Paradise and Paranoia

The Border Patrol creates an Arivaca-area racket, and then keeps mum

The hills ringing Arivaca are pure pluck. They charge into brawny bluffs and clench into tight clefts, before finally spilling beneath old oak flats west of town.

Such rugged beauty drew Pedro Aquirre to this area the 1850s, first to create a stagecoach operation, and later a homestead. He named his spread Buenos Ayres, or "good air."

But some 150 years later, an ill wind blows through Aguirre's hills. Breezes whisper of illicit trade and desperate treks, of terrorist incursions and increasingly secretive law-enforcement activities.

Tonight, on Thursday, April 21, this torrent has whisked some 70 modern-day residents to the Arivaca Community Center, to hash over clandestine Border Patrol maneuvers on the adjacent Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.

Of course, some might argue that Border Patrol actions aren't clandestine enough. Just ask Joe Melnick. Two years ago, he moved next to a 600-acre portion of the 118,000-acre Buenos Aires Refuge known as Montana Ranch. Today, Melnick says the quiet he craved has been usurped by helicopters, stadium lights, groaning generators and the dust-raising roar of ATVs.

Now he's before the meeting-hall crowd, clicking through digital slides of Montana Ranch. His grainy images reveal a building surrounded by razor wire, a fuel station and what he claims are Border Patrol horses grazing in a broad pasture. To Melnick, this means that government agents are turning another patch of paradise into an armed camp. "It's supposed to be a pristine area," he says. "Now it's where the Border Patrol is conducting special operations. These photos even show where (the refuge manager) is permitting a stable."

Melnick gets groans of sympathy. "What about the wildlife?" asks one woman angrily. "What's all that noise doing to the animals?"

"And what about that fuel station?" says another. "Can we get some testing of the soil around it?"

He shakes his head. "We're not even allowed to walk on the Montana. There's no hunting, no fishing, no nothing. But what is going on there behind our backs?"

Others take a dim view of Melnick's complaints. Among them is R.D. Ayers, who rumbled to the meeting atop a yellow Case backhoe. Now he's standing by a wall, his sidearm glinting in the subdued light. "You're assuming a lot," he tells Melnick. "Those things have been there a long time before you got here."

"Hey," Melnick snaps back, "can you let me talk?"

"I s'pose so," says Ayers, with a twangy, pissed-off grin. "But the things you're saying are pretty goofy."

And so it goes in Arivaca, where border tensions are growing bitter. That's hardly surprising in an outback ravaged by illegal immigration, drug smuggling and government strategies to contain both. The numbers are brutal: During a two-month period last year, Border Patrol agents made more than 8,000 apprehensions in the nearby desert, and seized nearly 15,000 pounds of dope.

In response to this surge, Arizona is slated to receive 500 more Border Patrol agents by Sept. 30. Many will be assigned to the hills around Arivaca. But the secrecy surrounding their activities is sparking new worries among many residents, and creating hurdles for ecologists who monitor law-enforcement impacts on public lands.

To date, environmental concerns have focused on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument west of Tucson, near Ajo. But that's starting to shift, says Jenny Neely, Southwest associate with Defenders of Wildlife. Neely says that Border Patrol strategies are pushing illicit traffic eastward towards New Mexico. If true, that places the Buenos Aires--and Arivaca--right in the pending war zone. "Actually, the Buenos Aires has already been under fire for awhile," she says.

Meanwhile, Neely says that obtaining information from the Border Patrol about its activities--including environmental assessments normally required under the National Environmental Policy Act--is downright impossible.

Mitch Ellis, the new manager of Buenos Aires, says that Melnick's photos only portray facilities used by refuge staffers. He adds that the Border Patrol does have a memorandum of understanding to operate on the refuge, however, and a special permit to use the Montana Ranch. But Neely is skeptical of the details. "We wonder what other agreements have been made between the refuge and the Border Patrol," she says. "Honestly, we don't have any idea what's going on at Buenos Aires."

Ellis says he's balancing law enforcement needs with his mission to protect Buenos Aires' wildlife. And that includes the Montana Ranch. "We were approached by the Border Patrol, which wanted to put some corrals in there, and the refuge has allowed that to happen."

He also suggests that more damage from illegal traffic is a given if federal agents are reined in. "If we help the Border Patrol with access, and make it easier for them to, say, use horses, then we are also reducing the impact. If they have to go out there with motorcycles or ATVs, it does a lot more damage."

As it stands, Border Patrol plans for the Buenos Aires remain murky, and Border Patrol spokesman Charles Griffin likewise plays his cards close to the vest. "We don't talk a lot about operational things, such as resources or why they're there," he says, "especially if it's a special operation." But "we have an extremely good working relationship with the Buenos Aires Refuge and Mr. Ellis."

Either way, Joe Melnick, Jenny Neely and others hoping for Border Patrol openness face an uphill battle. So says Steven Aftergood, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Project on Government Secrecy, an offshoot of the Federation of American Scientists. "The problem is that agencies have broad discretion to withhold whatever they want," he explains. "The standards for disclosure have become arbitrary, and the public is poorly served as a result."

Ultimately, such secrecy can backfire, Aftergood says. "The government isn't even serving its own interests by cultivating an air of mystery. It invites people to suspect the worst, when the worst might not be going on."

When it comes to Buenos Aires, the only hope for information may come from these very hills; by meeting's end, Mitch Ellis had agreed to parley with locals over law-enforcement activities on the refuge.

To date, the Border Patrol has offered no such promise.

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