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Life on the Line: The Arizona-Mexico Border

ISSUE:  Spring 2007
Crosses along the border wall memorialize those who didn’t make it (Kay Fochtmann / CC).

Eduardo saw Jesus coming with His holy light. It was winter, and for days, lost in a strange land, Eduardo had been wandering through mountains with nothing to eat and nothing to drink except what he could scoop from puddles of melted snow. He barely slept, trembling from a cold like none he’d experienced in Guatemala, a cold that bit through his thin clothes. At dusk of his fifth day in the desert, as he stumbled across a valley bristling with cactus, he made out some boxy shapes in the gathering darkness. Houses! The first he’d seen since crossing the Arizona border. He staggered ahead, just yards from warmth and safety, but, his strength spent, he collapsed and could not get up. He groaned and closed his eyes and waited for death. Then the light fell across his face and he opened his eyes and saw Jesus, stretching out a hand. So death had come and now the Son of God was going to lead his soul to heaven. But why was he still so thirsty? He blinked and saw that his savior was a man of this world, and Eduardo gasped a single word: “Agua.”

Grace Wystrach had been alone in her house on the Mountain View Ranch, waiting for her husband, Mike, to come home from the restaurant the couple owned in Sonoita, a crossroads settlement some twelve miles away. In southeastern Arizona, where plateaus and valleys lie a mile high and mountain ranges soar to almost twice that, winter temperatures fall to as low as twelve degrees. That night was exceptionally bitter, Grace remembers. She had gone outside to get some firewood when she heard moaning. At that moment, Mike pulled in and she told him, “Somebody’s in the barn.” Mike got a flashlight, and as he cautiously approached the barn, spotted a man curled up on the ground beside a corral fence. If he hadn’t whispered a plea for water, Mike would have thought he was dead. He half dragged, half walked the man into the house, where Grace gave him hot soup and water. He threw it up. The couple put him to bed under warm blankets.

By morning, he was able to sit up and talk. The story he told, with some variations, could have been the story of any one of the million or two million Mexicans and Central Americans who year upon year suffer biblical tribulations to make it to the United States, los Estados Unidos, el Norte. The horrors migrants experience along the way have been well documented in the national media—hundreds die each year of thirst and exposure, others are robbed and murdered by bandits, still others kidnapped and held for ransom in conflicts between rival smuggling rings, and just about all can tell tales of hard and hazardous travel that make The Grapes of Wrath read like a comic book.

This was the story of Eduardo Flores. He was twenty-three years old and had owned a small business exporting produce in Guatemala City—until September 11, 2001. An entire year’s crop rotted on the tarmac that autumn, waiting for US airspace to reopen, and Eduardo went bankrupt. Then came a call from a relative who worked for a landscaping company in Pennsylvania. A job was waiting if he could get himself to the United States. But, given US immigration laws, that meant Eduardo would have to enter the country without benefit of a visa. And that meant hiring a coyote—a people smuggler—to bring him through all of Mexico. And that meant coming up with a lot of money.

The smuggling of human contraband into the US would be a Fortune 500 industry if it were legitimate. Run by sophisticated and well-organized rings, it rakes in anywhere from ten to fifteen billion dollars a year. Mexicans, who account for roughly 90 percent of the total, are charged on average $1,500 a head. The remaining 10 percent are known, in the argot of immigration enforcement, as OTMs—Other Than Mexicans—and most of them are Central Americans and Brazilians. Because transporting OTMs over more than one border involves greater risks, logistical difficulties, and expenses (read, bribes), the fees are proportionally higher. Eduardo’s would be $8,000. The coyote said that $6,000 would be due on the day Eduardo left, with the remainder to be paid upon his safe arrival in the United States.

It took three years to scrape the money together. Finally, in December 2004, Eduardo left his wife and everything and everyone he’d known—to lay sod and plant shrubs in the lawns of Pennsylvania. He didn’t know where Pennsylvania was, but the coyote had promised him that los Estados Unidos was a golden land where he would get back on his feet.

It took about two weeks to sneak him through Mexico. In early January 2005, led by a Mexican guide, Eduardo and a group of other illegal aliens crossed into the US on foot. Then disaster struck. They were jumped by la migra—the US Border Patrol. The guide fled and everyone scattered.

“Eduardo got lost, he had no idea where he was,” Grace tells me as we sip tea in her kitchen. She is a comely woman, sixty-five but with the figure of a thirty-year-old, fair, gray-streaked hair, and pale blue eyes. “If he hadn’t been young and in good health, he never would have survived.”

Grace made a moral decision. Under the law, she was required to report Eduardo to the Border Patrol. But she didn’t. Instead, for the next ten days, Grace and her family fed and cared for the migrant who had stumbled into their lives. She gave him a cell phone to call his wife in Guatemala City. When he was well enough to travel, he phoned a contact in Tucson whose number the coyote had provided. The man drove to the ranch, picked him up, and Eduardo Flores was soon headed to his landscaping job in Pennsylvania.

Weeks later, Grace received a thank-you note. She still hears from Eduardo now and then, and if she has second thoughts about choosing what seemed the right thing over the legal thing, she doesn’t express them. She does suggest, however, that she might not be as hospitable the next time around.

“It’s gotten out of hand,” she says. “You can’t enjoy your home or lead a normal life. I used to ride alone on this ranch, but I don’t anymore. My daughters are afraid to stay at the ranch—dogs barking at night, the horses nervous, people breaking into the barn.” She pauses. “It’s not the illegals themselves. It’s the coyotes and the drug traffickers, they’re dangerous, they’re hideous people.”

“Things around here are getting to be almost as lawless as they were in the days of Pancho Villa and the Apache wars,” says Glen “Gooch” Goodwin, with only a little hyperbole. In partnership with his brother, Goodwin owns the LaFrontera Ranch and works as a fire lookout for the US Forest Service. I am riding along in his truck as he inspects the ranch’s fences and gates for breaks made by migrants and narcotraficantes. Such property damage is common along the border, but it is more than a mere nuisance to a rancher like Goodwin, making it almost impossible to maintain a grazing-rotation system and easier for valuable livestock to wander off.

