HOUSTON -- U.S. Border Patrol agent John Lopez has seen it all: Men hiding in tiny holes in the ground, in car trunks and behind seat backs. He's even captured an illegal immigrant hiding in a suitcase.
"You don't expect to find someone in a suitcase. You never expect that," said Lopez, who is based in the Rio Grande Valley.
Each year, agents see many brazen attempts to sneak people and drugs into the U.S. But as border enforcement has stepped up in the past two years, smugglers' schemes appear to be getting more creative and bolder than ever. Among the most recent:
In Presidio County along the Texas-Mexico border, a man trained illegal immigrants who had just crossed the border to fake illnesses and call 911. Unwitting ambulance attendants took them to an Alpine hospital beyond the Border Patrol checkpoint near Marfa. The immigrants would refuse treatment and run away. Lionel Armendariz-Cabezuela, 38, was arrested in March and pled guilty to smuggling charges in the scheme.
In the past few months, officials have intercepted three ultralight aircrafts attempting to smuggle drugs into the U.S. The small planes fly so low they evade radar and have been particularly active on the Arizona-Mexico border.
In California, smugglers meticulously painted vehicles to resemble DHL package delivery trucks and a company contracted to help build the border fence. They used the vehicles to transport illegal immigrants to the U.S. in March and April. Some people in the construction company truck wore reflective vests and hard hats.
Innovation is nothing new
Smugglers could be turning to craftier tactics because it's harder than ever to sneak people across the border. Or, as some Border Patrol officials believe, this is nothing strange at all - smugglers are innovating all the time.
Between January and March of this year, the Border Patrol captured 164,733 illegal immigrants, compared to about 227,000 over the same period last year. It's not clear whether the decrease is due to increased enforcement or an ailing economy with few jobs to draw immigrants.
Between 2006 and 2008, the Border Patrol hired about 6,000 new agents, and there are now more than 18,000.
Immigrant rights advocates warn that it's flawed and dangerous to put more focus on enforcement instead of reform. As it becomes more difficult to cross the border, people will take extreme risks, said Jennifer Allen, executive director of Arizona's Border Action Network.
"People have to rely on smuggling networks. This means that smuggling networks continue to grow and become more costly, and they become more professionalized," Allen said, adding that she expects smuggling to increase in remote areas.
Said Nestor Rodriguez, a sociology professor at the University of Texas: "What I have learned from talking with migrants is that smugglers try a variety of old and new approaches to cross the border, so I don't think there is just one approach."
Remember the pi ata?
Whatever the motivation behind smuggling schemes, almost every agent has stories about the most creative ways people and drugs have been smuggled into the U.S.
Among the most famous is the pi ata used to smuggle a toddler in 2004. In the 1990s, smugglers even managed to create real-looking Border Patrol vehicles, said Customs and Border Protection spokesman Michael Reilly.
"Maybe we're seeing a little more. But maybe we're catching more," Reilly said. "We have better technology, better infrastructure and better efficiency."
Another Customs and Border Protection spokesman, Juan Mu oz-Torres, said criminals are constantly innovating but many of the techniques used today are throwbacks from earlier eras.
Ultralights, for instance, were used in the 1980s before authorities stepped up air patrols, Mu oz-Torres said. Now, officials are working to get better technology to stop them, he said.
Unless officials reform immigration laws, though, it doesn't matter whether border officials step up enforcement, said David Spener, a sociology professor at Trinity University in San Antonio.
"If the past is prologue, this will just mean more danger for migrants and more risky crossings," Spener said.