Borderline Madness

The city of Nogales, Ariz., struggles as narco violence spills in from Mexico

Gunshots can interrupt even the deepest slumber, burrowing into the most remote reaches of the tender subconscious. But down on the border, gunshots merely accent what the subconscious already grasps. Fear has pulled up a chair, settled in, refused to go.

Once fear has arrived, it never fully departs. This, Maria Tapia already knows.

Mexico reported nearly 5,500 drug-related deaths in 2008, and many of those murders touched very close to the border. The annual body count in Nogales, Sonora, alone more than doubled over the past year. Consider the shootout there in October: 10 narcos dead, after a long and vicious firefight among themselves and with police.

The state police chief was shot dead in November. Executions are routine and point-blank. Locations are erratic. Sometimes the gunshots echo through schoolyards. In Tijuana, a human body was liquefied in a vat of acid, then left on the curb.

And the beheadings. Don't forget those. An ultimate insult to thoughtfulness.

These things are fact. All of them. Although she can't recite details, Maria Tapia lives just a stone's throw from the steel border wall soaring above her home. Beyond that wall, she now knows that all things are possible. A resident of Nogales, Ariz., she might as well live in Mexico, for they actually do throw stones: Next to her address on Short Street, the roadway is rubble: rocks hurled over the wall, and sometimes concrete, in chunks.

Three grandchildren live in her home. This, she tells me through her fence. Except for school, she says, they do not go beyond the yard, wrapped in chain link. Before talking further, or succumbing to a photo, Maria Tapia must unlock the gate to that yard. This takes time, because she does so reluctantly, and because there are two locks and a latch. Her world, on the trembling cusp of Mexico, is a world of rocks and locks.

Maria Tapia refuses to let me photograph her face. On Short Street, one necessarily does not wish for recognition.

The borderline has always held civilization at arm's length. But even amidst the smuggling and the Border Patrol and the petty crime, people still carried on as if this wasn't such a tough ribbon of real estate. And in a way, it is not.

As smallish Arizona towns go, Nogales holds much more charm than most. It is a real community with roots and a rollicking history and parks and sprawling hometown parades. I recognize many of these things, because I also come from such a place, and because I worked at the Nogales newspaper for two years in the mid-1990s.

Its relationship with Nogales, Sonora, once evoked a patient resignation, like the sighing rapport between indulgent parent and troublesome child. In the 1990s, tunnel kids were the symbol of this relationship. They were Mexican street kids who'd sneak north under the border, through the violent drainage tunnels, popping up in downtown areas and shocking pedestrians and diners. Church's Chicken was a favorite target.

No one cared much about these children, nor was anybody inordinately terrified by them. Still, they sparked a remarkable slew of headlines. Ultimately, it seemed, the real fear resided from whence they came--those dank tunnels renowned for their half-lit ferocity. Tunnels which, for most Nogaleans, remained an unseen but dreaded abstraction.

But by and large, Nogales people simply ignored the border's dark side. Besides, there were perks. If you were rooted here, you benefited from binominal family ties. If you arrived from elsewhere, the ease of slipping into Sonora for cheap booze and chow could be enough. For their part, border Mexicans returned that favor by dropping cash at downtown retail shops on this side of the line.

But that's before evil began battling itself. As narco combat ripped across northern Mexico last year, many thought this stretch of border was immune. They were dead wrong.

Tony Estrada feels the shifting wind more than most. He's been a lawman down here for more than 40 years, and he's served as the Santa Cruz County sheriff for much of that time. He says this drug war between cartels, and between cartels and police, has changed the flavor of his town, perhaps forever.

"We never thought it was going to come to Nogales," he says. "All the other border towns have been having that violence to one degree or another, but we weren't. Or the violence was up in the backstreets where nobody noticed."

Not any longer. Just across the line in Nogales, Sonora, "it's erupting in the malls; it erupted out in the street. I have never, ever seen anything like this."

According to the Arizona High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force, recent violent flare-ups are due to a turf fight between rival drug syndicates--the Gulf Cartel and the Sinaloa Federation--for control of Nogales, Sonora. As it happens, this is a prime staging area for smuggling drugs into the United States.

Estrada predicts the carnage will subside when one gang finally exhausts the other. But for peaceful residents, that might remain a Pyrrhic victory. "Things will get better," he tells me. "But it will never be the same."