The LaFrontera lies in the San Rafael Valley, a symphonic landscape of rolling grasslands speckled with oak and juniper and bounded by towering mountains. A number of westerns have been filmed here—notably Red River and Oklahoma—but its panoramic beauty is deceptive. The valley extends several miles into the Mexican state of Sonora and is one of the most active smuggling corridors in the US, webbed with trails beaten by immigrants and drug mules—the two-legged kind backpacking bales of marijuana as well as the four-legged kind—the pack trains guarded by mounted contrabandists armed with Glocks and assault rifles. Gun battles between rival gangs are not infrequent, and the valley’s dirt roads are often the scene of high-speed chases as Border Patrol or US Customs agents pursue smugglers carrying hard drugs in SUVs and pickup trucks.

It’s a Mad Max movie, screenplay by Louis L’Amour. The fusion of the Old West with the postmodern West is demonstrated by two items hanging from Goodwin’s belt—a cell phone in a hand-tooled leather case on his left hip (to call the law in case of trouble) and on his right a semiautomatic .45-caliber pistol (to deal with the trouble in case he is in a dead spot or the law doesn’t respond). A few years ago, Goodwin was driving home late at night with his wife, when they encountered Mexican drug-runners intent on hijacking their truck. Goodwin fired his .45 over their heads, convincing them to change their plans.

As we drive, he tutors me in contemporary western field craft. Do I see that trail over there? That’s a stock trail; you can tell by the way it loops and bends, because horses and cattle wander in the search for graze and water. That other trail, the straight one, is made by drug mules. The mules hump a lot of weight, sometimes for as far as twenty miles, and take the most direct route possible. We drive on and he points at still another trail, half as wide as a road. It’s used by illegal aliens; the width of it tells you that.

Every now and then we get out of the truck and pick up a few jugs and bottles, a few baseball caps, a jacket or two discarded by some migrant or drug mule. We spot a brightly colored serape draped neatly over the fence, where the wires have been pulled apart to make an opening. Gooch continues his lesson: The serape is probably a signal to a coyote marking a spot where the fence is open. Farther on, under an oak tree, Gooch notices piles of polypropylene cord. Drug-runners must have made a drop under the tree, he says. The polyprop is a dead giveaway—it’s used to tie marijuana bales. Another giveaway is an inhaler, an essential part of a drug-runner’s kit. The inhalers open their lungs on long treks, and some get an energy boost from nasal-spray bottles filled with epinephrine.

“Sometimes they’re supplied with cocaine and meth,” Goodwin adds. “Whatever it takes to keep going.”

They are called burreros in Spanish—very fit young men willing and able to hump loads of forty pounds or more. Some belong to street gangs that hire themselves out to Mexico’s drug lords, some are coyotes earning side money, some are vaqueros—cowboys—supplementing their meager wages. Each earns between $500 and $1,000 a trip, and can count on making between two to four trips a month. That is huge money in Mexico, where the daily pay for farm workers is $3.60 and between $5 and $10 for factory workers.

Barbed Wire
California viewed from Mexico. (Kai Schreiber / CC).

Finally, we come to the LaFrontera’s southernmost fence line, which coincides with the US border. A tall concrete post bears a plaque that reads: boundary of the united states. treaty of 1853, reestablished by treaties of 1882–1889. I look out at pastures of pale yellow grass stretching away to the far blue ranges of Sonora and frankly feel exhilarated to be standing in all that wide, lonesome country with nothing between me and another country but five strands of barbed wire. There is much talk of building a wall to keep the aliens and the dopers out. I would hate to see the big open turned into some version of Cold War Eastern Europe, but that is easy for me to say.

Goodwin doesn’t think a wall is the solution for a simpler reason. He doesn’t think there is a solution because he doesn’t think the problem is a problem—it’s a predicament, a condition of life. Measures can be taken to ease its effects, much as a seawall can moderate a hurricane’s tidal surge; but as long as we have the Third World sharing a border with us, it’s a predicament that we are going to have to live with.

Spanish speakers call it La Linea or La Frontera. Anglos refer to it as “The Line.” It came into existence after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican War in 1848 and ceded half a million square miles of formerly Mexican territory to the United States. It was redrawn by the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, when the US bought another 30,000 square miles of northern Mexico for $15 million. From east to west, the Line begins where the Rio Grande spills into the Gulf of Mexico and ends at Tijuana on the Pacific coast—some 1,950 miles altogether.

North Americans, nurtured on the Mayflower creation myth and its successor, Manifest Destiny, conveniently forget that California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas once belonged to Spain’s New World empire and, after Mexican independence, to Mexico. The city of Santa Fe was thirteen years old when the pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock; Francisco Coronado led an expedition into present-day Kansas more than two centuries before Lewis and Clark went up the wide Missouri; and our central mythic figure, the cowboy, learned his trade from Mexican vaqueros. With three hundred years in the southwest already under their belts, Spanish-speaking peoples tended to regard the creation of a border in the mid-nineteenth century as a fiction. They continued to come and go over the Line, as their ancestors had before it was drawn, and as their descendants do today.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, they crossed into Arizona to work in the state’s “five Cs”—cattle, copper, citrus, cotton, and construction. Some were itinerant, some stayed, joining Americanized Mexicans and mingling their customs (and their blood) with the Anglos. There was migration in the opposite direction as well, albeit to a much lesser extent. Norteamericanos moved into Mexico to establish businesses, farms, and ranches, and intermarried with Mexicans.

Marco Antonio Martinez Dabdoub, the mayor of Nogales, Sonora, likens the border to a membrane, constantly permeated by people with family and commercial ties on both sides. Over time, this osmosis-like process has transformed the Line into a kind of country unto itself, bicultural and bilingual (trilingual if you count the patois known as “Spanglish”), with its own cuisine and its own music—with names to reflect the interwoven cultures: TexMex, Tejano. Along the California-Mexico border lay the sister cities of Calexico, California, and Mexicali, Mexico.

