engineers.
"In five to 10 minutes, they can stop a train, break into the rail cars and toss the goods out," said Southern Pacific Railroad Police Capt. Tom Monsen.
Last year, nearly 100 Southern Pacific trains -- all ferrying freight between Los Angeles and New Orleans -- were robbed here. With more than $1 million in cargo stolen, railroad officials say the Sunland Park region ranks third behind the Los Angeles and Chicago areas in theft.
Train robbers plague nearly every rail line and yard in the nation. What is unusual about the problem here is that trains are being hit at the border, and U.S. officials and rail police cannot chase the thieves into Mexico.
Train robberies began to soar in this area 18 months ago, when the U.S. Border Patrol cracked down on illegal immigration and cross-border crime at the nexus of several rail lines in El Paso, Texas. The bandits moved their operation about five miles west, just across the border in the colonia -- which has swollen in recent months with desperate people reeling from Mexico's latest economic crisis.
Authorities in both countries are casting about for solutions. They won't come easily given the poverty in the colonia, the reluctance of financially pressed Mexican police in nearby Juarez, Mexico, to patrol the area, and a thicket of restrictions on U.S. enforcement in a place where the border is an invisible line in the desert.
Sunland Park authorities said the bandits recruit desperate youths from the camp, paying them $50 to $75 to help steal
cargo, which is then fenced in New Mexico, Texas, Juarez and the Mexican interior.
Juarez police Chief Jose Luis Holguin insists that "the U.S. side has exaggerated the criminal allegations at Anapra; allegations that now have gone all the way to the central government in Mexico City through diplomatic channels."
But with losses mounting, U.S. and railroad officials are demanding action through leverage gained by trade agreements and America's financial aid to its crisis-torn neighbor. Mexican authorities agreed this month to let the Border Patrol build a chain-link fence along 1.3 miles of track that curves past the colonia. Mexico also will provide 24-hour patrols on its side of the rail.
That agreement, which would avoid a 12-foot steel wall originally advocated by the Border Patrol, is under consideration in Washington, authorities said.
"In the long run, Mexico is taking the big view of trade under NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement]," said Rich Cambell, director of strategic analysis for Southern Pacific, which counts Mexico as its fastest-growing market. "For NAFTA to be successful, overland transportation has to be safe, reliable and not subject to diversion."