Eye of the Storm

Federal border policies have forever changed life in Cochise County

Your first checkpoint will be just north of Tombstone, on a grinding slope where Border Patrol agents break their chitchat to give you a bored once-over and nod you past. Folks aren't exactly clamoring to smuggle drugs or illegal immigrants southbound into Cochise County these days.

Just beyond that checkpoint, as the desert hardens into flatland and bluff, you'll sense the land clench around you. This is not your imagination. Over the past 20 years, U.S. Border Patrol strategies have concentrated illegal cross-border traffic into Southern Arizona, and Cochise County in particular.

In one sense, you could call this strategy pure genius: A few years back, agents in the border town of Douglas detained no fewer than 25,649 illegal immigrants—just in the month of March. "That's one of the highest one-month records we've seen in Douglas ever," Border Patrol spokesman Rob Daniels told the Douglas Dispatch.

Unfortunately, such interceptive wizardry has also wreaked sheer havoc on Cochise County, draining its budgets, trampling its landscape, implanting a quasi-police state and fraying a rural social fabric that reaches back to frontier days: If this far-flung jurisdiction's diversity of inhabitants—Hispanic, Anglo, Mormon, Catholic, miner, rancher and peon—did not always love one another, at least they generally got along.

However, where Cochise County once hosted righteous posses galloping after horse thieves, it now boasts bitter vigilantes hunting after Mexicans. And where a handful of sheriff's deputies once kept tabs on folks they mostly already knew, the desert is now overrun with federal agents who transfer in and transfer out. Just another podunk posting, on the way to bigger and better things.

For modern Cochise County, that translates into nearly every square inch of desert being scrutinized by some national apparatus or another, from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), from the FBI to Customs and Border Protection.

All said, the sheer intensity of this place leaves little time for pretense. It gnaws away the niceties, strips flesh from bone and affects everyone who comes here to sift the demon from the saint.

The year was 2004, the month was July, and a drowsy rain had migrated in from the coast. By midmorning, it had softened the desert, muffling the squawks of huge ravens that stomped like angry old men across rutted country roads. One of those roads, muddy and sullen, peeled off the highway east of Douglas and aimed due south toward the border. But it never quite reached Mexico, coming within a quarter-mile of the border.

Instead, the road, some four car-lengths wide in spots, intersected others in what became a wildcat patchwork of poorly conceived, haphazardly maintained arteries. These arteries were, in turn, lined by scruffy one-acre lots, each occupied by a manufactured home in some state of disrepair—shingles askew here, cardboard-draped windows there—or by trailer homes hunched over rickety wooden steps, if they had any steps at all.

The homes petered out a half-mile later, but the road continued onto a well-posted private ranch, where another soggy turn led to a skinny dirt track. At the end of that track, a small motor home sat perpendicular to the road. Next to it, a white awning sheltered lawn chairs, a banquet table filled with chips and cheese, and a stout percolating coffee pot.

I'd been under that awning since midmorning, and the rain never lifted. Such inclemency had quite obviously darkened spirits at this "Arks of the Covenant" camp, set up by a church-based group called No More Deaths. The camp was stocked with food, water and shade for illegal immigrants at loose ends in the desert. But it was not well-prepared for a sense of uselessness; there had been no visitors, no hungry travelers yearning for direction and a sandwich to chew on.

Father Bob Carney rose from his seat and poured another cup of coffee. On this damp morning, he seemed a bit sodden himself. He'd already been here since yesterday. He was no spring chicken, and stiff folding cots make for long nights.

The acrid scent of boiling coffee wafted from a percolator, and Carney rose to pour another cup. He dug a thumb into his sore hip, sipping and peering out at tangled plains of ocotillo and cholla cactus, all cast in hazy blue-green by a cloud-filtered sun. It is a beautiful land, true, but one blemished by acrimony; the rancher graciously offering this spot has done so quietly, in private. Humanitarian assistance is not universally applauded in these parts.

All of these people—a few camp stalwarts like Carney and a stream of short-timers—had driven out here day after day, and now they were getting muggy en masse. It was not comfortable, or pleasant. If no one saw their flag, it could even prove futile.

Sighing, Father Bob eased himself back into the chair.

