Life on the border — the residents of Nogales, Rio Rico and Tubac

The following is part of a series on life on the border. I have spent a lot of time in the area between Green Valley and the border in a zone from Patagonia over to Arivaca talking to border area residents who live with the consequences of illegal entry and drug smuggling on a daily basis. I also worked in Nogales from 1997 to 2007 in various capacities including City Attorney and Acting Public Works Director. During the last year I’ve driven over probably every dirt road in the area while working on a project. I live in Tubac.

Outside of the border zone most people probably have very little direct contact with or impact from illegal entry and drug smuggling.

However, within the border zone illegal entry and drug smuggling problems and the impacts of attempts to enforce immigration and anti-smuggling laws are part of daily life.

The “border zone” is the area where illegal entry and drug smuggling is active and before the people or the drugs get permanent transportation into the interior of the country.

Generally the illegal entrants cross the border on foot. The drugs are carried across the border by human “mules” or on horseback. Drugs were also transported by vehicle, though less so now that remote border crossing roads are mostly blocked. Access still remains to foot traffic and horses in many remote areas.

Once across the border a hop scotch sort of process is apparent, with illegal entrants or drugs picked up from designated points and delivered to Nogales or Rio Rico area rented stash houses or dropped off near the check point. These pickup points are obvious from the amount of empty water bottles, discarded clothing and back packs found at these sites. The illegal entrants or drugs that are temporarily stashed are then transported north to near a Border Patrol checkpoint and dropped off. Then the people or drug mules walk around the checkpoint and are picked up again and transported onto their ultimate destination…which may be another stash house in Tucson or Phoenix.

To local residents this is a highly organized system. Illegal entrants reportedly pay coyotes up to $2500 for illegal entry. Many ask why federal enforcement isn’t focused on these obviously organized criminal type systems instead of catching the individual illegal entrants and drug mules.

Frequent encounters: Many area residents have encountered illegal entrants turning up at their homes asking for food and water. Recently one Rio Rico resident had an illegal entrant come to his door without shoes. Illegal entrants are frequently the victims of gangs working the border region. The resident gave the illegal entrant water and a pair of shoes and the immigrant went on his way.

It is hard to find someone who lives in Nogales, Rio Rico or Tubac who has NOT had encounters with illegal entrants.

In years past there was almost a universal attitude of help and assistance for illegal entrants who were in trouble. The local view was that the illegal entrants meant no harm.

That attitude has changed because of the sheer number of illegal entrants that are experienced, and the mixing in of drug smugglers now. There is a lot of fear in the neighborhoods.

Petty crime assumed to be caused by illegal entrants is common, especially in more remote areas on the fringes of the urbanized areas.

Where illegal entrants used to be encountered in the singular or small groups, there are reports of tens of people showing up. I rousted over 40 next to the Santa Cruz River in sight of the Border Patrol check point one morning.

One Tubac area resident had a wounded drug smuggler turn up on their doorstep.

But the impact is not limited to the illegal entrants or drug smugglers. The activities of the Border Patrol are also an issue in the borderlands.

On a given day one rarely sees a Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s officer patrolling Rio Rico and north. But there are lots of Border Patrol agents driving around and parked at various locations.

While no one thinks the Border Patrol saturation from Rio Rico north does much to catch illegal entrants or drug smugglers, they are appreciative of the fact there is a law enforcement presence in the area. Crime rates of dropped significantly all over Santa Cruz County and in Nogales because there are badges, guns and radios everywhere.

In Nogales itself the perception is the amount of illegal entry happening within the city limits is very low due to the high concentration or Border Patrol agents in that city.

Over and over it is clear that when the Border Patrol is concentrated at the border, illegal entry and all the problems associated with that go away.

Back in the late 1990’s the Border Patrol’s presence in the city was hostile, with everyone being treated like a criminal alien. The BP demonstrated a shocking lack of regard for local sensitivities, doing stupid things like pulling people over and blocking business entrances, building a wall in the drainage tunnel that runs from Mexico under Nogales, Arizona causing a flood, speeding around the city without lights and sirens on, and other arrogant stunts. I prosecuted one agent for going 75 mph in a school zone without his lights and sirens on.

It finally dawned on Border Patrol management that legal Hispanic residents take a dim view of illegal entry and drug smuggling, and actually are pretty good at spotting an illegal entrant. The issue of racial profiling does not exist when a local Hispanic resident is pointing out a suspected illegal entrant.

After much discussions with BP management, things radically improved within the city to the point that by 2006 Hispanic neighborhoods were asking the city to grade roads around their areas to make it easier for the Border Patrol to protect them from illegal entry problems and drug smugglers.

One issue that continues to create problems with the Border Patrol is they do not indulge in what local law enforcement calls “community policing”. BP agents are not stationed long enough in any one area to gain local knowledge of who lives where, and get to be known by local residents so more people will talk to them. And they don’t have a chance to learn who “belongs” in an area and who does not.

I asked a BP manager John Fitzpatrick in a meeting with Congresswoman Giffords’ staff about this constant shifting of agents, and the Border Patrol official explained that they don’t want their agents to be vulnerable to being bribed.

