Immigration enforcement and drug smuggling continue to be top priorities for the Department of Homeland Security, and the Border Patrol's budget has swelled accordingly, increasing from just $262,647 in 1990 to over $3.5 million dollars in the 2012 fiscal year. They've added more agents, more technology, and higher fences.
Despite such progress, human smugglers and drug traffickers have simply pushed further into mountainous, difficult terrain to avoid detection.
That's where horses come in.
Since the Border Patrol was founded in 1924, horseback patrols have been widely utilized. In fact, mounted patrols are said to have begun as early as 1904, in El Paso, where men on horseback policed against Chinese immigrants. Horse patrol units now exist along the border in various sectors, through California, Arizona, and Texas.
In the San Diego sector, the Horse Patrol unit is based out Imperial Beach. The unit's office is housed in a dull brown portable trailer, and 35 four-legged "vehicles" live within a nearby beige building. Each stall is outfitted with individual turnout paddocks.
Agents on the unit are tasked with everything from riding on patrol to mucking stalls, and general horse care. Their days, they say, are typically well over eight hours long. It's common for mounted agents in the San Diego sector to trailer their horses to the east, where they typically work during the night.
Just 18 of San Diego's 2,623 border patrol agents ride on the horse patrol, a popular and competitive detail. Jaime Cluff, the supervisory agent in charge, says the horse patrol is an important recruiting tool for the Border Patrol.
Monica Slack is a mounted agent and riding instructor with a decade of experience working for the agency. "We spend a lot of time together, 10-12 hrs a day, 5 days a week," she says. "So, we do well with each other."
And agency-wide, the use of horses is apparently on the rise. According to statistics on the Customs of Border Patrol website, in 2011, there were 334 horse units in the Border Patrol. That's a 33 percent rise from 2008.
Yet the Border Patrol refused to say why more horses are being used—or how effective horse patrols actually are at catching human and drug smugglers.
The vagueness is nothing new. This past December, two separate Government Accountability Reports criticized the agency, analyzing its lack of accountability regarding performance. The Border Patrol was also chastised for high levels of employee misconduct and corruption.
And more U.S. citizens than ever before are now being caught smuggling, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting. In fact, 75 percent of people caught with drugs by the Border Patrol are U.S. citizens, according to the report. It examined 40,000 seizures and suspect information, and drew the conclusion that 80 percent had involved U.S. citizens. The rate has increased every year from 2005 until 2011.
Although millions are being spent on "securing" the border, apprehensions are at an all-time low. In San Diego, according to statistics from the Border Patrol, around 119,000 people were apprehended. Most recently, in 2012, just 29,000 people were arrested.
Those who get to work from Imperial Beach clearly enjoy their job. Supervisory agent Cluff admits that there's more downtime than there used to be, since the "traffic levels" are "a lot less" then they were five years before. "If I could stay here and do it for another 20 years, I would," he says.
Agent Slack reflected a similar sentiment.
"I think the Queen of England is 88 years old and she still rides," she says. "So as long as I'm physically able, I'll be riding horses."