The year was 2009. The month was February, and Roger Barnett sat flanked by lawyers in a downtown Tucson courtroom. This was not a particularly novel setting for the controversial Cochise County rancher, who has made a habit of dressing in paramilitary gear and patrolling his 22,000-acre Cross Rail Ranch near Douglas. Along with his brothers and sometimes his wife, Barbara, Roger Barnett claims to have detained more than 10,000 illegal immigrants, often at gunpoint.

Not surprisingly, others have made a habit of taking Roger Barnett to court. He's been sued for aiming a weapon at 16 illegal immigrants and setting dogs upon them. Another time, he was accused of threatening two hunters and their kids with an assault rifle, and barraging them with racial slurs. A jury awarded those plaintiffs damages totaling $98,750.

In February, six illegal aliens were suing Barnett on a host of issues, from civil rights violations and assault to false imprisonment and the infliction of emotional distress. The counts stemmed from a March 2004 incident when Barnett confronted the group as they were crossing his land. He allegedly unleashed the routine roster of Mexican slurs upon them, and then unleashed his busy dog.

But in this courtroom, he just sits at a long table, five years and a couple of hundred miles from that day. Here, he's just another set-jaw, aging man in a tweed, surrounded by suits.

Still, it can't be forgotten that Roger Barnett (who did not return phone calls for this story)enjoys many devotees outside this courtroom. He has, after all, been the prime inspiration for Cochise County's rather venomous vigilante movement—a fact noted by Mark Potok, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups.

"The Barnetts, probably more than any people in this country, are responsible for the vigilante movement as it now exists," Potok told The New York Times in 2006. "They were the recipients of so much press coverage, and they kept boasting, and it was out of those boasts that the modern vigilante movement sprang up."

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan made a boisterous swing through Southeastern Arizona. For an indignant conservative hoping to capitalize on illegal immigration, Cochise County's 6,219 square miles of well-traveled desert made the perfect foil: In just the first three weeks of 2000, agents had apprehended nearly 17,000 illegal immigrants in the Douglas area.

When Buchanan arrived in Douglas, he was sure to note all the footprints crossing back and forth along the border fence. This was a play to the gathered media, of course, and to Cochise County Concerned Citizens, a group founded by a clutch of ranchers outraged by illicit traffic on their land.

Buchanan's audience was not disappointed. He strolled into Mexico and then strolled back. "This wide-open border and all these tracks show that the Clinton-Gore administration doesn't give a hoot about protecting our borders against a wholesale invasion of America," he said.

The candidate glad-handed lots of folks on that trip. But he did not meet with Ray Borane, who was then mayor of Douglas. Not that Borane seemed surprised by this; he was well-versed in how the game was played, having already served as Arizona's deputy state superintendent of public instruction, president of the Arizona State Board of Education, and the go-to guy for plenty of politicos seeking insight about the border.

But Borane was also a Douglas hometown boy who remembered how his community once shared an easy bond with neighboring Agua Prieta, Sonora. Now this carpetbagger was coming down to fan flames, just for a bit of political mileage. The Daily Dispatch asked Borane to opine on Buchanan's visit. "He's not a policymaker or an adviser," the mayor said. "He's not in a position to do anything. On immigration and border issues, he and I are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. He's against almost everything we try to do in this community to nurture our relationships with our neighbors."

Borane's candidness ruffled a few feathers, and it wasn't the first time. He'd already raised plenty of hackles in 1999 by dispatching letters to the editor to wealthy enclaves around the country, in which he excoriated the rich for exploiting the undocumented as cheap domestic help. They are guilty, Borane argued, of making Douglas a thoroughfare of illicit traffic and a hub for vigilantes.

"Those of you who congratulate yourselves on your supposed great humanitarian compassion as you wink at the law and hire illegal aliens," he wrote, "please know that in the last month, five aliens died near our border areas from exposure, as many more are destined to, because of you."

A decade later, those ferocious times seem to have permanently altered the social dynamic. Some suggest that Cochise County's poorer Hispanics—the newly immigrated in particular—have become more insular and less visible, to avoid suspicion. The effects have also reached into the immigration-rights groups, which keep a noticeably lower profile than their Pima County counterparts.

