Susie's Letter to Mexico

A family is tired of witnessing the suffering of immigrants abandoned by their own government

The Morales family, from left: Alex, Susie and Heriberto.
Susie Clarke Morales lives in a place she calls a twilight zone. It's a land where special beauty and unspeakable horrors go hand in hand. Her home sits barely 3 miles from Arizona's open border with Mexico, and almost every day, she confronts the disasters that flow from this monumental failure of American will, this triumph of greed over national sovereignty.

The open border brings her face to face with human suffering on a grand scale. It makes her a prisoner in her own home. It fills her life with dread.

It's late on a fall afternoon. We're driving west from Nogales on Highway 289. Susie's ranch is up ahead. Summer rain has made the pasture grass tall. It bends in the breeze that blows sweet and cool through the Coronado National Forest.

If you live in a twilight zone, it fits that you'll have odd fantasies. Susie is talking about hers.

"Sometimes I wonder what it'd be like to go to Safeway and push my cart down the aisle without thinking about what's happening at my house at that moment," she says. "Or what I'll find there when I get home. Or who I'll find there."

She knows that's hard to grasp. She shrugs at how funny it must sound. But when you realize that cross-border thieves have broken into her home six times in five years--an average of once every 10 months--you begin to understand.

We turn off the highway onto a dirt road. It leads into remote, sheltered, silent Calabasas Canyon. Her house is here. It's a small, white adobe, more than 100 years old. Beside it stands a corral made of old railroad ties.

But seconds after stepping from the car, Susie can tell something is wrong. Someone has been here. Again. A horse and rider. Hoof prints mark the ground around the water trough. The rider stopped to let his horse drink, then kept going up the canyon.

Susie's face darkens as she studies the tracks. Who was this rider? What did he want? Where is he now?

"You see what I mean about living in a different dimension?" she says. "You come home after work, and the first thing you do is find out who was here."

Susie goes inside to call her father, W.H. Sonny Clarke. He lives 2 1/2 miles away. He and Susie run cattle together. Maybe he knows the mystery rider's identity.

It starts to rain. The drops pop onto the tin roof over the porch, playing us a pretty song.

Nobody knows the score better than Sonny Clarke. He's 75 and has two hearing aids. But when it comes to the Pajarito Mountains, nothing gets past him. He played in these hills as a boy, and has ridden his horse over every inch of them as a cowboy.

Knowledge is a good thing. It can keep you alive in a wild place. But it can be painful, too.

Wherever Sonny looks, with every breath he takes, he confronts the changes that have rent this land the last 30 years. Like most people of pioneer stock, he has a long memory. His great-grandfather, Canadian-born Richard Harrison Clarke, moved here from Hermosillo with Guadalupe Camacho, his Mexican wife, in 1882.

Sonny has seen America's once-great work ethic produce unprecedented wealth, then laziness. Now we hire people to do jobs we once did ourselves, creating a need for the laborers pouring across our border.

He's watched the power of the people-smuggling and drug-smuggling gangs explode across Mexico, tightening their grip on that country's army, police and other agencies.

The corruption and crime have migrated north, and now the gangs have infiltrated the American side, too. Sonny says they have a spy network, and a bribery network, that reaches into every part of border life, even homes.

Now, when he goes out riding, his wife, Virgie, locks herself inside their house with her rifle. She's had three strokes. Her mind is sharp, but she no longer trusts her body to respond. The rifle eases the apprehension she feels in her own home.

"Pity the man who tries to break in here," Virgie says.

This is what the invasion across our border does. It turns ordinary moms into rocking-chair sentries, prepared to do whatever is necessary.

Sonny has had to change the way he cowboys, too. When he approaches a pasture, he checks it with binoculars, then scouts the perimeter for signs of danger. He never rides into these mountains on a horse raised on the flats. He wants one that can handle the rocky hills. He tries to save his horse, too, in case he has to make a run for it.

He does everything he can to avoid the illegals and their gangster partners. But sometimes, he can't. Sometimes he turns a corner, and there they are. Sonny has a strategy for that.

"Never show you're afraid," he says. "It's like with a horse. You have to control your fear, because if that horse realizes you're afraid, you're in deep crap. I was born here; I know how to talk to these guys. They call me jefe."

This is how it is for American citizens on the border. They have to plot their movements on their own land. They have to think like survivalists on their own land.

Calabasas Ridge Road winds in a southwesterly direction across the Pajaritos toward the border. From up here, you can see Nogales through a break in the ridges to the east, 5 airline miles away.