Meanwhile, the federal government is certainly taking the fighting seriously. For the first time, the U.S. State Department has issued a travel alert for Nogales, Sonora. And speaking to The New York Times two weeks before he was replaced as Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff described emergency strategies, recently drafted by his department, which include a rapid and daunting law-enforcement pushback if violence were to spill over from Mexico.

"We completed a contingency plan for border violence, so if we did get a significant spillover, we have a surge--if I may use that word--capability," Chertoff told the Times.

Such a surge could include everything from armored vehicles and aircraft to military personnel if civilian forces were inundated. Chertoff said he also informed his successor, then-Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, that "helping Mexico get control of its borders and its organized-crime problems" were among his top security priorities.

The Nogales Police Department is hunkered along the ground floor of City Hall, and from its crisp lobby, you can gaze upon a tranquil lawn scene: lush grass, smiling workmen, a shimmering penny pool. But glance the other way in that same lobby, and you'll see warning posters filled with meth heads and mouths full of rotting teeth.

The dichotomy is familiar to any modern city working to become a better place. Yet how many cities are bounded by a rusting wall, reaching angrily to the sky? How many cities of 22,000 people share their streets with this remarkable intensity of law enforcement, from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and the Border Patrol to Customs and Border Protection agents stationed at two overflowing ports of entry?

Police Chief William Ybarra is soft-spoken and polite, pure law enforcement, eyes scanning everything but pretending otherwise, as I'm ushered into his windowless office. He's flanked by the ubiquitous computer screen and a lush plastic plant. A stout coffee mug sits at the front of his desk, lacquered with gold handcuffs and the words "Chief Ybarra."

Calm and controlled, he seems the very antidote to fear. Here on the edge of a cartel battlefield, he describes his department's coordination with the feds as nearly seamless.

"We share protocols and strategies, should we have any spillover. But we've also been lucky that none of the actual violence, such as homicides and things like that, has bled over to our side. We've had a few kidnappings, narco-related, and you know, pistol whippings. But no actual murders on this side."

Ironically, Chief Ybarra says violence is somewhat sparse here, precisely because Nogales sits right on the border. "We're kind of lucky that we're a city where (traffickers) want to get through and out as quickly as possible with their goods. They don't want to hang around because of the large quantity of law enforcement that we have in Santa Cruz County."

Still, his folks have adopted a heightened sense of alert, and several officers are routinely dispatched on calls, where one might have sufficed in the past. The NPD has also beefed up its tactical arsenal. For instance, officers are now equipped with long, high-caliber rifles.

"Just little things like that," the chief says, "and making sure that everyone has enough ammunition on them in case they encounter some type of violent situation, because it could happen."

Nogales has always been an edgy place. You first sense this at the pinched pass bringing you south into town. People have stumbled through this cleft for centuries, and their restless spirits likely linger there, starting with the early natives who trekked through some 2,000 years ago. Later came Europeans--explorers, traders and an endless stream of Catholic troublemakers.

Among those fidgety papists was Fray Marco de Niza, who in 1539 plodded all the way up from Mexico City, crossing the desert a few miles east of present-day Nogales. Reports to his superiors are peppered with hints of great wealth lurking just around the next bend. That notion fired imaginations overseas, and De Niza could be blamed for the arrival of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado a year later. Coronado immediately began sniffing out the Seven Cities of Gold. Thousands of miles later, he was still sniffing.

A few centuries later, this pass was equally popular with itchy 49ers, bound for California's gold fields. Many of those prospectors would return by the same route. They were failures coming and going. But some stuck around here long enough to swing a pickax. Speculation and investments followed. Strapping operations soon began gouging ore from these hills.

American surveyors marked the Mexican line in 1855, one year after the Gadsden Purchase. And in 1880, San Francisco merchant Jacob Isaacson built a trading post on the site of Nogales. An old article quotes a local gadfly from that time, talking about Isaacson's humble enterprise. "The building was made of ocotillos," recalled Mrs. Ada E. Jones, "the crevices being plastered with mud. The roof was low, so one could not stand erect inside. There were several other shacks of the same kind, and a few tents."

