Dangerous Liaisons

Undocumented women and Border Patrol agents: a tricky combination

A lusty breeze whips along the border in Douglas, catching snippets of paper, wrinkled plastic bags and the lonely hearts of Border Patrol agents.

Perhaps true love knows no boundaries. Or maybe those limits are just ignored when uniformed testosterone meets Latino vixens who may--or may not--be in the United States legally.

Just ask Linda Sproule. She owns LM's Body Builders, a popular hangout for Border Patrol agents who come looking for fitness, but often find something more. "My gym is not a necessarily a romantic place," Sproule says. "They're here to work out. But it just happens. It's a really small town, and people want to meet people."

Another businesswoman even claims that agents have children with women illegally residing in Douglas. "It's true that such relationships happen," says Angelita Nuñez, owner of the Hungry Bear Restaurant. "Why?" she asks with a laugh. "Because these women are very pretty."

But the federal government doesn't take such liaisons so lightly; Paul Charleton, the U.S. Attorney for Arizona, has included them in a recent crackdown resulting in four indictments. Spokeswoman Sandy Raynor says trysts between agents and undocumented women "fall within the white-collar crime group, and are prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney."

Several agent-alien affairs have already taken a hit:

· Jose Ruiz met Maria Terrazas at Linda Sproule's gym in 2002. Terrazas, who works for Nuñez at the Hungry Bear, has said she was in the country legally when the pair started dating. Their relationship became news when she filed assault charges against him. She now faces deportation, and Ruiz is on unpaid leave from the Border Patrol.

· Ramon Sanchez Jr. met his girlfriend in 2004, just after he finished training for an Immigration and Customs Enforcement position. The couple married in February; soon after, a tipster informed the feds that Sanchez's new wife was here illegally.

· Pablo Berry met Claudia Veronica Vasquez-Banda when both were Douglas high school students. But Vasquez-Banda was living in the country illegally--a fact they attempted to hide when he joined the Border Patrol in 2003. The truth was discovered when they applied for Claudia's citizenship, and in early December, 23-year-old Berry pleaded guilty to lying on his Border Patrol application. "I know what I did was bad," he told the judge. "I took a chance, but I love my wife--I won't leave her."

Still, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Sue Feldmeier labeled Berry's stance "the ultimate hypocrisy. While deporting illegal aliens, (he) goes home to an illegal alien every night."

If Feldmeier is right, it's a frequent deceit. So says Ephraim Cruz, a veteran Border Patrol agent stationed in Douglas. "I think it's more common than we know. They're young guys, with cash in their pockets and nothing to do."

At the same time, although here illegally, "many of these women have lived in the American border communities for years," says Cruz. "They're rooted in the communities and walk around with confidence, like they belong."

Cruz has brushed against forbidden love himself: "There was this really gorgeous girl who I met in Douglas at the McDonald's, and we were really fond of each other," he says. "She had a border-crossing card, but I told her that if we dated, I would not go into Mexico to see her, because at some point, someone would know who I am. It could get me into trouble if I'm passing some drug dealer on the corner in Mexico."

Despite his caution, even Cruz has been entangled in the federal crackdown. In July, he was indicted for transporting an undocumented alien through the Douglas port. But the woman he ferried across was a familiar face on the Douglas Border Patrol's social scene--none other than Maria Terrazas. Cruz says he thought Terrazas was legal, and the matter was forgotten until she pressed charges against Ruiz. That's when Cruz's named popped up in police interrogations.

Charges against Ruiz were later dropped. "Although the State believes that the victim was injured and the defendant injured her," wrote the Cochise County Deputy Attorney Anne Carl, "the circumstances surrounding that injury are so unclear right now, and the victim's credibility is so damaged, that the State cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt."

Meanwhile, Cruz prepares for his own January trial. He says the charges against him arise from his own public complaints about Border Patrol mistreatment of detainees (see "Holding the Line," Nov. 17).

Several attempts to contact Maria Terrazas were unsuccessful.

T.J. Bonner calls it overkill. He's president of the National Border Patrol Council, a union representing about 10,000 agents. "I don't think there's some devious plot by a legion of Mata Haris to uncover secrets of the Border Patrol or U.S. government," Bonner says. "It's innocent romance. And romance just develops. The first question out of your mouth when you're having a drink with a young lady is not, 'Oh, can I see your papers?'"

But Gus Soto, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, says agents know the score going in. "The Border Patrol believes that (such relationships) are inappropriate, and we hold our agents to the highest standards. They are not above the law. When this behavior is detected, it should be terminated immediately."

To others, such affairs are a long border tradition. Tucson folklorist Jim Griffith points to cultural tidbits such as Marty Robbins' classic song about Rosa's Cantina. "That plays on the stereotype of the loose and passionate Latin female," Griffith says. "It's also sure evidence that such things were going on."

Tom Miller sees a darker side to border romance, however. He's the author and editor of several books including Writing on the Edge and On the Border. "There are two distinct but overlapping dynamics at work," Miller says. "One is between law enforcement and suspect, where Border Patrol agents have the authority to interfere with someone else's life." (Indeed, Maria Terrazas has claimed that Agent Ruiz threatened to have her deported.)

"The other dynamic is racial," Miller says. "You don't see many (Mexican law enforcement officials) with gringa girlfriends."

But regardless of politics, punishments or murky undercurrents, don't expect human nature to change anytime soon, says gym owner Sproule. "Sure, a lot of stuff goes on here. But people are just people, like anywhere else."

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