The wide-open country east of Douglas might be home to the most drug-smuggling activity in the United States. It's accessible along Geronimo Trail, a ribbon of dirt and rock that carries travelers into a starkly beautiful desert where shrubs tear at your flesh, and the only shade is under your hat.
If you want to understand the border war at its most basic, this is the place to come. I did so on Sunday, June 6, with a friend from Washington, D.C.
We drove along the trail, on the border road that parallels it a half-mile south, and into Guadalupe Canyon on the Arizona-New Mexico border.
I didn't need a passport.
Border residents will get the joke.
David Aguilar, deputy commissioner for Customs and Border Protection, was quoted in The Arizona Republic on May 2 as saying the border is not a fence or a line in the dirt, but a broad and complex corridor.
"It is a third country that joins Mexico and the United States," said Aguilar.
Coming five weeks after the murder of Rob Krentz, the remark left borderlands residents angry and bewildered.
"That's the stupidest thing he could've said," says Wendy Glenn, a rancher here. "What is he talking about? It's a no-man's land, but we're damn sure not a third country."
Hear the emotion in those words? Spend time along Geronimo Trail, and you'll understand why it's there. Folks here get daily reminders of how vulnerable they are.
Four days before my visit, on Wednesday, June 2, two Border Patrol agents working on Guadalupe Canyon Road, one-tenth of a mile north of the line, confronted four armed men in Mexican military uniforms. The road to Guadalupe connects with Geronimo Trail, 20 miles east of Douglas.
The intruders wore camouflage clothes, and one appeared to have lieutenant's bars on his uniform, according to a Border Patrol report. The international boundary in Guadalupe is not clearly marked, which contributed to the accidental entry, says Border Patrol spokesman Mario Escalante.
The encounter ended with the soldiers heeding the agents' request to return to their own country. "It was a great indicator of the working relationship we have with the Mexican government," says Escalante.
But sources tell the Weekly the soldiers carried long rifles and entered the U.S. by crawling under the wire fence marking the international border. The agents, armed only with pistols, didn't arrest the intruders, because they were outmanned and outgunned.
If arrests had been made, the incident might've gotten national publicity—because it occurred at roughly the same time that U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin was visiting the Glenn Ranch, six miles away.
Think about it: A top representative of an administration trying to convince the American people that the border is as secure as it's ever been, as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano claims, coming perilously close to encountering the truth.
But on this Sunday, the truth about border security was written on the sky, literally. Throughout the day, we saw plumes of white smoke billowing off the Chiricahua Mountains, some 50 miles to the northeast.
As of our Tuesday, June 15, deadline, the Horseshoe fire had consumed 2,720 acres in the Chiricahua Wilderness and has cost $8.1 million.
The Forest Service says the fire is human-caused and under investigation. However, the investigation will probably end there. No blame will be set.
There had been no lighting on May 26, the fire's start date, and the probable ignition point is on one of the main smuggling trails in the Chiricahuas, eight-tenths of a mile north of an alien camp at Burro Springs.
And only two weeks before the Horseshoe fire began, there was another fire eight-tenths of a mile northeast of Burro Springs, but this one was quickly extinguished, says Bill Wilbur, head of Portal Fire and Rescue.
Two years ago, I hiked the trail into Burro Springs to photograph the garbage-filled camp. It was clear then that illegals make heavy use of that landscape, and they still do.
We can leave room for a sliver of doubt as to the culprits here, but circumstances strongly suggest it was illegal aliens. They set borderland fires regularly—to signal for rides, for rescue, to cook food, to dry clothes—and some get out of control.
Anna Magoffin, who lives on the east end of Geronimo Trail, has had six fires on her ranch in the last year, several of which she believes were set by smugglers heading back south; they were within sight of the Mexican line when they set them.
This is a land where logic seems to get flipped, and what you think should be true isn't at all. The border road, for example, is blocked by about 23 miles of vehicle barriers, intended to stop drug drive-throughs. They look formidable.
But mostly, they've accomplished the opposite, says Magoffin. "The smugglers now have access to open range across our ranch they didn't have before," she says. "I call it the 'super road.'"
To bring equipment in, the feds had to build the border road. Now, after ramping over the barriers, a fairly common occurrence, smugglers can drive east or west on the fancy, new road, looking for access north to the trail. They usually find it along Magoffin's fence lines.
She had one drive-through per year before the barriers. Now she has 20.
You hear an expression out on GTR—the cartel scouts are high-pointing us. It means they're on hilltops watching residents and Border Patrol as the scouts guide mules north.
As we drove east, trying not to look at the smoking Chiricahuas, I scanned the nearby hills looking for signs of them, maybe a glint of sunlight off a radio. Nothing.
But they leave trash and other evidence. In April, I photographed international monument marker 79, and back then, it was clean. By Sunday, it had been spray painted with the word putos, a Spanish slur meaning queer.
It seems incongruous that urban gangsters would cross this terrain. But they do.
On May 8, an illegal broke into Bill Snure's ranch in Skeleton Canyon, 48 miles northeast of Douglas, and stole food that the thief intended to take to drug backpackers at nearby Apache. Before walking off, he spray-painted Snure's garage with gang graffiti.
A common complaint here is that Border Patrol should be on the border, not miles back. On this day, we saw lots of agents, possibly evidence that Border Patrol is changing tactics. But that might be optimistic.
On May 6, during a conference call with Cochise County ranchers arranged by Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, residents asked T.J. Bonner, head of the National Border Patrol Council, about putting agents right on the border.
His reply? It's too dangerous. The border is a combat zone.
When the Weekly called for clarification, Bonner said: "It's not safe to put people in static positions without armored vehicles to protect them. If you're yards from the border in a sedan or 4x4, you're a target for rock assaults, Molotov cocktails or gunfire."
A passing Cochise County sheriff's deputy—several of whom were on the border road guarding construction equipment—gave us an idea of what Bonner meant. Exactly a week before, the deputy said, three men—one carrying a rifle and wearing a sniper's camouflage outfit called a ghillie suit—took belly-down positions on a rise right across the line. They stared over at the deputies in intimidating fashion for two hours before leaving.
Both Escalante of Border Patrol, and Carol Capas of the Cochise County Sheriff's Office, told the Weekly they hadn't heard about the encounter.
We departed Geronimo Trail at the 20-mile mark, driving southeast and dropping down into Guadalupe Canyon, where we hiked a short distance under towering rock cliffs. Coming out, we could see the breadth of this country again, its sheer size, the terrain hostile enough to frighten a wolf.
Yet the people and drugs still come.
Read all the books you want about the border. Watch TV specials. Talk to smart professors who'll be happy to explain the whole thing from their air-conditioned offices. But you can't really understand this relentless invasion, or fathom the lives of the folks fighting to keep their property, families and way of life intact, until you see this wild and wonderful place.
It's the capital of what our government thinks is a third country.See a video of what it's like fighting wildfires on the border at http://www.myfirevideos.net/Default.aspx?CategoryID=8&SubCategoryID=23&VideoID=354.