But these names also conceal a recent shift. Because California and Texas were urban centers and large migrant destinations, the main smuggling routes for Mexico’s drug cartels and illegal immigrants alike traditionally came through these states. But by the nineties, Californians and Texans were in an uproar over the strain illegal immigration was placing on state and local governments. In response, the Border Patrol conducted two operations, called Gatekeeper and Hold the Line, that sharply reduced illegal immigration and drug smuggling in both states. But their success had an unintended consequence: the traffic was diverted to Arizona. And that has created other consequences. Major smuggling rings have established themselves in Phoenix, Tucson, and border towns like Nogales and Douglas; migrants began dying in alarming numbers in the state’s desolate terrain; and Arizona’s border residents started experiencing a degree of violence and insecurity that hadn’t been seen in a century. Reading the local newspapers can at times make you think you’re in some crime-ridden, inner-city neighborhood. In the Huachuca Mountains, two men believed to be drug-runners carjack a woman in her driveway. Coyotes break into the home of a retired couple near the border town of Naco, gag and tie them, and steal their car. A deer hunter in the Altar Valley scouting before opening day is waylaid by border bandits, beaten unconscious, and robbed. Two Border Patrol agents are seriously wounded in a drug-runner’s ambush near Nogales.

The US Border Patrol divides the Arizona border into the Tucson and Yuma Sectors. The former extends for 261 miles from the New Mexico state line westward to the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, the latter for 90 miles to the California line. This boundary slices through some of the most inhospitable country in the Southwest, most notably the Cabeza Prieta, a Rhode Island–size swath of arid wilderness where summertime temperatures rise to 110 degrees, rattlesnakes are plentiful, and waterholes few. In the eastern half of the state, high-desert plateaus and rugged mountain ranges harboring bears and cougars—the Huachucas, the Santa Ritas, the Dragoons, the Chiricahuas, the Peloncillos—lie between the border and major highways. Despite these formidable natural obstacles, Arizona has become the main gateway into the US for contraband people and narcotics. Between 2002 and 2006, in the Tucson Sector alone, the Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies apprehended about 1.8 million migrants and seized 2 million pounds of marijuana along with thousands of pounds of cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines.

The confiscated drugs never reached their intended destinations, but that doesn’t hold true for the border crossers—derogatorily called “wets” (short for “wetbacks,” something of a misnomer in country where the rivers run dry ten months out of the year). No one can say how many get through for every one caught; I’ve heard estimates ranging from two to one up to four to one. Moreover, those arrested don’t just go home. They try and try again—some as many as a dozen times—until they succeed. One Border Patrol veteran told me, “Eventually, everyone makes it.”

More than a million people pouring through a corridor 261 miles wide every year, not counting the narco-traffickers. That’s about 2,800 per day, nearly 120 an hour. Journalist Charles Bowden calls it as the largest migration on earth. Many Arizonans call it an invasion. What set it off? The answer is complex but contained in a simple truth: the United States has a large appetite for cheap labor and illicit drugs; Mexico has an abundance of both.

When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) eliminated tariffs on the importation of American farm products, Mexico’s small farmers were devastated. They couldn’t compete with US agribusiness and lost access to markets. During the 1990s, Mexican farm income fell more than 4 percent. Young men and women left to look for work, some finding it in foreign-owned border factories—maquiladoras—but most crossed the border for higher-paying jobs. As the century and the millennium turned, even foreign factories began to shut down and move to China, where labor was even cheaper, annihilating Mexico’s traditional industries—textiles and shoes, for example. Between 2001 and 2004, 142 of the 450 maquiladoras in Juárez closed up shop, at a loss of about 100,000 jobs. The unemployed masses headed for el Norte.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, an estimated 4.5 million illegal immigrants were living in the US in 1994, the year NAFTA went into effect. By the turn of the century, the population had grown to 8.4 million. Migration slowed dramatically after 9/11, but began to rise again in 2003. Today, Pew calculates that approximately 10.3 million undocumented aliens are living here, and that’s conservative. I’ve seen estimates ranging from 12 to 18 million.

The Mexican government encourages the exodus, sometimes by not discouraging it, sometimes by actively assisting it. Illegal immigration to the US provides Mexico with about $18 billion a year in remittances—money sent back by immigrants. This is the country’s largest source of income after oil revenues. With the majority of its 108 million people unable to find opportunities to earn a decent living, emigration also acts as a safety valve on a political pressure cooker. The protests staged by populist firebrand Manuel López Obrador after last year’s national elections and the violent clashes between police and striking teachers in Oaxaca were foretastes of what could happen if the safety valve were shut off.

Whatever its effects on Mexico, NAFTA was a win-win for US business and agricultural interests—in one direction, they got tariff-free access to Mexican markets, and, in the other direction, the commodity that capital always seeks—a large, docile, inexpensive workforce. Jobs that once paid well above minimum wage to native-born Americans—in the meat-packing industry, for example—now pay half to two-thirds what they used to. Five dollars an hour looks very good to a man or woman who was earning five dollars a day, and he or she is unlikely going to start a union, or agitate for a fatter paycheck and better benefits.

Ocean Wall
The border at the Pacific Ocean. (David Grant / CC).

While our economy has thrived on this, however, xenophobia has been rising in the fever swamps of American nativism, where the issue isn’t that millions of Hispanics are coming here illegally—it’s that they’re coming here. It’s as if the hysteria about a “yellow peril” that gripped California in the nineteenth century had been resurrected with a change in complexion. But strictly speaking, it isn’t the immigrants’ pigmentation that has a lot of Arizonans (and non-Arizonans) up in arms. Rather, it is a perceived threat to America’s identity and cultural cohesiveness.

This dread, in my view, is what lies behind the loud calls for steel barriers to be built, for English to be declared the official language, for millions of migrants to be deported, for laws making it a felony to aid immigrants. The concerns that nativists voice—migrants take jobs from native-born Americans, drive down wages, strain health and social services—are valid, and there are plenty of studies to support them; but these issues camouflage a deeper, darker fear that Arizona and the whole Southwest is becoming “Mexicanized.” What they ignore is that the immigrants are becoming “Americanized” at the same time, just as Asian and southern and eastern Europeans were a hundred years ago. This is the whole story of America—immigrants change its character, it changes the immigrants.

People accustomed to life on the border are not troubled by the influence of Mexican culture. My wife and I have lived in Patagonia, Arizona, a small town eighteen miles north of Nogales, part-time for the last ten years. I have taken part in roundups and brandings with cowboys named Hudson and Miller and heard them conversing amiably and in reasonably good Spanish with vaqueros named Ceballos and Gutierrez; and when the work was done, we sat down to meals of machaca and frijoles and tortillas. Towns like Patagonia celebrate Cinco de Mayo and the Fourth of July with equal enthusiasm.

