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The Border Sheriff 

Santa Cruz County's Tony Estrada deals with the challenges and realities of today's U.S.-Mexico border

The pale light of dawn slips into Santa Cruz County, sneaking up canyons, and creeping gingerly down the broad, serpentine arroyos. At first glance, it presents the lovely essence of a simple desert idyll.

But miles away, along the county's southern flank, is where the truth really dwells. It is there that the border wall glowers in the fledgling light, and groans ever-so-slightly with the growing breeze. It is there that reality reaches its crescendo, because these days in Santa Cruz County, the wall tells it all.

When Tony Estrada was a child here, there was no wall. Born in Nogales, Sonora, and reared in Nogales, Ariz., he is a creature of this place. But the border he remembers was largely amorphous: People came, people went. There was an innocence of sorts, the camaraderie of a shared culture which largely ignored the imposed boundary in its midst.

Tony Estrada misses those days. But when one is sheriff of a border county, there's not much chance for wistful melancholy. Sheriff Tony Estrada knows full well that south of that wall, a war is underway. He knows of the barbarous killings and beheadings and the acid vats of drug cartels devouring themselves. There is corruption in uniform, and a very thin line between good guys and bad.

He also knows that north of the wall, in his own agitated back-country, there is an ongoing epic of mass-migration and aggravated assault, of drug rip-offs, murders and assorted mayhem. In his jurisdiction, not far from the line, there is a rape tree. It is marked by women's panties, dangling as trophies from the branches.

So this is a place of natural beauty and human horrors. And the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office is responsible for 1,236 square miles of it (though the incorporated cities of Nogales and Patagonia also have police forces). That number makes Santa Cruz the state's smallest county. But it's only a number.

Here are two more: In a typical year, in this jurisdiction, nearly 100,000 undocumented immigrants and smugglers are apprehended by the Border Patrol. And at any given time, more than 20 percent of the detainees in Sheriff Estrada's jail are foreign nationals. A good share of them are headed for the county court system on charges ranging from drugs to murder. Some will be defended on the public dime.

All of this places enormous strains on the budget, and generates friction among politicians. It leaves Sheriff Estrada scrambling to make ends meet, in a county where nearly 20 percent of residents live below the national poverty level.

Not surprisingly, many residents question why their county must pay dearly for federal immigration policies that are clearly a disaster. And not surprisingly, the federal government has few answers beyond offering more of the same.

But, of course, that logic is issued far from here, far from the murders and the bedlam, far from the rape tree. It exists in a parallel universe bearing scant resemblance to the reality of Santa Cruz County.

Sheriff Estrada is already grinding through his weekly stats when I reach the Santa Cruz County boardroom. Estrada is a solid man, though not a tall one, and he hardly towers over the podium. But 43 years behind a badge give him some heft in these cavernous quarters, even with the county supervisors who now sit at their high dais, and with whom he often clashes over money.

The sheriff likes to call his jail "Santa Cruz County's only gated community." Many of its guests arrive thanks to the feds, usually from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Border Patrol.

"ICE arrested a 31-year-old female out of Hermosillo, Sonora, with 31 kilos of cocaine," the sheriff is saying to the sparsely filled room. "ICE also arrested a 17-year-old male out of Nogales, Arizona, with three kilos of methamphetamine. And ICE arrested a 28-year-old male out of Nogales, Arizona. The Metro Task Force also went into an apartment and arrested a 17-year-old male from Nogales, Sonora, with two bales of marijuana."

(The Metro Task Force is an info-swapping creation which includes the sheriff's office, the Nogales Police Department, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the county attorney's office, Border Patrol, ICE and even the military.)

It is July 29. A day before this meeting, we're told, Estrada's deputies were called to an accident scene. There, they found a 1998 Isuzu SUV with Minnesota plates and four foreign nationals inside. Apparently, the driver had spotted Border Patrol agents and made a dash. He lost control of the Isuzu, and it rolled. His passengers got battered—and caught—but the driver escaped. So it goes on the border.

Later, we're standing in the hall, as the supervisors' meeting drones on. "Usually, I hang around here a little bit," the sheriff says, "to see if they need me."

It so happens that the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors does sometimes need Sheriff Estrada to explain. Estrada is dedicated to getting salary boosts for his folks, arguing that lousy pay is to blame for a steady turnover in the sheriff's office.

