Badlands

From Ground Zero of the immigration crisis along the Mexican border

Badlands

On April 27, Janet Napolitano pronounced that the border separating the United States from the Republic of Mexico is more secure than ever.

"I say this again as someone who has walked that border," the former Arizona governor told a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the oversight of the Department of Homeland Security, which she now heads.

"I've ridden that border. I've flown it. I've driven it. I know that border, I think, as well as anyone, and I will tell you it is as secure now as it has ever been."

Napolitano sounded convinced, even though she also has spoken of Mexico's 6,000 drug-related murders in 2009 alone, more than twice the total in 2008.

In the United States, she claimed, "limited increases" in immigrant-related crime "have come mainly in the form of cartel operatives hurting or killing each other, the kidnappings of those involved in the drug trade or their family members, and assaults on Border Patrol agents by those attempting to bring illegal drugs into the country."

But Napolitano's words rang hollow to those who live at or near the border in Cochise County, a beautiful, sparsely populated expanse in southeast Arizona.

They live at ground zero in the United States for the smuggling from Mexico of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin — and human beings.

(The U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson sector was responsible for almost half of all illegal aliens arrested and marijuana seized along the nation's borders during fiscal 2009, which ended September 30. Try to imagine 1.2 million pounds of pot, an all-time record for any sector. The zone includes Cochise County and covers 262 miles of border).

Most people in this fabled county — home to Tombstone (the shootout at the OK Corral), Fort Huachuaca (a major U.S. Army base), funky border towns (Douglas and Naco), and almost unimaginably open spaces — agree on this:

The executive and legislative branches of the federal government have set up Cochise County for disaster by not coming up with a border policy to effectively handle what's known as "illegal immigration."

In the early 1990s, the feds tightened the leaky border around San Diego and El Paso with mega-operations called Operation Gatekeeper and Operation Hold the Line, respectively.

The result was a monumental funneling of hundreds of thousands of undocumented aliens from the steep mountains and unforgiving deserts of northern Mexico into southern Arizona.

Before then, Cochise County was not a prime point of entry for illegal aliens (the Tucson sector accounted for only 9 percent of the U.S. Border Patrol's arrests in 1993).

Then, as now, drug smugglers pretty much had free rein, with law enforcement seemingly always a step behind most of the criminals.

With the redirection of the migrants came dire ramifications, including death for untold hapless migrants ill-equipped to negotiate the desert and mountain trails in brutal summers and cold winters.

The influx also has upended the lives of many on this side of the border, especially American citizens who live anywhere in the southern portion of Cochise County.

The vast majority of the incoming illegal aliens have no criminal designs, and they aren't drug smugglers. To the contrary, their collective goal is to remain as invisible as possible and to hightail it out of Cochise County on their way to America's urban centers, including Phoenix.

Some of them simply are hungry and desperate. But others are of a more malevolent bent, committing robberies, burglaries, and other crimes against Americans in remote spots like Portal, Apache, and Palominas.

Until recently, those at the border, especially cattle ranchers whose properties often abut the Mexico line, sensed they were shouting futilely into the wind about their troubles — the degradation of their land, the incessant rip-offs of their property, the growing fear for their personal safety.

But the landscape changed exactly one month before Napolitano lectured the senators about border security.

On March 27, a well-liked 58-year-old cattle rancher named Rob Krentz was murdered on his family's ranch about 25 miles east of Douglas and several miles north of the border.

Though authorities still haven't officially linked the homicide to an illegal alien, they've done everything but.

"Rob was working, literally out in the middle of nowhere, with his dog," veteran Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever told New Times soon after the murder.

"He might have been around some cattle, a snake or two, some birds. That's it. But his ranch is right smack in dope-smuggling country. It wouldn't have been unheard of for him to have just bumped into a bad guy out there, one who happened to be carrying a gun."

The unsolved case soon became a tipping point for many in Arizona and nationwide, intensifying the debate on illegal immigration.

"You know that phrase we all learned in school, 'Remember the Alamo'?" a rancher tells New Times. "For a lot of us, it's going to be 'Remember Rob Krentz' from now on."

The Krentz murder happened just as the debate over the wildly divisive Arizona Senate Bill 1070 was reaching fever pitch.

The controversial legislation, which became law with Governor Jan Brewer's signature on April 24, makes the failure to carry proof of legal U.S. residency a crime and gives local law enforcement wider latitude to detain those "reasonably suspected" of being here illegally. The law is scheduled to go into effect July 29 but has been challenged in lawsuits that may affect implementation.

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