The concerns of Arizonans living along the border are more visceral than ideological. People here are not disturbed by the illegality of the immigration so much as by the sheer scale of it. It’s become an onslaught that is making their lives more difficult and dangerous, impossible in some cases, and is hence making them less tolerant than they used to be. It has also brought along with it a new set of dangers, which the Border Patrol is poorly equipped to meet.

Jim McManus owns a 200-acre horse ranch in the San Rafael Valley, where he and his wife, Tina, operate Coronado Outfitters, offering trail rides and pack trips to adventurous tourists. Jim, a wiry thirty-two-year-old, is going to take me for ride that isn’t on his outfitting service’s usual itinerary. Because he isn’t sure whom we will meet along the way, he is armed with a .357 Ruger revolver and I am carrying a Smith & Wesson of the same caliber. The reason for the arsenal is that their ranch sits astride a busy highway for drug-runners.

“Twice a week, we have guys who come through with dope on their backs and then come through again on the return leg,” Jim says as we drink coffee in the kitchen before saddling up.

One morning, as he went outside, he was accosted by five men who had been hiding behind his water tank. They sported gang tattoos and were garbed in the standard black clothes drug-runners wear for camouflage.

“They wanted food, water, and a ride to the border. I wasn’t about to give them a ride, but Tina made them peanut butter sandwiches and I brought them to them, balancing the sandwiches in one hand and holding my gun close to my side in the other. I told them to leave, but they were kind of reluctant till I showed them the gun.”

About a week later, while the couple were on a trip, their house was broken into. The freezer, which had been full of steaks from a cow Jim had butchered, was empty.

“I’m pretty sure it was the same five guys,” he continues. “It was their way of telling me that they didn’t like peanut butter sandwiches and that they could come in and take whatever they wanted anytime they wanted.”

Jim rides a paint, and I’m on a bay. It is a rugged, hour-long ride across several canyons and over steep, wooded ridges to the Canelo Hills, which form the northern and eastern boundaries of the San Rafael. The horses plod up and up and when we top out, Jim says, “There it is,” pointing at crude shelters of woven manzanita branches, similar to the wickiups of the old Apache. Sleeping bags are spread under a couple of the shelters, water jugs and Gatorade bottles and tin cans with labels in Spanish scattered about. A large hole has been dug into the hilltop—a food cache, Jim says, though it is empty. The view is stunning. Stretched out below, crisscrossed by reddish brown roads, the entire valley is like a life-size relief map. It is a drug smuggler’s observation post.

There are many such positions throughout southern Arizona, and they are vital to the contrabandistas’ operations. Drug smuggling is a business—“capitalism in the raw,” in the words of an American trafficker since gone straight—but it is run like a paramilitary operation, which is only natural: the cartels employ ex-soldiers, as well as members, both current and former, of the Mexican Judicial Federal Police, the federales. The observation teams sneak into the US a few days before a big shipment is to be moved. They are equipped with binoculars, night-vision goggles, maps, GPS, lists of law enforcement frequencies (provided by who knows?) and scanners to monitor them, cell phones, and state-of-the-art radios with scrambling capabilities. The teams keep watch on Border Patrol traffic, noting when shift changes occur. When the mules come in packing the merchandise, the sentinels guide them by radio or cell phone around Border Patrol checkpoints.

Some of the more sophisticated alien-smuggling rings have adopted similar tactics. Border Patrol agents have told me that they often find themselves outgunned and outmaneuvered. Jim and I agree: it seems like an unequal contest, the National Guard versus the Navy SEALs.

Billy Cruz is a ten-year veteran of the Border Patrol, a Mexican-American who speaks Spanish without a trace of a gringo accent. His day job is community relations, meaning that he serves as the Border Patrol’s liaison with local residents, but because of his ethnicity and fluency in Spanish he is occasionally sent over the Line on covert assignments, which is why I’ve given him a fictitious name.

I accompany him on one such sortie, providing him with ideal cover: I am a writer researching an article on immigration, and he is my photographer, should anyone ask. Cruz is carrying a camera, in case he sees something of interest from an intelligence-gathering point of view.

The mission is two-fold: first, to gather information on a drug boss’s activities; second, to monitor illegal alien traffic in the Altar Valley, west of Nogales. We take my Toyota 4Runner, and in keeping with the cloak-and-dagger nature of the trip, we do not cross through a port of entry but through a break in the border fence. In the parlance of border undercover work, this is known as an EWI—entry without inspection. That is, Cruz and I are illegal aliens in Mexico. As we head for Cananea by way of some rough back roads, Cruz fills me in on the background.

Red Wall
A border wall in Baja California. (David Cohen / CC).

The narco-king of the Sinaloacartel is one Joaquin “Chapo” Guzmán. He “owns” smuggling routes roughly from the San Pedro Valley east to the New Mexico line. Recently, Guzmán has begun to expand his operations westward, muscling in on territory controlled by a loose network of small-scale organizations headquartered in Cananea and outlying towns.

“Guzmán’s taking over from old, local families who’ve been smuggling for years. He’s brought in some bad guys, guys who aren’t from the area and have real criminal histories. They’re up for hire—as mules or enforcers or both. You want something moved, something done, you go to them.”

One of the things Guzmán wanted done was to stop illegal-immigrant traffic in the San Rafael Valley. The migrants were drawing too much attention and were “burning” the drug-runners’ favored routes, widening them from narrow footpaths into virtual roads, thus making them easier to spot.

Cruz laughs. He’s a loosey-goosey sort of guy, attuned to the ironies of border law enforcement. “A couple of mules we busted even complained that we weren’t doing our job stopping the immigrants.”

Word came from Mexican informants that Guzmán had warned the head of a large people-smuggling ring to stay out of the San Rafael. The man failed to heed the warning, Guzmán sent a couple of pistoleros to assassinate him, but they botched the job, only wounding him. The victim is now in hiding.