District 1 Supervisor Manuel Ruiz in particular has not always agreed with the sheriff. In 2003, this feud spilled over into the local newspaper, the Nogales International (which, like the Tucson Weekly, is owned by Wick Communications), after Estrada made a public pitch for more money. "With a slow economy, tight budgets and the very limited resources that are available to us," Ruiz wrote, "we simply cannot afford to continue throwing money at the problems created by the sheriff's poor management skills."

Estrada shot back with an editorial of his own.

"I find it amazing," he wrote, "that the very individual who criticized me severely for going to the press and exercising my First Amendment rights to bring forth the inequities in pay at the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office decides to use the press himself, not to debate the issue of pay as much as to attack me personally."

These days, Ruiz downplays that spat. "Listen, it's always tough to work with money and elected officials," the supervisor says. "And I realize the importance of law enforcement. But it's tough when you're looking to balance out all the departments."

He blames Washington, D.C., for much of this distress. "It's not fair that our sheriff should be enforcing immigration," he says. "That's really not what we're supposed to do. I think that really has to fall on the shoulders of the federal government.

"The concern for the sheriff and our deputies is first and foremost that our Santa Cruz (County) citizens are safe, and if they're called, that they are able to respond in a quick manner and not be out there enforcing immigration law."

Raul Rodriguez knows the dilemma firsthand. After 21 years with the sheriff's office, he left to work as a detective for Santa Cruz County Attorney George Silva.

"Let's put it like this," Rodriguez says. "If the federal government would enforce the laws we have in place to the letter of the law, we wouldn't have local law enforcement fixing it. If the federal government would reimburse us for every dollar spent, we wouldn't be having this problem."

Meanwhile, beyond the budget woes, law enforcement here also suffers the sheer stress of working the border—especially with vicious drug cartels battling just across the line.

"Used to be you could walk down the street in Nogales, Sonora, at 3 o'clock in the morning, and nobody would bother you," says Estrada. "Now you always have to be really careful wherever you're at."

Often, the Mexican firefights are within earshot. "There was one night when there was a shootout in Colonia Kennedy," Estrada says. Kennedy is an upscale Sonora neighborhood. "They were firing thousands and thousands of rounds in there. (The Mexican police) even called us to see if we had any ammunition, because they had run out. Of course, we couldn't give them any, because it is illegal to take ammunition across the line.

"And shortly after that, (the cartels) killed the comandante. Retaliation. I didn't know him personally, but I had heard of him. I try not to get too close to people (law enforcement) across the line, for obvious reasons. I really don't know who they are. You never know what's going to happen. You know they're going to be helpful to you, respectful ... but you don't know who they're really working for. So you do the best you can to work with them. And they will bend over backward to help you. But then they have their own agenda, their own marching orders."

Still, Estrada believes that Mexican President Felipe Calderón will triumph in his war against the cartels, which already has killed thousands. "He's going to have to," Estrada says. "It's imperative. What Calderón has done is amazing. The task that he has taken on is something that no one has ever done before. And I don't know if anyone will ever do it after him. That's what's scary, because what will happen when he's no longer there?

"With all the police officers that have been killed over there," he says, "I would like to think that good will triumph over evil."

The brutality, he says, is beyond belief.

"It's not like it used to be, when somebody would just kill somebody else. Now they kill them, mutilate them, torture them. I read about this guy that all he did was get these bodies, and he was paid to put them in acid. That was his job. He destroyed the evidence. Hundreds of people. He says he didn't kill them; they were already dead."

When heads literally began rolling in Nogales, Sonora, Estrada knew the carnage had turned a corner.

It seeps over to this side as well. A report from the UA cites a growing wave of violence along the Interstate 19 corridor: three border-crossers attacked near Amado, 10 assaulted near Rio Rico, and one more shot down with an AK-47.

And here's the catch: Nearly any crime occurring in Santa Cruz County becomes the sheriff's baby, regardless of the perpetrator's nationality. As you might imagine, the costs are huge. Dr. Tanis Salant, of the UA's School of Government and Public Policy, has spent years learning just how huge.

Her most recent study reveals that, in 2006 alone, there were nearly 100,000 apprehensions by the Border Patrol in Santa Cruz County, compared to 110,000 in Pima County. While the annual cost of those apprehensions is $15.83 for each of Pima's 1 million citizens, Santa Cruz County's 43,000 residents pay a whopping $51.19 per person. In turn, the annual price tag to Santa Cruz County for everything—from incarceration and prosecution to indigent defense—tops $2 million each year.

