Fear and Loafing

Despite promises of heightened security, nothing seems different in Nogales.

As George Bush's war dance unfolds in Iraq, Elvia Marquez is practicing a pre-emptive two-step of her own.

A small, chipper, middle-aged woman, Marquez tidies her Happy Home Nutrition Center in Nogales, and points to her prepackaged peace-of-mind: The NO RAD Anti-Radiation Pills, tucked among tubes of tea tree toothpaste and ginseng tabs.

"Be Prepared!" declare these florid little packets. "Protect your family against the absorption of radioactive iodine after a nuclear emergency!"

Elvia Marquez grins. "I've sold three boxes so far," she says. "One of them, I keep in my purse, and I take it home with me, just in case."

Such foresight is perhaps the cost of doing business only a whisper from the Mexican border, beyond which lies a scheming world of unknown dangers. But Marquez' sole patron on this dawn of shock and awe isn't worried. A tall, rangy man, he doesn't give his name.

"I don't want to end up in no FBI file, man," he says. "But I'm getting ready to go over (to Mexico). I don't care. I just go on over."

NO RADS aside, his attitude predominates here on the international line. For all the colorful alerts, most residents of this bustling border town are taking the administration's fear-mongering with a grain of margarita salt.

"That's Nogales for you," says Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, who adds that his 42 officers have nonetheless stepped up their border surveillance. But he says folks here are accustomed to living on the edge.

"When everything is going alright everywhere else, we're still meeting challenges every day," he says.

Nor do a trio of Border Patrol agents, loafing alongside their bicycles just this side of the international gate, seem overly excited as they hustle reporters away and keep sunglassed eyes peeled for bearded transgressors and the infiltrations of surreptitious, northbound dishwashers.

In a way, you have to admire their calm countenance. Only a few days earlier, the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security had released a disquieting statement reassuring Americans that extra steps were being taken to safeguard their borders, under what's dubbed "Operation Liberty Shield."

According to the release, this "comprehensive national plan" is "designed to increase protections for America's citizens and infrastructure," even as it maintains "the free flow of goods and people across our border with minimal disruption to our economy and way of life." The alarming dispatch pledges "ongoing measures to disrupt threats against our nation," and "federal response resources positioned and ready."

Roger Maier, spokesman for Homeland Security's Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, is similarly opaque. When pressed for specifics, such as how many more federal agents are deployed in southern Arizona, or what they are up to, he's succinct.

"I can't tell you that," he says.

However, Maier does say that Arizonans should be alert for "anything out of the ordinary." That's a tall order in this eccentric region of developers, gun dealers and drug smugglers. So border residents are supposed to stay sharp, but simply take the government at its word that protection is ample?

Maier gets a bit snippy. "Well, you'll just have to believe the word of Tom Ridge," he says.

Border Patrol spokesman Rob Daniels likewise offers little concrete reassurance. When asked whether his agency has recently rearranged manpower on the border, he says: "No, there haven't been any changes. We have been in place since Sept 11."

For his part, Nogales Mayor Marco Lopez Jr. says his biggest challenge is "getting out the message that the border will not close, unless there's a very specific threat to this port of entry. And that is very unlikely."

He says his police force is keeping tabs on "key infrastructure," including water tanks and municipal buildings." Still, like Sheriff Estrada, Lopez says the city hasn't seen a federal dime for border protection.

This highlights a glaring paradox: To date, Operation Liberty Shield seems like lots of rhetorical gravy and little fiscal meat. Estrada calls it a tradition.

"For decades our community has grappled with international problems, illegal immigration, drugs and cross-border crimes without any assistance," he says.

But "there's a strong possibility that Tom Ridge will be asking for some special funding" for border protection, Estrada adds. "We're a poor border county, and we certainly need all the help we can get."

Meanwhile, people here watch, wait--and keeping shopping with zest. War apparently doesn't dominate the minds of four snowbirds from Maine, returning from Mexico with shopping bags full.

"I just don't think this is one of the places you'd have to worry about," says Mabel Cox. "This isn't one the places likely to be struck."

Still, her husband Robert notes a slight security adjustment. "Customs did check our IDs coming across," he says. "They don't always do that."

Around the corner, Alfredo Vega relaxes in the shade, keeping watch over the Factory 2-U parking lot. Wearing a leather cap and reflector shades, he holds a radio which he constantly switches from Christian stations to solemn news reports.

"Am I personally afraid?" he asks? "Yes. But I am a Christian, and feel somehow sure that things will turn out OK."

Back at the Happy Home Nutrition Center, Elvia Marquez ponders putting her NO RADS to work. For the most part, though, she's not overly concerned.

"Sure, there is nervousness because of the war," she says. "But I feel pretty well-protected."

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