Federal Route 2, the highway that leads into and out of Cananea, is lined with motels that have become immigrant stash houses. For the next hour, I chauffeur Cruz from one to another—he checks out occupancy rates and the parking lots, looking for the vans and taxis and pickup trucks that indicate how many migrants are in town, awaiting transportation to La Linea. But the lots are almost empty, the motels as well. The attempted assassination has had an effect. Emigration through this route has been stopped or diverted elsewhere, not by effective law enforcement but by a drug lord’s mandate.

The next stop is Santa Cruz, a small ranching community about twenty miles off the main highway by dirt road. There have been reports that Chapo Guzmán’s thugs and local smugglers have been warring there, and Cruz wants to have a look. A few miles short of town, we are stopped at a Mexican army checkpoint. While soldiers in camouflage uniforms search our car, an officer questions us—this isolated area isn’t exactly a tourist destination. Cruz gives him our story, which he accepts, and we drive on.

Cruz is relieved. Not long ago, another undercover agent posing as a videographer was made to lie on the ground with soldiers holding their rifles to his head while their officers debated what to do with him. After three nerve-racking hours, he was released. Cruz tells me that you have to assume that every Mexican in uniform is an ally of the coyotes and the narcotraficantes. High-ranking army officers and federal and state police comandantes license the smugglers to operate in a certain area, taking a share of the profits. Mordida, it’s called, bribes, and the monthly payments can run as high as $100,000.

“It works like this,” Cruz says. “Let’s say you’re a young army captain and you’re honest. Your comandante orders you to stop drug smuggling in your area of operations. The comandante says you will have thirty men, five magazines of ammo for each man, rations for so many days, three Humvees, and a water truck. You get there, and you find that your men have only one magazine each and not enough rations, that the Humvees don’t have diesel fuel and there’s no water in the water truck. One day, a guy pays you a call, says he’s a rancher, and how happy he is that the army is here to battle these narco guys. What a disgrace that you don’t have ammo, food, fuel, water. To show his appreciation, he’ll get what you need, and he does. You’re grateful. The rancher does you another favor—he tips you off that a load of marijuana is going to be moved on a certain night to a certain crossing point. You make the bust, you look good. The comandante looks good—he’s doing his job, building up his arrest stats. What you don’t know is that the rancher is the big drug boss in the area and that the bust you’ve made is dope one of his rivals is smuggling. You don’t know that your commander is his partner. Then the rancher comes up to you and says another load is going to be moving through his ranch that night, and it would be a good idea if you and your boys stayed out of the way. Otherwise, no more food, fuel, and water, so you stay out of the way. Now you know. You’re in, you’re part of the system.”

A vaquerois mending a fence as we splash across the Santa Cruz River into the pueblo of the same name. It’s a clean, charming place—small adobe houses, a plaza with a bandstand, a mission church—and doesn’t look or feel like a battleground in the drug wars. The well-paved streets and new streetlighting, however, suggest a degree of prosperity derived from something other than ranching and farming. Drug lords take care of the villages in their areas, providing the services that the government fails to deliver; it isn’t that they have highly developed social consciences, it’s that the townspeople can protect them, acting as their eyes and ears to warn of approaching trouble. We stop at the Pemex gas station and ask the attendant what’s going on in town. Nothing, he says. Santa Cruz is muy tranquilo.

It takes the better of an hour to get back to the paved highway, two more hours to reach the town of Altar, which has become the number-one way station for migrants crossing into Arizona. Altar has a population of 18,000, but the Border Patrol estimates that anywhere between half a million to 800,000 people pass through it each year, making a 60-mile trip down a dirt road that leads to the border town of Sasabe. Pollos, they are called, chickens, and the coyotes they hire are known as polleros, chicken herders.

As we enter town, I am stunned. The plaza in front of the old mission church teems with guides, coyotes, and drivers resting up from their last trip north, awaiting the next. Parking spaces are as rare as in midtown Manhattan—everywhere vans, trucks, school buses, and tour buses converted into migrant cattle cars. On the main drag, I count two dozen stalls and shops overflowing with backpacks, jackets, gloves, water bottles, sneakers, boots, high-energy candy bars. Altar is the illegal aliens’ Wal-Mart. On almost every side street is at least one huéspede, or hostel, with bedsheets covering the windows, the doors shut. While waiting to make that rough ride to the land of dreams, migrants stay in these flophouses, sleeping in conditions as crowded as concentration-camp barracks, for three dollars a night.

After cruising through town, we swing onto the Altar-Sasabe road so Cruz can survey the traffic. As we do, he points to one of the ways the Mexican government abets the migration: a new government-owned Pemex gas station at the junction of the road and the main highway. “It was put there,” he says, “so the drivers can refuel between trips.”

There is also a tollbooth at the entrance to the road. The three-dollar fee goes toward grading and maintenance, and indeed the road is smoother than most Mexican back roads; we’re able to do forty miles an hour. Churning dust, several empty vehicles roar southbound to take on their next load, then we overtake several more packed with pollos heading for el Norte. Dark, somber, frightened faces peer out the windows. A lot of migrants are mestizos from Mexico’s semitropical southern states, few have ever been more than ten miles outside their home villages, and the empty deserts rolling by must look strange and intimidating to them. Most of the conveyances are nine-passenger vans, with the seats ripped out to increase their capacity. Six passengers sit on boards attached to each side, six more are squashed on the floor in between. We pass an old school bus carrying at least thirty people, then a truck, then more vans. We also see six vehicles overturned on the roadside, leading me to wonder how many migrants are killed or injured in accidents before they see the border.

About two-thirds of the way up, we come to a Grupa Beta checkpoint. Grupa Beta, the Mexican border patrol, is really a kind of safety patrol that’s supposed to help the pollos. Sometimes they do, sometimes they’re there only to collect their share of the mordida pie. The cops wear Day-Glo orange jackets and vests and are lurking under a ramada of the same color. Cruz gets out of the car to chat with them. Two weeks ago, on a similar trip, a Grupa Beta official told Cruz that he’d counted 2,000 vehicles on his nine-to-five shift. Traffic today—and in recent days—has been slow, the cops confide.

Rio Grande
The Rio Grande: Mexico on the left, the United States on the right. (Scott Laleman / CC).