To the Rev. Robin Hoover, that's a mistake. Hoover is pastor of Tucson's First Christian Church and founder of Humane Borders, which places rescue water barrels in the desert.

"People there have always worked under the radar," he says of Cochise County activists. "They don't want to be out in the open and so forth. I think they shoot themselves in the foot that way. ... It's just a very different environment than Pima County. Here, we made the decision from day one that we're out here to change the system."

But to Tommy Bassett, there's more than one way to prod the status quo. Bassett lives in Douglas, where he works with the Frontera de Cristo humanitarian group and as a prime mover behind the Just Coffee fair-trade organization. He says the humanitarian approach is deliberately different in Cochise County—by necessity. "We've had our own little vigilantes down here before the Minutemen started, and we're also in a community with people who have really divergent views on migration."

But that's just on the civil side. "There's also a good dose of paranoia," he says. "Look at all the cop agencies here. We have the (Arizona) Department of Public Safety. We have the Border Patrol. We have Customs. Certainly, the DEA has their little building out here on the highway. There's an awful lot of law enforcement around."

Others believe that any old-fashioned civility on this stretch of the border has already been wrenched, almost beyond recognition. Among them is Ginny Jordan, tourism coordinator at the Douglas Visitor Center. Inside the center's lobby, Ginny Jordan shows me an aerial photograph that spans the communities of Douglas and Agua Prieta. In the 1997 image, taken before the latest and most militant border fence was installed, it's hard to tell where one city stops and another begins.

The photo's continuous, binational community is lost to time. But that's not the only difference, says Jordan, who had a Tucson social-services career before returning to her native Douglas. "When I came back, I worked for the Chamber of Commerce for a short period of time. Visitors would come in, and they'd ask, 'Is it safe here?' It was kind of a strange question for me, because I grew up on the border, and it has always felt safe. You had friends on both sides; you grew up on both sides; your families were on both sides. Your history—everything—was shared."

She says that began to shift in the 1990s. "All of a sudden, you started to see this really slight change, so subtle that sometimes, you didn't even notice it."

But any pretense of subtlety was dropped after the Sept. 11 attacks. "All of the ugliness came to the forefront. It was an awful thing that happened, but it almost gave people permission to have their really true feelings come out about living on a border. Then it became 'those people' over there. Where we once looked at each other as brothers and sisters, all of a sudden, we were looking at each other suspiciously."

Before the mid-1990s, illegal immigration was channeled largely through border towns such as Douglas or Nogales. But around that time, the U.S. Border Patrol began concentrating enforcement in those communities, thereby pushing illegal traffic further into the rugged countryside.

The government assumption seems to be that fewer immigrants would attempt the treacherous desert crossings, and those who did would be easier to snare. This brutish calculation proved dead wrong: Rather than slowing immigration, the tactic triggered a surge of exposure deaths as it funneled huge numbers of border-crossers through the outback.

Suddenly, rural residents were flooded with illicit traffic. Livestock gates were left open; garbage clogged sandy washes; and threatening footfalls haunted the nights. Tensions were thick by April 1999, when 20 Southeastern Arizona ranchers gathered to issue a proclamation: If the federal government didn't clamp down, they declared, "friction between invader and property owners in this area may increase to the point of blood being shed."

It was two weeks later, early on a Sunday morning, when the U.S. Border Patrol received a call from one of those ranchers. Roger Barnett phoned to report that he and two brothers were holding 27 illegal aliens on their sprawling property near the Mexican line; when agents arrived, they found the Barnetts bedecked in camouflage jackets and toting holstered pistols.

This incident caught attention far beyond just the neighbors and federal cops. Across the nation, groups already furious about illegal immigration were instantly obsessed with this brewing standoff. Before long, a hard-core Texas outfit called Ranch Rescue was setting up camp on Barnett property, and Ranch Rescue's actions—weapon-heavy night patrols, occasional alien captures—garnered enough headlines to become almost commonplace. Its surly presence did spark unease, however, even among residents adamantly opposed to immigration. Those anxieties mushroomed when the militia established a compound within eyeshot of the Douglas Border Patrol Station.