"Most of these costs are beyond the county's control," says Salant, "and that's one of the problems. By state law, they have to arrest anybody who commits a state felony or a couple of the misdemeanors, so they automatically go into the county jail."

There has been federal funding for border counties under the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program, or SCAAP, which is administered by the U.S. Department of Justice. But in recent years, Estrada says, Santa Cruz County's share of that money has shrunk from approximately $250,000 to less than $40,000. And the fund was completely eliminated in President Obama's current budget, according to one administration source who asked not to be named. The administration wanted to direct more funds toward prevention and intervention along the border, or so-called "front end of the pipeline prevention," says the source.

In other words, the money would be aimed at keeping people from ever reaching Santa Cruz and other border counties in the first place.

But skeptics aren't holding their breath. Nor has the cost to counties suddenly vanished.

Still, the U.S. House of Representatives did restore approximately $300 million to SCAAP, according to our source. And Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl is working to make more funds available in his chamber, says spokesman Ryan Patmintra.

"Every year since he has been here, Sen. Kyl has fought to reauthorize or increase funding for this program, in order to reimburse the states fully for the costs associated with incarcerating illegal immigrants. Will he do the same this year? The answer is yes.

"But if the Obama administration's current budget stands, that will in effect kill the program," Patmintra says. "And we're not going to allow that to happen."

There's also a small irony here. Unlike Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Sheriff Estrada doesn't go looking for trouble with immigrants—and therefore incur unneeded costs.

"Sheriff Arpaio brings himself a lot of attention," Estrada says. "I know Phoenix and Tucson have a lot of problems. But that's a federal problem. People have been upset for a long time about illegal immigration and the economy, so it's a popular thing to do up there, I guess."

Popular? Certainly. But it's hardly a wise strategy, says Peter Andreas, an associate professor of political science at Brown University, and the author of Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide. He says Estrada's low-key approach makes better sense. "The conventional wisdom is that cops should not be immigration law enforcement, because cops want immigrants—regardless of their legal status—to report whenever there's a serious crime going on. If there's a rape or a murder or a serious crime of some sort, you want them to make that 911 call. You want them to come forward as witnesses. And police are blind if they don't have residents willing to come forward."

Of course, "there can be pressures to extend their mandate," he says, "political pressures from above."

Estrada says the federal folks have prodded his department to take a bigger role in dealing with border problems. That makes the sheriff chuckle. "We're not adversarial toward the federal government," he says. "But we've already been doing that forever. We've been doing so much with so little for so long."

There may be other reasons the sheriff doesn't want to go after illegal aliens, according to Manuel Coppola, editor of the Nogales International. The sheriff "is a native of this community who grew up when Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Sonora, were practically one and the same, and the border fence was more symbolic than an actual barrier," Coppola writes in an e-mail to the Weekly.

"He understands the deep familial ties among folks on both sides of the border that have come to be strained by an unsightly metal curtain and ribbons of red tape in the name of national security, and as a result of immigration policies that have clearly failed," Coppola continues. "He hears directly from businessmen who work in Sonora or conduct international trade about how difficult it is to work in this climate."

In other words, writes Coppola, "Estrada understands the tangible and intangible costs of failed immigration policies more so than any bureaucrat from Washington, D.C., and especially his puffed-up counterpart in Phoenix."

But there are critics of the sheriff's priorities, including some rural residents who deal with the outfall of cross-border traffic. Among them is rancher Sonny Clarke, who constantly deals with unwelcome guests on his remote property northwest of Nogales. Clarke rattles off a list of nearby burglaries and says he's reluctant even to visit parts of his own spread.

"Bottom line is, you can't go out there anymore, because you don't know who the hell you're going to meet up with. That's happened to me many times. But hell, you call the sheriff, and they don't know where you are out here."

Over at the sheriff's office, just off a scruffy Nogales roadway, we're touring the fruits of these law-enforcement efforts. I smell marijuana's pungent aroma as we're admitted to the main compound. Then I'm ushered into a room that's stuffed with dope "backpacks," each complete with its own crude shoulder straps. There are also suitcases and taped boxes and bricks and quarters and pounds. All of it is evidence for pending cases.

Sheriff Estrada flicks the straps of a backpack and turns to one of his aides, Lt. Gerry Castillo. "How much do you think these weigh?" he asks Castillo.

"Probably about 50 pounds," Castillo replies, pointing at the pack. "See how they are all black?" he says. "That's so cameras won't pick them up."