Sonny glasses the horizon. "Every ridge from here to town has a trail, and they're used every day," he says, pointing. "See that ridge? That's a new trail, right there. Every one of these trails is bought. The traffic through here is unbelievable."

Some of the busiest smuggling trails wind over the hills surrounding Susie's place. Sometimes, while cooking dinner, she'll stand with her back to her kitchen door and stare out at the beauty of the canyon.

Then she sees them, dangerous men backpacking drugs into the United States only 200 yards from her kitchen door. Once, she counted 34 of them. They're so close, they could wink at her.

Susie divides her life into two parts. One part plays out in Nogales, where she works as advertising manager for the Nogales International (which is owned by Wick Communications, the same company that owns the Weekly). She knows the business world, the money world, politics. She ran for a seat on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors in 2004. "I lost miserably," she says with a laugh.

But her other life, the one she truly cherishes, plays out here, in this little, white house in Calabasas Canyon. Susie has lived in it for 35 of her 51 years, the first six without running water and electricity.

Right now, she's sitting at her kitchen table, drinking root beer with the rain coming down.

"When I talk with my sister, Joni, about those years," she says, "we agree they were the best of our lives."

But they're long gone.

First, Susie and husband, Heriberto, put $1,200 bars on the windows. They needed security doors, too, but Susie resisted. She didn't want steel on the same doors she pushed open as a child learning to walk. But she relented. The doors cost $600.

At night, the house glows beneath a halo of $200 security lights. Susie had them installed to see who was approaching. But she also wanted the lights as a beacon for the lost, those needing help. They come at all hours, dehydrated, weeping, lost, panicked, pathetic.

Border Patrol agents have pulled her aside, and in polite whispers, advise her to cool it. "You're too visible," they warn. "It's too dangerous. Please be more careful."

She smiles politely. "Nobody is going to tell me I can't give people food and water."

Susie knows those bright lights bring pain into her life. She knows they bring to her doorstep the work-product of evil men. But she was raised to practice kindness. She has a huge heart.

One morning this past June, Father's Day, Susie went out to her water tank at 5:30 a.m. and found a woman lying on the ground, moaning, barely conscious. "Please help me!" she wailed.

Susie brought her inside. The woman was shaking uncontrollably and near shock. While sneaking across the border, she encountered four bajadores, thieves and take-down artists who roam border country like timber wolves, preying on the weak. The men held her at knifepoint and took turns raping her.

So Susie gets out of bed expecting an ordinary day, and instead encounters horror outside her front door. She spent five hours in her kitchen that morning trying to keep a rape victim from going insane.

This is everyday life in the war zone.

In February, a Mexican family, hungry and lost, pried the bars off one of Susie's bedroom windows just enough to shove a 5-year-old boy inside. They stole every particle of food in the house, including a box of Bisquick.

The illegals, including a grandmother, marched to a hilltop above Susie's house, camped there and ate it all. Two days later, the Border Patrol arrested them, leaving Susie the humiliating task of hiking up the hill to clean up the garbage from her own kitchen.

On July 4, as Susie and her family headed to the fireworks show in Nogales, a frantic man flagged them down on 286. He and his group--his wife, two boys and a family friend--had gone three days without water.

The wife, in desperate shape, kept saying, "I think I'm having a stroke!" Her hands were curled up from lack of water. They looked like claws.

Susie and Heriberto had a decision to make: Do we put the family into the van and drive ahead 5 miles to Interstate 19, where we can get help? Or do we leave them behind, drive ahead a short distance to get a cell signal, then summon help?

The consequences were potentially huge. Heriberto is Mexican-born, a legal resident alien. If caught with illegals in his van, he could be deported. But when Susie looked at that woman and her horribly misshapen hands, she thought of the strokes her mom has had, and couldn't keep driving.

"If we left that woman there, she might die in front of her children," Susie says. "We made the decision as a family to put them into the van." They hurried to the Pilot store at I-19 and called rescue crews. The woman survived.

But July was just getting started.

On July 9, it happened again. This time, a bare-chested young man flagged Susie down on the same road. His brother had collapsed from dehydration.

Two nights later, July 11, Susie and Heriberto arrived home at 6 p.m. to find a man and two teenage boys sitting in chairs right outside her kitchen door.

"We're guarding the place for you," the man declared. They'd been there since 1:15 p.m. They'd watered the plants and now wanted to be fed. The man bothered Susie immensely. Way too cocky. He'd turned a big wicker chair so that it faced the road leading into the ranch, and sat there like the lord of the manor.