Then came Sept. 11. Days later, border chatter was increasingly peppered with wild rumors of terrorist cells just inside Mexico. They described illegals of mysterious origin who were quietly whisked away by FBI agents. Ranchers reported finding Muslim prayer rugs in their back ranges; engines idling in the night took on even more ominous tones.

Into this mix strode Chris Simcox, a onetime school teacher from California. Being a rather edgy fellow to start with, Simcox had subsequently been propelled by the terrorist attacks into a two-month solo pilgrimage along the border. At one point, trekking through vast Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, he shadowed a smuggling operation for several days. Finally emerging from this desert odyssey, he announced to anyone who'd listen that he was itching to fight back. And he'd start that fight in ornery Tombstone.

The vigilante contingent got even bigger in 2003, when another Californian named Glenn Spencer alighted in Southern Arizona. With longtime ties to anti-immigrant groups in his home state, Spencer was eager to establish himself at the immigration war's ground zero. Soon, his American Border Patrol was up and running, on the scrubby outskirts of sprawling Sierra Vista. "A good general picks his battlefields," Spencer explained to me. "We had lost the war in California." The open-borders crowd "had the media; they had all of the elected officials. We had no chance."

Where Simcox's corps was about putting boots on the ground, the ABP was more of a psych-ops campaign, targeted at the American public; Spencer's specialty was aiming high-tech surveillance equipment at the border, and then streaming the resulting, eerie images on the Internet.

And so, in a period of four years, one parched pocket of Southeastern Arizona had become a vigilante's Xanadu. Although each of these groups was different in tone and technique, they shared a kindred purpose: sparking public outrage over illegal immigration and chaos at the border.

Simcox has since decamped to Phoenix, and he recently announced he'd make a run for John McCain's U.S. Senate seat. Spencer has moved his base out of Sierra Vista, after he was cited for emptying his gun into a neighbor's garage.

Now, his ABP operates from a 104-acre ranch on the border near Hereford, and Spencer focuses his attention upon prodding the feds to finish their border fence. That barrier, slated to traverse more than 600 miles, isn't yet done.

But the stretch alongside Spencer's ranch has been finished—and not a moment too soon, he says. "Last June, one of the guys who worked for me was almost killed by a drug smuggler, and because of the fence, that's not possible anymore." Smugglers "were driving through the ranch, and stopping within 100 feet of my front door. They were all over the place—it was dangerous, and you were afraid to go out for a walk."

According to Spencer, that's why ingrates who label Cochise County as a walled-off police state are so off base. "I would say there's actually less militarization of the border here, because the fence is so good," he says. "We actually have less law enforcement now."

That doesn't seem so obvious a few miles north of Douglas, however, where you'll find the nation's largest Border Patrol station, a 53,000-square-foot behemoth sprawling across 29 dusty acres. The Douglas Station is home to roughly 500 agents and easily that many vehicles, ranging from K-9 carriers to quads. Closer to town, the station also boasts its own horse stable.

Not surprisingly, all that manpower—and accompanying horsepower—adds up to a good revenue stream for Cochise County.

But what the government gives, it also takes away. Researchers at the UA found that Arizona's four border counties spend more than $25 million annually on immigration-related costs. Those myriad expenditures range from mandated public defenders for illegal immigrants to unpaid medical bills at local hospitals for the treatment of noncitizens. It doesn't help that the U.S. Border Patrol often plays a nifty little game by refusing to take migrants with obvious medical conditions into custody. As a result, costs for their care are passed to area hospitals.

This all adds up to a tidy sum—particularly when you consider that Border Patrol strategies are largely to blame. "I think what you've got here is the government focusing on channeling the illegal aliens through this area," says Richard Searle, Cochise County's District 3 supervisor. "If you look at what they've done between Yuma and Nogales, and what they've done east of here in New Mexico, it seems like they've said, 'OK, let them come through here, and this is where we'll focus our people.'"

But an increasingly defiant county is refusing to ante up. "The amount that Cochise County is spending on border issues is less than it was 10 years ago," Searle says. "And I think that's a conscious decision of letting the feds be responsible for their own issues. We don't have enough to take care of our own issues, let alone the federal issues."