"The mules, the backpackers," says Sheriff Estrada, "they're a dime a dozen. But they're young and strong. They have to be to carry these through those rugged areas. It may take them days to get to where they're going to drop it off."

Rarely is the same mule caught twice, he says, since the cartels "have a big pool of applicants."

But not all of this contraband is snagged from trekkers. Some comes from local stash houses, which sooner or later are sniffed out by the sheriff. "There is a combination of ways we gather information," says Lt. Castillo, who also heads the Metro Task Force. "We hear from concerned citizens, and from informants. We have lots of informants."

"That's why it's important not to alienate anyone," says Estrada. "We're part of the community, and they won't always do that for somebody else."

"We do know the community," Castillo nods. "We know every street and road in Santa Cruz County."

But in a small county, the trail sometimes leads a little close to home—toward friends, acquaintances or relatives.

"That's just what happens on the border," says Estrada.

Tony Estrada was still a toddler when his family crossed the border. "In those times, it was much different," he says. "All anyone needed was a job, and they could immigrate. My dad was a jack-of-all-trades. He knew how to do everything. He would sharpen saws. He had all these abilities which didn't generate much money. I could see how hard he worked, and what did he have to show for it?

"But I learned to respect what he did," Estrada says. "His name was Jesus Estrada, and I wish I would have learned every trade that he had tried to teach me. It think it would have been very helpful. He died young. I was 22 when he died."

In 1966, Tony Estrada signed on with the Nogales Police Department, making $375 a month. "Things have changed so much since then," he says. "When I got started, the population across the line was 40,000, give or take. Now it's 400,000. Here in the city of Nogales, it was 5,000. Now it's more than 21,000."

Current Nogales Police Chief William Ybarra worked under Estrada. He remembers a guy who didn't miss a beat. "When I came to the police department, he was our administrative captain," says Ybarra, who joined the force in 1984. "He was actually a mentor toward me, and continues to be. When I became a captain, he gave me some encouraging words. We foster a very pleasant relationship.

"Back then, the police department only had about 30 employees. We were a very tight-knit department, and he fostered camaraderie and helping each other. He was a backbone of the department who kept everybody together.

"One time, he did a follow-up on a missing person. He had a lot of contacts back then across the line. I guess this person was across the line, and he managed to locate the person. He did a lot of follow-up."

Those were the days when Estrada would coordinate softball games with the Douglas Police Department and the Border Patrol.

"Back then, the Border Patrol still had a small enough station down here that everybody pretty much knew all the agents," Ybarra says. "He fostered relationships like that, and with the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's (Office) before he became sheriff."

In 1991, Estrada quit the department and diddled around at odd jobs. A year later, he ran for sheriff and won. He's been easily re-elected ever since. But his roots make him something of an exception in law enforcement. Indeed, his perspective on illegal immigrants isn't typical of what you hear in law-and-order circles: "The immigrants, they keep trying to cross, but they just want to provide for their families," he tells me. "Yes, I do have a soft heart for these people. The great majority are good people. They're human beings."

But with his job also comes restrictions. For instance, he no longer ventures over to his native Nogales, Sonora. "The way things are across the line," he says, "and my position ... I try to be careful. It's been quite a few years. I may go to Mexico, to other parts that I won't mention, where people don't know you.

"It is unfortunate, in a way. I feel deprived. I feel like I can't go back to where I want to go-where I used to be able to go. It's right there, but it's so far."

We've moved to Sheriff Estrada's office, and it is filled with pictures of luminaries and tokens of his work. A bookshelf is topped by a brigade of miniature squad cars. Estrada pulls out a photograph of the Nogales police crew, his old buddies, taken when they moved to their new headquarters in the 1970s. There is Officer Estrada among them, mustached and smiling slightly beneath his broad hat.

"That was a different time," he says. "When I was with the police department, 60 or 70 percent of people we had in jail were from across the line. Some committed shoplifting, or burglary or things of that nature. They'd come through a crack in the fence or whatever. People just let them come through."

One night, he went out and parked his squad car by the fence where some crossers had gathered. "They backed off when they saw me," he says. "Then they start creeping through the fence again. They said to me, 'Are you going to stay there?'

"And I said, 'Yes, I am.'

"They said, 'Why don't you leave?'

"And I said to myself, 'I'm not Border Patrol. What am I doing here?' So I left. I drove away, and they probably started coming through again."

They did. And they do.

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