One of the big issues against SB 1070 from local law enforcement was that being turned into immigration enforcement agents works against community policing strategies that include getting cooperation from people on the ground.

One of the constant complaints is the amount of trash –empty water bottles, discarded back packs and clothing, food containers– accumulating in arroyos in the region. It is a burden and a nuisance to keep the areas clean.

A common “take back your neighborhood” strategy used in gang infested neighborhoods in cities is for residents to get out of their homes and be out and about all the time. This is being attempted in many borderland urban areas. But there are also areas where people do not feel safe to walk around their neighborhoods, especially at night. The back country in the region has been virtually abandoned for hiking and horseback riding. The federal warning signs didn’t need to be posted because local residents had already figured out they would likely encounter illegal aliens and drug smugglers if they went on a hike.

Even with the high number of Border Patrol agents cruising around Rio Rico and Tubac, most of the time these areas are exposed and that’s when the illegal entrants and drug smugglers are on the move.

Though the Border Patrol refuses to show where its agents are, it is assumed the smugglers always know where they area. One resident with significant military experience in electronic eavesdropped suggested that it is likely the federal government can and does monitor the cell phone and radio traffic in the region among the smugglers and coyotes. It is widely suspected the coyotes and drug smugglers have a better communications system than the Border Patrol.

One nasty aspect of life with the Border Patrol are reports of harassment of local residents who either go out in the borderlands to provide water and first aid to illegal entrants in trouble or who openly question Border Patrol tactics.

I can speak first hand to this as more than once I’ve had agents follow me all the way from Nogales to my home and park behind my truck blocking me from leaving my home while they do paperwork.

Just this last week a Border Patrol agent planted his vehicle behind an aid worker’s vehicle who is a here,  “checking him out”.

Another annoying element of border life involves trading in vehicles. The local car dealers have you sign over your title to your trade-in but do not transfer title to the dealership before they resell your former car or truck. The buyer gets the car and your title document, assuming they will file it and transfer the vehicle into their name. Not.

Called “throw away” cars, smugglers buy used vehicles and run drugs with them in your name on the title until they are caught and the vehicle is seized. That happened with a truck I traded in down in Nogales. I got a call 6 months after the trade about my truck being seized. Not my truck. But still in my name.

Why the feds don’t crack down on this organized criminal activity escapes me. However, I will never trade another vehicle to a Nogales area car dealer.

The shuttle business originating from Nogales has long been suspected of being part of the smuggling business. Shuttle operators can’t ask for nationality of passengers so when a shuttle is stopped and the occupants are discovered to be illegals, the government cannot seize the shuttle. Except, as the feds found out ten years after shuttle operations boomed from Nogales, there was under-the-table cash payments between coyotes, illegal entrants and shuttle operators for delivery of the undocumented entrants to Tucson or Phoenix.

When Nogales was first getting into licensing the shuttles we put some undercover agents on the rides and found the shuttle guys would stop half way to Tucson and demand more payment or dump the passengers into the desert.

Nogales enacted a tough shuttle ordinance, and promptly got sued for alleged racial discrimination. The Hispanic federal judge took one look at the Hispanic Nogales city council and threw out the discrimination element of the  suit. The City’s shuttle ordinance was upheld by the Arizona Supreme Court.

The Border Patrol asked if the city would require, as part of its ordinance, that the word “shuttle” be painted in letters at least a foot high so they could bee seen from some distance. The city did that in case you’ve seen a shuttle on I-10 or I-19.

The only visible shuttle enforcement is the I-19 check point. There was one major bust of a few shuttle companies recently, but locals are wondering why more effort hasn’t been spent on this system of illegal alien transport.

The stash house game also disturbs area residents. This is our version of having a meth lab house in the neighborhood (and we have those, too).Why there is not a crack down on the real estate agents or homeowners renting out stash houses is a major question.

The BP check point north of Tubac remains a sore spot for local residents. Tourists take a dim view of being stopped and asked if they are citizens and have a dog prowl around their cars. Only in a border area can people be stopped by the Border Patrol and questioned, which is not the reality inside America. Thus tourists repeatedly indicate they will never come back to the area because of their check point experience.

The Border Patrol appears to be oblivious to the damage they are doing to the local economy, putting their mission ahead of everything else. There is widespread belief that the sole point of the check point is trying to catch drugs being smuggled, as the illegal entrants for the most part walk around the check point. The question is asked “how did the drugs get this far north?”

Suggestions on how the BP could improve the public relations aspect of the check point have gone unheeded. Some check point agents are actually pretty nice, but others act hostile to motorists. There is no standard “release” message when the encounter ends, with each agent doing his or her own thing. One suggestion was to hand folks a leaflet explaining what just happened and why.

Like area ranchers, local residents are not impressed by the BP strategy of stationing agents 10, 20, 30 and 40 miles from the border. “Secure the border at the border” is a nearly universal view of borderland residents. They feel they would not have to deal with the problems of illegal entry and drug smuggling if this was stopped right at the border and if there were a legal way for people to enter the country to work.


About Hugh Holub

Attorney and writer.
This entry was posted in border issues, border patrol, border patrol tucson sector, border security, department of homeland security, us customs and border protection and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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