David Aguilar was head of the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector before being named the agency's chief. In a previous interview, he outlined for me the federal strategy that impacts Cochise and other border counties. Aguilar noted how smugglers "take advantage of the infrastructure available to them, beginning in Mexico." That infrastructure "translates into highways from the interior of Mexico to the border."

In turn, those highways lead to areas that can accommodate gatherings of large groups for mass crossings, like border towns, with plenty of cheap flophouses and quick transportation routes. At the same time, Aguilar said that smugglers need similar staging areas on the U.S. side, thereby "drawing them into our communities."

But "once we take that (infrastructure) away as we have done in San Diego, as we have done in El Paso, as we have done in Nogales and even in Douglas, the smuggler then continues to push for areas where he can continue his efforts." Ergo the deserts, where the smuggler's clients trample ranchland, suffer the elements and rack up huge government bills.

No matter whose issue or why, Cochise County is truly saturated with feds. At this very moment, for instance, a crew of Navy Seabees is busy expanding a ditch just a few feet north of the border at Douglas. Here's the concept: If border-jumpers manage to scale the towering fence, they'll still find themselves facing a nice 12-to-15-feet-deep concrete canyon.

Taking a smoke break in the shade of a huge earthmover, one Seabee tells me this is a pretty interesting assignment. "It's crazy," he says. "We saw a guy jump over the fence the other day, and Border Patrol got him just like that."

The sailor nods toward a Border Patrol SUV perched high atop a distant dirt pile. "Better than watching the sports on TV."

The night it happened, Ray Borane was still Mayor Borane. It was August 1997, and a summer tempest had unleashed floodwaters through the storm drains of Douglas. Soon, his phone rang. It was the police. "They called me down there and said that they had found a body in the water, and they hadn't gotten it out yet, because the water was too high," he recalls. "So I immediately went down there. That was late at night, about 10:30, 11 o'clock. I was there when they found that first lady. When the waters subsided, she was laying there right by the port of entry, against a grate that kept the debris and everything from going under the port. She had a backpack.

"I saw them fish that gal off of that grate, and I stayed up most of the night," he says. "And the next morning, I went down there. That's when the water went completely down, and I saw them digging the bodies out of the muck and the mire at the bottom of the canal.

"That had quite an impact upon me, to be honest with you, just realizing what those poor people went through."

For Father Bob Carney, that night-when eight people died-changed his life for the second time. The first time was decades ago, when he kicked booze and found God. But as those waters roared beneath Douglas, God spoke again. Father Bob was then the low-key pastor of the Douglas St. Luke's Catholic Church, and the tragedy radicalized him. "I began to talk more and more about it from the pulpit," he says. "It seemed that people here were going on about their business as if nothing happened."

Some left Father Bob's parish because of his growing outspokenness. A few years later, he had a series of strokes and retired from parish duties himself. These days, his time is spent organizing immigrant assistance. He doesn't get to Cochise County as much as before. But he remembers how the county clenched up, like a fist.

"When I first got there, people moved back and forth across the line very fluidly. Family members would gather to celebrate life," he remembers. "But suddenly, with the increased presence of Border Patrol, I think there was just a pall of fear that came over the border. There was a lot of suspicion."

People also started appearing at his parsonage door in the middle of the night. "I didn't even think about it," he says. "It wasn't about legal or illegal. I looked at the fear in their eyes, and almost despair.

"But the bottom line was the racism. I think the property owners, the Barnetts, they also took fear, and they ran with it, and they fed it to others—to the outlying ranches and ranchers who had been there for generations. And on top of that, things were happening on the ranches; gates were left open, and water lines were broken. So the vigilantes were able to get a pretty good foothold on things.

"Just prior to that, it was a pretty easygoing place," says Father Bob. "People got along, and we enjoyed each other. There were fiestas and celebrations of life and weddings and quinceñeras. Then it seemed like all that just popped. It was terribly sad."

On Feb. 17, 2009, a federal jury awarded $77,800 in damages to the migrants who had crossed Roger Barnett's ranch on that day in 2004, when he held them at gunpoint. But the jury then acquitted him of violating their civil rights.

Victory was claimed by both sides in the matter.

Comments (5)

Add a comment

Add a Comment

Tucson Weekly

Best of Tucson Weekly

Tucson Weekly