“The Betas used to be very cooperative with us,” Cruz says, as we drive on. “Their job wasn’t to stop immigrants but to arrest the smugglers and the coyotes. They were armed and wore camouflage uniforms and were tough guys. If we busted a coyote who was being an asshole, all we had to do was threaten that we’d turn him over to Grupa Beta. Instant attitude adjustment. Then, about three years ago, the government took their guns away and ordered them to wear bright orange uniforms. They can’t apprehend smugglers, unarmed and dressed like that. The Mexican government has made them toothless, and that facilitates the traffic.”

Now we arrive at an army roadblock and are signaled to pull over. My US license plates are cause for suspicion. The coyotes’ vehicles, shooting by one after the other, are ignored. Vayan con Dios, mis amigos! The soldiers give us and the car a cursory search, and we are waved on. Farther up, two Sonoran state police SUVs are pulled over beside two southward-bound vans, the cops are chatting amiably with the coyotes, and why not? The chief of the state police in Sasabe is believed to take in $30,000 a month from the smuggling rings, largesse he shares with his troops. A big bite or a morsel, everyone gets his share.

We pass an abandoned brickyard, where the smugglers’ vehicles are turning off to head cross-country into the desert to unload their passengers, who will wait in the greasewood scrub for guides to take them over La Linea. Finally, having counted fifty-eight immigrant-carrying vehicles in an hour’s drive, we reach the border crossing at Sasabe, as mean and squalid a border town as I’ve seen. The US side looks like it’s under martial law. Border Patrol cars cruise the highway or occupy hilltops; backcountry patrolmen are trekking into the desert on foot or on horseback; three Trailways-size buses, marked department of homeland security are parked on the shoulder, taking on pollos who have been captured, maybe a hundred of them—and today is a slow day.

“This goes on twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, all year long,” Cruz says, in a tone that combines weariness and awe.

Ross Humphries and his wife, Susan, own the San Rafael Cattle Company in the San Rafael Valley (22,000 acres), the Palo Alto Ranch near Arivaca (35,000 acres), and the 7,000-acre Baboquivari Ranch in the Baboquivari mountains. Humphries comes as close to an old-time cattle baron as you will find in modern Arizona, but he bears neither a physical nor a temperamental resemblance to Thomas Dunson, the tyrannical cow boss portrayed by John Wayne in Howard Hawks’s Red River. He is an amiable, soft-spoken man, rather bookish.

Humphries has experienced most of the trials other ranchers have gone through, and then some: two years ago, rival drug gangs shot it out with assault rifles and handguns on his San Rafael spread; another time, drug-runners in a truck came speeding down a ranch road after Humphries and his cowboys had herded calves into a corral for branding—had the truck barreled through just a few minutes earlier, he says, “it would have killed all of us.” Today, an early spring day in 2006, he must deal with a different sort of problem created by the chaos on the border.

Humphries had leased grazing rights on the Palo Alto to a neighboring ranch, the King’s Anvil, a 50,000-acre spread owned by John and Patricia King. Word has come to him that the Kings have also leased out the unoccupied ranch house, without the Humphries’s permission, to the Minutemen, the much-publicized band of self-appointed border watchers.

When Ross and Susan arrive at the Palo Alto, they are taken aback by what they see. The old adobe house has been transformed into a paramilitary bivouac. Flying in the front yard are American flags and the Gadsden flag from the Revolutionary War, the yellow one with the coiled rattlesnake and the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.” Cardboard signs with various slogans hang from the fence, at least a dozen SUVs are parked in the side yard, and men and women carrying sidearms are walking about or relaxing under a tree. The front gate is guarded by a pistol-packing man with a laminated ID card hanging from his neck. He raises a hand as Ross and Susan pull in and asks them what their business is. Tight-lipped, Susan says, “This is our ranch.”

On their front porch, they find Minutemen jackets and T-shirts for sale. Two women are typing on computers in the hallway, several men who have been on night watch sleep in one of the bedrooms. The parlor has been renovated into a command center, complete with field radios and relief maps pinned to the wall. Minutemen (and -women) come and go, most of them looking as if they carry Medicare cards in their wallets.

Humphries is trying to absorb all this, and says to me, sotto voce, “I am frankly shocked by what I see here.”

I spot Chris Simcox and quickly corner him to talk. Simcox is the leader of the Minutemen in Arizona—he’s a fortyish refugee from Los Angeles who fled that city after 9/11. He operates out of Tombstone, a name redolent with frontier-America myth, scene of the famed shootout at the OK Corral. Simcox is a media-savvy guy, with a practiced spiel and a talent for attracting the spotlight. The Minutemen have captured the nation’s imagination and brought howls from the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups—Renegades! Vigilantes! But anyone who pictured a hooded night-rider with a hangman’s noose would have been disappointed to see them—codgers in lawn chairs, binoculars trained on the border.

Still, they might be just as surprised by the group’s results. On this operation alone, using thermal-imaging equipment, Minutemen spotted fifteen drug mules, whose point man and rear guard carried assault rifles. The Border Patrol was notified and arrested the smugglers, confiscating 900 pounds of marijuana.

“We avoid contacts and conflicts,” Simcox insists. “Our job is to observe and report and to rescue people. We have effected 300 rescues [of illegals lost in the desert] and recovered 33 dead bodies. I found a pregnant mother dead, her body torn apart by coyotes. You see something like that, it leaves a scar on your soul.”

He pauses to take a reporter’s call on his cell phone, then resumes. “We don’t have anything against immigrants—they’re welcome to come through a port of entry legally. They’re victims of their ineffective government in Mexico, and we’re victims of ours.”

And after what I’ve seen, I cannot deny that he has a point. The Minutemen are an inevitable result of illegal immigration run amok and the government’s inability or unwillingness to deal with it effectively—less a problem in themselves and more the symptom of a problem.

Such lofty matters, however, are not on Ross and Susan’s minds. They’ve got all these people with guns in a house they own, without their consent, and they drive over to the King’s Anvil for a talk with the Kings. At the junction of the highway and the ranch road, two representatives from the ACLU are sitting on camp chairs beside an automobile. Wherever the Minutemen go, the ACLU is sure to follow. The Minutemen watch the border, the civil libertarians watch the Minutemen.

Only Pat King is home. She invites us into her living room. Humphries does not relish confrontation; in the most nuanced of ways, he asks Pat why she’s turned over the Palo Alto house to the Minutemen. Their agreement was for grazing rights, and nothing more.

