The murder of Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry blew a big hole in the government's claim that the border is being secured. But it has also scared some American citizens into silence.
In the months since the Dec. 14, 2010, murder of Terry, two residents of the Peck Canyon smuggling corridor have called me to say they'll no longer speak for attribution.
Can't risk having a high profile in the red-hot drug war.
Can't blame them a bit.
These folks are eyewitnesses to the ongoing disaster, and important voices at a time when the Obama administration is eager to sell a political message of success. Murders, assaults, robberies, body parts littering some of the most beautiful parts of Arizona—the less the country knows about that, the better.
Residents of the corridor—north of Nogales and west of Interstate 19, in the Coronado National Forest—say there was a period of relative calm after the Terry killing, but smuggling in the area seems to have ticked back up.
When one of those aforementioned sources called to say he was going dark, he mentioned an unsettling period between mid-March and mid-April. On March 13, a decomposing body was found on his land. On April 14, there was a drug bust practically in his front yard, and the next day, a fresh human skull was discovered on his land.
"For the first time, we're beginning to worry a little about security," he said. "This past year has been the most turbulent time in our 35 years on this ranch."
The skull was the second found in two days in Santa Cruz County. On April 13, Jason Kane, who lives along the corridor in Agua Fria Canyon, was working in his yard when he noticed his dogs playing with a human skull. Deputies searched and found part of a human jaw and teeth, likely brought in from the forest by the dogs.
An off-duty Nogales cop found what appears to be a third skull on May 2 as he rode on horseback in the forest south of Agua Fria Canyon. A search located two femurs, part of a spinal cord and possibly two shoulder bones.
Although it is often difficult to determine a cause of death from bones, most are likely from the bodies of illegals who trekked into that rugged terrain and perished of natural causes, says Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada. "We're finding 15 to 20 bodies a year now, and that's new for us," he says. "This smuggling is a dirty, vicious business."
He looks at it from a humanitarian perspective, saying new fencing and more Border Patrol around Nogales proper has pushed crossers into the backcountry, where they become "prey for both human and animal predators." To stop the rapes, assaults and shootings, and to keep people from dying, Estrada would like to see more Border Patrol agents in the remote areas.
"Whatever they need to do—a camp, boots on the ground, technology," says Estrada. "But I'd like to see it happen quickly."
Through all of Santa Cruz County's backcountry, reported crimes are actually down over last year, says Lt. Raoul Rodriguez, the sheriff's chief criminal investigator. "But that doesn't mean they aren't happening," he says. "It just means they're not being reported to us."
Many of those attacked in the mountains just want to go home rather than file a report. And victims who are willing to speak up often do so too late. They don't reveal what happened until they land at Border Patrol headquarters for processing, sometimes hours and even days later. By then, the bad guys are long gone.
"It's unbelievably frustrating," says Rodriguez. "You might have a woman coming into the country to reconnect with her family, and she's raped in the mountains. You want to find the person responsible, but there's not much we can do."
Drug cartels and bandits made April a busy month in and around the Peck Corridor. On April 20, agents arrested three illegals near Tumacacori, seizing 119 pounds of marijuana and a loaded .38-caliber revolver, according to the Border Patrol's weekly arrest blotter.
The same day, at the north end of the corridor at Amado, agents arrested a lone illegal and seized 465 pounds of marijuana and a MAC-10 machine pistol that had been reported stolen in Arizona.
On April 25 near Rio Rico, agents arrested a Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang member from Honduras who had been previously deported.
This is cartel activity on American soil, and it shows no sign of easing. Some of it is occurring east of Nogales, too. On April 30 in the Patagonia Mountains, six riflemen in camouflage who "possibly had grenades," according to the sheriff's report, stopped a group of 11 illegals near Duquesne.
The gunmen spoke in codes over radios and asked the illegals if they were associated with Mexican drug cartels. They stole $800 from one of the crossers before letting them go. Estrada can't be sure what was going on, but it "might've been one cartel checking out what the competition was doing."
He calls men with grenades an "isolated incident." Nogales Police Chief Jeff Kirkham says, "Given what's happening in Mexico, it doesn't surprise me."
The most active area, though, is north and west of Nogales. A bizarre episode occurred there on May 15, near Aliso Springs. A man told authorities he was muling marijuana north when bandits with rifles and speaking with Sinaloan accents jumped his group.
The informant said one of the smugglers disobeyed a command not to run, sprinted up a cliff and, as he turned around, was shot in the chest and killed, says Estrada. The bandits told the informant if he retrieved the body and buried it, they would spare his life.
He did so and reported the episode. Estrada says he initially found the story believable, given that the informant could have gotten away without reporting anything. But deputies and Border Patrol agents searched the remote area and found no grave.
Estrada now speculates the informant might've been a rip-off man himself: The informant had ripped off the dope he was hauling from another gang, lost it to bandits, then invented a story to explain the loss to his cartel.
"I'm not saying that happened, but strange things happen out there," says Estrada. "If he told the truth, it's disturbing in a lot of ways, mostly because these people are trying to bury evidence."