But Isaacson had bigger plans. Namely, he wanted to stoke trade between Tucson and the Mexican port town of Guaymas, situated a few days south on the Gulf of California. He was shrewd, and he knew about railroad plans to link Nogales with another rail line from the east. There was money to be made. It sure wasn't easy money, though. The frontier was treacherous, and trailblazers like Isaacson were on constant alert for bandits and Apaches. But the plucky merchant toughed it out. You could even say he thrived, selling his stuff to Mexicans and the more peaceful Indian bands.

The town's second proper building was a saloon, hammered together by an entrepreneur named Brickwood. Later, when a border survey team arrived to place boundary markers, they discovered that Brickwood's masterpiece actually abutted the international line. To make room for their survey, they cut a slot from his building and squeezed in a border marker. That proved a sweet boon; customers could dodge American tobacco taxes by stepping out the saloon's back door onto Mexican soil to buy cigars from the bartender.

Times change, and they don't change at all. Bracker's Department Store stands just a few strides north of that line. The venerated family operation began in the 1920s and evokes a rather sepia sensibility, with shoes and suits and jewelry displayed in a comfortable shop spanning a block.

From above the cash register gaze generations of industrious Brackers. This is a dynasty of sorts, and these are portraits of an old and venerated order, their images etched into the annals of Nogales. There's Harvey Bracker, the patriarch who passed away in 1992. Or Charles, who lived into the 1970s. And Robert Bracker, mostly called Bobby, a skilled store manager and notoriously agile fundraiser for endless charitable causes. He died in 1994, at age 64.

There have been good streaks and bad, of course. But Bobby's son Bruce, now helping to carry the family mantle, has never seen times like these. His store sits on old Morley Avenue in downtown Nogales. Over time, this street has been a thoroughfare for Prohibition-era contraband and modern day-commerce. Currently, it sits within earshot of drug wars.

Today, he leans on the counter, beneath that cluster of forebears. Although the Bracker's downtown retail empire now includes three stores--the original department store, along with the discount store La Tienda, and men's-clothing store Charlie's--times have rarely been so hard. He calls it an echo effect: The sharp decline in American tourists shopping across the line has had a direct impact on shoppers coming to Bracker's.

Tourists used to frequent the Sonoran curio shops, the pharmacies and the restaurants, he says. "And the owners of those businesses are customers of Bracker's. The employees of those businesses are our customers."

The result, he says, is a 20 percent drop at the department store, and 40 percent in the overall business. He recently had to lay off three solid staffers in a single week. "People who had been here awhile," he says, his voice dropping off.

Still, Bracker mostly blames the falling economy, which is exacerbated in Nogales by the violence. Whatever the reasons, the impact is obvious as we walk out to Morley Avenue. He glances north, and then south. Only a small scattering of people dot the sidewalk.

"Look around," he says. "Have you ever seen Morley like this?"

To understand Bracker's point about the commercial boomerang between these neighboring economies, one needs to look no further than Wayne and Arlene Black, two middle-age Canadians from the tiny village of Cremona, in Alberta. They're standing outside the duty-free shop Ueta, wondering whether to attempt crossing that line into Sonora.

Even in Canada, this violent border is well-known, says Wayne Black. "It's something we're not used to--Cremona only has about 400 people."

"It's a pretty quiet place where we live," adds Arlene.

Behind them, Ueta's folks are tidying the shelves and washing the window of a glittering shop that features everything from opulent cigars to fine wine, all available without import duties or taxes, and all watched over by several beefy security guards. According to Bruce Bracker, these duty-free shops are the hardest hit, since their clientele is primarily tourists looking for a last-minute deal on the way back from Mexico.

If times are hard, the duty-free shops aren't saying. Inside Ueta, a manager who only gives her first name, Leti, reluctantly says that, yes, there have been a few layoffs, but, no, business isn't that bad. Then she has to go. The security guards watch me tuck away the pad, and then eye me out the door.

In 2005, researchers released a study of the U.S.-Mexico border showing that some 240 million people cross into the United States from Mexico each year by car, by bus or on foot. Of those, 34.5 million enter Arizona. The No. 1 reason they come? To shop.

This data was compiled in 2002. That year, Nogales, Ariz., enjoyed retail sales that were, per capita, 172 percent of the national average. More than 60 percent of the city's sales tax comes from Mexican shoppers crossing the border everyday.

Border-wide, such trade translates into roughly $9 billion in sales, and generates 150,000 jobs.