Heriberto stayed outside talking to the man. Susie went inside to get food, every nerve in her body on fire. She kept a rifle on the kitchen table while she cooked. Whenever Heriberto is talking with a group of illegals outside, Susie keeps that rifle on the table inside.

"You never know how desperate they are," she says. The scary man and the two boys left peacefully at 10 p.m. They were going to Rio Rico to hop a train north.

July still wasn't over.

Eight days later, on July 19, Susie's 51st birthday: Bandits kicked open her front door and robbed the place, making off with a pistol and cosmetic jewelry.

But what they left behind really sticks in her mind--plastic police handcuffs, called flex cuffs. The bandits left them in her bedroom. "That creeped me out," Susie says. "I'm thinking it was some kind of message."

The latest break-in occurred last month, Oct. 5. This time, the thieves pried the security bars off a window, which took hours. But these bad guys weren't in any hurry. They ransacked the house, tossing clothes and belongings everywhere.

Then they microwaved a fine meal for themselves and feasted on chocolate cake for dessert. They stole nothing but a single pair of earrings.

Talking about these experiences brings Susie down to the marrow of her life, the most important things, and she doesn't do that easily. She's too private. She's doing it now, because she believes everyone in Tucson, and everyone around the country, needs to see the border war up close.

They need to look beyond their comfortable lives and see the disaster on our doorstep.

But it's a hard topic. Deeply personal, deeply emotional. In conversation, she'll roller-coaster from tears and anger to a rich, rumbling laugh, and back again in a few seconds.

"If I'd allow it, this situation could really paralyze me."

She's speaking slowly now. She fidgets with her cigarette. Nervous energy.

"I could spend all my time crying, because it's so out of control, and there's nothing I can do to change it. It's painful, and it's painful to have to see so much suffering. You marvel at what in God's name have we created?"

She and Heriberto, and their 14-year-old son, Alex, live bicultural lives. They start every morning watching Telemundo, the Mexican TV channel. At 7 a.m., they switch to the Today show.

Alex speaks Spanish to his father, English to Susie. It's french toast for breakfast one morning, chorizo and tortillas the next.

Like most first-generation legal Mexican immigrants, Heriberto, a 44-year-old cowboy, doesn't look kindly on the illegals pouring across the line in violation of the law. He says they've bought into lies told by coyotes and others, and they despair that their corrupt homeland will never change.

So they come to the land of hope. "But they should get in line and do it legally," he says. "And I wish they'd stop breaking into my house."

For Susie, herself part-Mexican, the crisis has nothing to do with race, the rallying cry of the open-borders left. It's about the security of her home and the security of the nation, and it's about humanity.

She doesn't blame the Mexican family who violated her home in February, and remarkably, she isn't especially angry at them. "I haven't felt the desperation they feel," she says.

But she's mad as hell at the American government's failure to protect her and her property. And at Southern Arizona politicians too cowardly to demand a real defense of America's border. And at civil rights groups in Tucson and elsewhere for screaming about so-called human-rights violations by the Border Patrol, when the Border Patrol is only enforcing the law.

Mostly, though, she blames the crisis taking place, literally, in her backyard, and throughout the country, squarely on Mexico.

"I should have the freedom to come and go from my house without having to pick up what the Mexican government considers its debris, which is their own people. They're being thrown out the door by their own government.

"This is terrorism of a different sort, what Mexico does to its people, and what we experience as a result living here. We need to stop playing this brothers-and-sisters-to-the-south game, the hands-across-the-border nonsense. Mexico doesn't care. Vicente Fox doesn't care, because if he did, he'd take care for his people and not turn them into refugees.

"We call them illegal aliens, but they're refugees. They're being thrown out of a country that refuses to provide for them. Do you think these people really want to leave their homes and go through the hell they go through getting here?"

Sometimes Susie levels these conversational blasts. Mostly, though, she tries to forget the chaos and live her life. Drive Alex to football. Ride her horse. Sit on her porch with Heriberto enjoying the solitude.

But the invasion's awful consequences are everywhere, and some episodes are too gut-wrenching to forget. One in particular stands out--the July 9 flag-down.

Susie was taking Alex to Nogales to open his first bank account. With them were Susie's three grandchildren, ages 9 to 11. They were going to meet Heriberto, then go to a restaurant to mark the occasion.

When she first saw the young man--Juan Mata--lunging over a gate off Highway 289, she sped past. He scared her, practically chasing her van. Then their eyes met in the rearview. She jammed the brakes, a split-second decision.