Pat, a stout, strong-looking woman in middle age, then reels off a litany of woes identical to that of every rancher and property owner I’ve spoken to. Home invasions, burglaries, cut fences, battered gates, broken irrigation pipes, drained water tanks, daughters afraid to go out on the ranch alone, dead bodies. . . . She speaks quietly, matter-of-factly, except when she gets on the topic of the ACLU. Then her voice rises.

“The ACLU guys have been calling coyotes and telling them where the Border Patrol and the Minutemen are. They call themselves the American Civil Liberties Union? Well, I’m an American and my civil liberties have been stomped on, and who do these people defend? The coyotes and the illegals.”

Finally, she gets around to answering Ross’s question—she’s afforded the Minutemen use of the house because they are helping her and her husband mend the fences and clean up the garbage; they are assisting the Border Patrol in curbing the traffic. It’s difficult to argue against that, and Ross and Susan Humphries don’t, leaving the issue unresolved.

As we drive out, I stop to chat with one of the ACLU monitors at the roadside, Ray Ybarra. He’s an earnest young man from Douglas, therefore no stranger to the border. No, he’s says in response to a question, the ACLU isn’t telling coyotes how to avoid the Border Patrol and the Minutemen, it’s merely playing watchdog to make sure migrants aren’t abused.

“Human beings should be able to find work without dying, and we need cheap labor in a capitalist system.”

I am a little surprised to hear a member of the ACLU speaking like an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, but the border issue isn’t two-sided—it’s more of a polygon, with social and cultural conservatives pitted against economic conservatives, left-wing civil libertarians against pro-labor liberals.

So what does Ybarra think the solution is? He thinks for a moment.

“A North American Union, something like the European Union. Any worker in North America can go to work in the US.”

While that may sound like liberal wishful thinking, in reality it is similar to the guest-worker program proposed by President Bush and Arizona senator John McCain, among others. However, the physics of the illegal-immigration problem are such that for every solution there is an equal and opposite nonsolution.

A guest-worker program, an orderly path to citizenship for the immigrants already here illegally, severe penalties for businesses that knowingly hire illegals? Okay, an estimated 8,000 US firms, large and small, now have undocumented workers on their payrolls. How will Immigration and Customs Enforcement police them and their employees? This too: no matter how much its advocates say otherwise, a guest-worker program would be tantamount to an amnesty. The last time amnesty was tried—the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986—three million undocumented aliens were morphed into American citizens with the stroke of pen, but that didn’t stop millions more from coming in. Finally, studies by the National Bureau of Economic Research have concluded that low-cost immigrant labor has increased unemployment among America’s poor and lowered wages in unskilled jobs by 8.2 percent. Guest workers will continue that trend.

Close the border with walls both virtual and real? Well, the physical wall proposed by the Secure Fence Act, which President Bush reluctantly signed last year, will cover just 700 of the Line’s 1,950 miles. Count on it, ways will be found to get around it, or over it, or under it. True, the gaps in Fortress America’s fence are supposed to be covered by sensors, cameras, and other high-tech surveillance equipment, but some legislators have begun to shy away from appropriating the funds after the inspector general of Homeland Security warned that costs, first estimated at $8 billion, could soar as high as $30 billion.

At the southern edge of the Tres Bellotas Ranch in the Tucson Sector, the border is marked by a flimsy barbed-wire fence and a gate, or, rather, the remnants of a gate—now just two rusting, cast-iron posts with mexico scratched into one side and usa into the other. When Lyle Robinson bought the Tres Bellotas in 1969, cross-border traffic was not unknown on the ranch, but it was confined to an odd marijuana load now and then, a handful of migratory workers passing through to pick crops. Things started to spin out of control about five years ago, and have only grown worse. One day in 2003 he and a cowhand rode their horses to a hilltop near his house, and were astonished to see some 300 aliens crowded into an arroyo below. The two men watched as coyotes divided the mob into groups of about 30 each in preparation for their northward journey.

On another occasion, he looked out his window and saw 15 pickup trucks, each carrying about 20 migrants, backed up on the road between a corral gate and the border, which is only 200 yards from his house. When Robinson walked out to investigate, the coyote asked him to open the corral gate. Robinson knew better than to refuse; coyotes and drug smugglers rarely brook uncooperative landowners. He opened the gate, and the convoy rolled out.

In April 2005, a “military-type” helicopter began circling at the same time a fuel truck was pulling into Robinson’s yard to fill the tanks for the diesel generators that supply power to the Tres Bellotas. The chopper landed. As R. D. Ayers, a friend visiting Robinson, walked toward the helicopter, six men stepped out wearing black uniforms, black ski masks, and body armor. Five carried semiautomatic rifles and formed a perimeter around the sixth, who identified himself as an officer in the Mexican police. He pointed at the truck and gruffly asked what it was doing there. Ayers, who speaks Spanish, asked the officer what he was doing there, informing him that he was in the United States. After a couple of minutes, the confrontation ended, the commander ordered his men back into the helicopter, and they flew off. Possibly the federales wanted to steal the fuel. Possibly they were escorting a drug shipment and wanted to transport it in the truck. Either way, Robinson felt as if he didn’t own the Tres Bellotas any longer; it now belonged to the contrabandistas.

It’s true that the vast majority of illegal immigrants are seeking to better their lives and feed their families; it is likewise true that criminals and other undesirables make up the rest. Border Patrol in the Tucson Sector apprehended over 28,000 illegals with criminal backgrounds in one two-year period—child molesters, rapists, murderers, armed robbers on the run from the law in Mexico or in other countries.

Tucson Sector agents have arrested members of Mara Salvatrucha sneaking into the US. Mara Salvatrucha, otherwise known as MS-13, is a large, ultra-violent street gang that operates in the US and in Central America. To give you an idea of what “ultraviolent” means, in December 2004, MS-13 gunmen surrounded a bus in a city in northern Honduras and opened fire with AK-47s, killing twenty-eight passengers. The victims had been chosen at random, their slaughter intended as a warning to the Honduran government to stop its crackdown on gang activities.