Apparently, no one has put a dollar amount to this year's business.

Of course, not all the commerce in Nogales, or even the majority of it, exists in retail sales. This city's biggest business resides among the produce warehouses peppering the northern edges of town. It's a $2 billion industry, and Nogales is the primary conduit.

Allison Moore is a spokeswoman for the Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, a Nogales-based trade group representing 125 produce dealers, brokers and distributors.

She says Mexico's law-enforcement crackdown on drug violence has slowed northbound freight traffic. Much of that traffic originates further south in the prime agricultural state of Sinaloa. As it happens, Sinaloa is also quite well-known for its drug trade, which provides for a cumbersome produce journey. "There are increased inspections along the corridor from the growing regions to here," says Moore, "by the Mexican military, Mexican customs, U.S. customs, just to try and stay on top of any attempted smuggling. So that is definitely adding to some of the transit times and crossing times."

At the same time, "people here realize there's a reason that these things are happening. And so the increased inspections--looking more thoroughly at things crossing the border--is something that's a given." The Nogales International newspaper, my past employer, sits on a hill overlooking the border, where one can peer down into a sky made murky by Mexican diesel exhaust. To the north are squat produce warehouses, one after another, windows and docks sporadically dark with winter hibernation. Harvest time isn't yet here for tomatoes and melons and peppers and zucchinis, all plucked in Mexico by cheap hands and shipped north by that army of trucks. To the south is the border and the increasingly treacherous stretch of Mexico. But to editor Manuel Coppola, it's just one of the many problems unfairly plaguing this town.

He admits the violence has taken a toll. "It's not business as usual," he says. "There is a fear. This stuff is happening in broad daylight, out on the main streets. You know, 123 murders so far. It hasn't been a citizen yet, so we've been lucky. But merchants are scrambling to calm the fears and keep things moving like normal, to not panic people more than they already are."

That trepidation is obvious on the newspaper's editorial pages, where concerns about the crisis run deep. "How many more must be slaughtered in the streets of Nogales, Sonora, Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez before we come up with a workable solution to the drug problem?" read one guest editorial. "Do we have to wait until the carnage spills over to this side of the border?"

In late December, Nogales Mayor Octavio Garcia-Von Borstel shared a podium with his Sonoran counterpart, Marco Antonio Martínez Dabdoub, on a noisy downtown street just north of the port. Against a backdrop of honking horns, both men assured assembled reporters that the situation was under control.

"We have a fully staffed police department," Garcia-Von Borstel said. "We have great communications with Nogales, Sonora. Their police department is working very diligently with our police department. ... Those are the types of measures we are taking. ... You will see bike patrols patrolling the border more frequently in partnership and in conjunction with the Border Patrol."

A few days later, Garcia-Von Borstel sits in his roomy office on the top floor of City Hall. The young mayor was a jock in school, and a UA banner hangs behind him, as he reiterates that his city is safe for everybody. Still, he admits to a slight shift in the collective consciousness.

"There's no doubt that Nogales, Sonora, in recent history has never encountered this type of violence," he says. "And of course it affects Nogales, Arizona, in the sense that it affects tourism. We survive by our sales tax, which means that if people don't come here to spend money, it affects our retail, our merchants and our business community."

But that's not all, he says. "People who for years have visited Nogales on the holidays--to come and shop, and to visit family members in Mexico and in Nogales, Arizona--the numbers show that people have not traveled here as often as they were accustomed to in previous years."

Back on Short Street, Maria Tapia has retreated into her house. A few feet away, at the base of the daunting border wall, flak-jacketed Border Patrol agents are repairing a stretch that's been damaged by a blow torch. One of them carries a pepper-ball gun, to disperse rock-throwers on the other side.

"The balls hit the ground and then spread," the agent tells me, glancing affectionately at his weapon. "It can clear things up pretty fast."

He looks at me holding my measly notepad. "You might want to keep your head down around here," he says.

A few yards away, another neighbor is making a short trip to her mailbox. Maria Leal lives in a tidy house on the corner where Short Street meets East Street. She says the violence doesn't have much of an impact on her life.

"It's quiet here," she says. "I never have a problem." She looks toward the fence, at the Border Patrol agent and his pepper-ball gun. Then she shrugs and walks back to her corner.

The madness, it seems, has become ordinary.