"It didn't matter that he was in his early 20s, and had tattoos and muscles all over the place, and I'm not even 5 feet tall," she says. "I only saw this little boy, panicked, waving a T-shirt."

She told Alex and the grandkids to stay in the van. She ran back. On pure instinct. Not knowing if she'd be robbed, or worse.

Juan led her about 200 yards off the road to a patch of grass where his little brother, Alejandro, lay, badly dehydrated and near death.

The brothers had crossed in a group near Mariposa, right by Nogales. Bajaderos struck. The brothers ran from the bandits. But the boys bolted in the wrong direction, away from people and help. They'd gone three days without water.

Susie couldn't get a cell signal. She waved down a passing truck, and luck intervened. She'd known the driver and passenger most of her life. They stopped.

"We thought somebody had done something to Susie, because we saw a Mexican national running away from her," remembers Nogales resident Manny Huerta. "But he was running toward his brother."

Animated, urgent, Susie hollered, "Get 911!"

Miraculously, Huerta was able to raise a cell signal. He stayed by the road to flag down rescuers. Everyone else, including Huerta's buddy, Peter Mendoza, ran toward Alejandro.

They gave him water, but he couldn't swallow. It dribbled down his chin and neck. He was convulsing, frothing at the mouth, breathing in shallow pants. His eyes were rolling back.

Seeing his little brother in that condition, Juan was beyond distraught. He sobbed uncontrollably. Mendoza felt utterly helpless, too. He could do nothing except pace, and keep the sun off Alejandro as best he could.

The first to arrive, Forest Service employee Rudy Ronquillo fetched a sleeping bag from his truck. With Susie, Mendoza, Ronquillo and Juan Mata each gripping a corner, they held it up to shade Alejandro from the burning sun.

"Rudy is a big, strong guy," Susie says, "and when I saw him gently lifting Alejandro's head to put a pillow underneath it ... ." Her voice chokes off and tears roll down her face. She can't continue.

Rescue teams arrived within 10 minutes, an eternity. As the helicopter departed, hurrying Alejandro to University Medical Center in Tucson, the only thing left to do was pray.

"It was just terrible, man," says the 53 year-old Mendoza, a truck driver and a strong man. What he witnessed that day haunts him still. Struggling with his words, Mendoza says, "It was something you don't ever want to see ... and can't ever forget."

That night, when Susie and Alex got home, they didn't talk much. But as the moments ticked off, the emotion Susie felt only intensified. It was raw and flowing through her like a river. She needed to let it out.

She sat at her kitchen table, flipped open her laptop and began writing a letter to Alejandro's mom in Mexico City.

It began, "I met your sons, Alejandro and Juan, today ..."

You can drive Highway 289 and not see obvious signs of the invasion. This land hides its scars better than most.

The highway curls west from I-19 through a seeming paradise of lush green hills and blue sky out to Pena Blanca Lake. Highway 289 is also called Ruby Road. After a fashion, it goes to dirt, then shakes and bounces past the ghost town of Ruby all the way to Arivaca, 32 miles distant.

It looks almost idyllic. But the drug runners and the people smugglers have this good land by the throat.

An experienced border-watcher can find plenty of signs. The fence cuts and mash-downs are here, and certainly the walking trails, the grass always bending north. Look closely, and you might see a tiny scrap of burlap blowing in the wind. Smugglers bundle their poison in burlap.

And if you hear the blue jays launch into their wild twittering, look out. They're not singing you a song. They're warning of an animal, or a human, coming near.

There's roadside trash, too, but much less than before. For that, you can thank Jake Brown. He's a big fellow with a tomato-red face, snow-white hair and a long, white beard. He runs an industrial supply company in Nogales, and loves to fish at Pena Blanca.

But every time he drove to the lake, he'd pass reams of illegals' garbage lining the road. He got tired of looking at it and pulled over one day to pick it up, then couldn't stop.

Between February and July of this year, the 64-year-old Brown cleaned every one of the 28 canyons on the north side of 289 between mileposts 3 and 7. He carries 55-gallon trash bags. He filled 300 of them in that stretch alone.

"This is Forest Service land that belongs to you and me, and these people are trashing it," says Brown. "They're turning Southern Arizona into one great big garbage dump."

He's Santa Claus in a bulletproof vest.

At the Border Patrol's insistence, Brown makes his rounds with a .357 Magnum in his shoulder bag, and he wears a vest for protection. "When you have to wear a bulletproof vest because of gang snipers on public land in your own country, it's pretty bad," says Brown.