A common concern among ranchers like Robinson is that terrorists masquerading as pollos will infiltrate into the country through their properties. That sounds alarmist— like a high-concept Hollywood thriller—but every year the Border Patrol captures a small number of illegals from countries where al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are active. These are known as SIAs—Special Interest Aliens. Since 2001, Tucson Sector agents have caught over 130 SIAs from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. If you apply the common estimate that one-fourth to at most half of all border crossers are intercepted, then somewhere between 130 and 520 Special Interest Aliens have gotten into this country through the Tucson Sector alone.

“And for all we know, some of them may be terrorists,” Senior Border Patrol Agent Jim Hawkins tells me as he drives to the Tres Bellotas Ranch to begin a survey for erecting vehicle barriers.

Hawkins, a crew-cut army veteran of thirty-four, is wrapped tighter than his counterpart, Billy Cruz. Where Cruz laughs at the absurdities of the border situation, Hawkins is angry. A very controlled anger, but anger nonetheless. He’s as pissed off as Lou Dobbs at the US companies that fatten off illegal immigrant labor and “care only about the bottom line.”

“It’s a flat-out lie that illegals are doing the jobs Americans won’t do,” he continues. “American companies are hiring skilled workers at low wages compared to US wages. We’re now catching welders, auto mechanics, heavy equipment operators, even nuclear power-plant workers. The strawberry pickers are a thing of the past. These people don’t live in wigwams. They have stuff, and want more stuff.”

We bounce down the rough Tres Bellotas road through a labyrinth of canyons and low hills—perfect country to hide in. At the ranch house, a pleasant-looking place shaded by oak and mulberry, Lyle Robinson’s wife, Mollie, is pruning trees with her grandchildren. She is absolutely delighted to see Hawkins. Ever since the federale helicopter landed in their front yard, she and Lyle have felt threatened and have been begging the Border Patrol to do something, anything.

What it is going to do—block two wide canyons that the traffickers use as roadways into the ranch with railroad rails arranged in an X and set in concrete—won’t stop helicopters, but it will stop vehicles, and at least reduce drive-through traffic to foot traffic.

Hawkins sets about walking the canyon and taking photographs for the construction crews that will come in later. You can walk down almost any canyon like this and find enough trash to fill a dump truck. Assembly areas, where the coyotes gather their human cargo for transportation to paved highways, are an environmentalist’s nightmare—entire acreages of flotsam deposited by the migratory tide: plastic water jugs, plastic bottles of electrolyte drinks, baby bottles, tin cans, backpacks, jackets, pants, shoes, socks, family photographs, identity cards, discarded deodorant sticks, combs, hairbrushes, cosmetics, letters, religious talismans, Styrofoam cups, used toilet paper, dirty diapers, feces. These messes are more than unsightly; they pose health hazards to people and livestock. Cattle will eat almost anything. A cow might die if she ingests plastic, abort if she is springy with a calf. In Robinson’s canyon, amid the garbage, the stinking carcass of a dead heifer, its throat slashed and face meat cut out, lies beside the fence—what or who killed it is impossible to say. Possibly it was killed for food. Possibly it swallowed some lethal bit of detritus. The whole scene has a feral atmosphere.

As Hawkins takes pictures, a vehicle rattles up the canyon on the Mexican side and stops. We can’t see it through the brush and mesquite, but we hear voices speaking in Spanish and then a series of heavy thuds. Lowering his camera, Hawkins stalks up a hill siding the canyon, crouches and listens. More conversation, more thuds.

“It’s either illegals dropping suitcases,” he whispers, “or it’s drug-runners off-loading bales.”

We creep higher, seeking a vantage point from which we can make out what is going on, but the trees and dense brush block our view. The talking has stopped. We don’t hear the vehicle drive away.

“Whoever it is, they’re laying up for the day, waiting for nightfall, then they’ll cross,” Hawkins says in an undertone.

There’s nothing he can do—he isn’t allowed to step over the Line to investigate. He finishes with the photographing, drives to the next canyon to do the same, and then heads back to the paved highway, Route 286. Partway there, he stops at a Border Patrol truck perched on a hilltop—it’s known as a stationary patrol—and alerts the agent there that a load of migrants or drugs might be passing through that night.

Route 286 takes us into Arivaca, an old Arizona town that retains a frontier ambience—you can still pay for a meal with gold dust—and has a reputation as something of an outlaw’s town, modern-day outlaws mounted on Harleys instead of horses. But one citizen is law-abiding—a scrawny guy with an artificial voice box who alerts Hawkins that an illegal alien is hiding in an adobe ruin just up the street. Hawkins doesn’t want to deal with a lone pollo, but now he has no choice.

When we arrive, the migrant is curled up beside a wall of the roofless building. Hawkins orders him to come out with his hands up. A stocky man wearing a baseball cap, gray shirt, and worn brown trousers emerges.

His name is Trinidad Solis. He’s forty-six years old and has been working these past three years as a greenkeeper at a Phoenix golf course. In his native state of Guerrero, he had been a skilled craftsman, setting turquoise into silver jewelry, but he made only fifty dollars a week, roughly what he could earn in a day at the golf course. A month ago, he had to return home to look after his sick mother. After paying a coyote a thousand dollars, he started his return journey to the US with a group of forty other migrants. He couldn’t keep up, the coyote left him behind, and he wound up here.

Hawkins pats him down and questions him with almost painstaking politeness. Regulations prohibit detainees from being transported in ordinary patrol cars, so Hawkins has to wait for a caged unit—a vehicle with barred windows—to take Solis to the nearest Border Patrol station. While we’re waiting, Solis makes an appeal.

“Three years in this country, and I was working all the time, never in trouble with the police, never in trouble with drugs.”

It’s impossible not to pity Solis, and Hawkins replies, not unsympathetically, “I know. But the law is the law.”

Solis nods.“I am sorry for coming into your country illegally, but I had no choice. I needed the work, I needed the money.”

Hawkins is amazed. “First time I heard that, apologizing.”

When the caged unit finally arrives, another agent takes Solis into custody. No doubt he’ll try to come north again, this jeweler who trims the golf courses of Phoenix—just as soon as he’s driven back and dropped off in Mexico, just as soon as he can come up with another thousand dollars. Hawkins nods; “Buena suerte,” he says—good luck—and Trinidad Solis vanishes into the back of the vehicle, then down the dusty road toward the border.


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