But nobody takes a first look at this land and sees danger.

"It's nice here, isn't it?" says Sonny, as we sit in front of his house drinking lemonade under the shade trees. We're surrounded by national forest. "But they're watching us, the smugglers. They know our schedules and everything we do. Their eyes are always on us, right now."

Sometimes burreros--drug mules--show up at Sonny's place after dropping their loads. They've walked 5, sometimes 10 miles, carrying 50- or 60-pound bales of marijuana on their backs, and they're dog tired. It's rough work, wrecking a nation.

In the old days, they'd walk back to Mexico. Now they call the Border Patrol for a ride. The agents drive them to Nogales for mug shots and a fingerprint check, and if all looks rosy--only border-busting arrests--they're turned loose back across the line.

"The Border Patrol sees some of these guys 15 times." Sonny shrugs. "Why would you walk back when you can get a ride?"

Twilight zone.

Susie's letter strikes like an arrow in the chest. The words came from a place deep inside her. From a great well of frustration. From a great sense of abandonment.

Think of it: With her own government AWOL, with her elected representatives cowering, with Mexico paralyzed by corruption, where does she turn?

Nowhere. She's completely alone.

All she has to fight with is that rifle on her kitchen table, and something even more powerful--the human heart. She used the latter brilliantly in her letter, composed over two days.

Her message appealed not just to Alejandro's mom, but to all the mothers of Mexico, imploring them to stop the crisis and the suffering by keeping their children home.

When Susie sat down at her laptop a second time on July 11, she knew Alejandro's chances weren't good.

He died the following day at UMC. He was 21.

She wrote in pitiless detail, and with painful honesty. Here's a portion of her letter:

"Alejandro is connected to life-support, machines breathing for him, fluids being drained in his veins, and he does not respond.

"His brain began to roast when his body reached 105 degrees during his walking, and climbed to 110 degrees when he was found collapsed. Your son, Alejandro, will die but for the grace of God, and you do not know this to pray. He will die a lonely death, and not one of his loved ones will be at his side to hold his hand, to tell him he was loved, and that he will be missed as he slips away. I'm sorry for the loss of your son and know that you will feel the pursuit of money was not worth the price of your son.

"I pray God will grace you with Juan at your side one day soon. I pray that then he will know there is honor in law-abiding labor conducted in your own homeland, and there is no honor in dying an illegal death on foreign land; that the well-earned peso carries more value to you as his mother than his ill-gained dollar; and that you cherish every moment you are graced with his presence.

"I ask that you tell those young mothers among you that they raise their sons and daughters not to quietly accept their government's corruption and leave the homes of their birth, but to grow up with the conviction and will to change it, so that their children may live well at home.

"I ask as an American mother of you, my Mexican comadre, to take up the call to challenge your government to remind your leaders that it is you, the Mexican people, who must direct the fair disbursement of wealth to all of her citizens, not just a few.

"It is you, hermana, who must not be fooled into believing that your country is poor--it is wealthy beyond imagination because of the heart, soul and stamina that is its people, many who lay dying or dead on American soil, and for whom no one will know of to weep, and those many who live here in hiding while being exploited by greed.

"... It is you then, my twin, who must stop the death by changing the world in which you live--not leave it--for that is what those who love their children and country do.

"And, finally, I pray that if one day my son is among you and hurt, you'll cherish his life as much as I cherished the life of your sons, remembering always that as mothers, we recognize no boundaries among our children, nor do we hesitate to share our maternity with the child of another."

The Nogales International published the full letter on July 19, and a second column shortly thereafter. The articles raised considerable dust in the borderlands. They drew comment and praise from both sides of the line. Even Sonny, who's seen it all in his 75 years, thinks his daughter's words are being heard above the din of the border debate.

"A lot of people in Mexico, working people like us, are starting to talk about this," he says. "What an excellent idea, appealing directly to mothers, because that's what needs to happen. Keep your children in your own country; keep them strong. You're a great people. Stay home and heal your country. Stay home. Stay home."

The rain couldn't make up its mind this day. It danced across the canyon and tapped on the roof for a while, then died. But enough of it fell to erase the hoof prints around Susie's house.

She still has no idea of the mystery rider's identity. She might see no sign of him for the remainder of her life. But maybe he's already come back.

Several weeks after those chilling tracks appeared, I return to the little white house in Calabasas Canyon to see what has changed. Everything. The Oct. 5 break-in has changed everything.

Now, in addition to the rifle on the kitchen table, and an ironclad prohibition against allowing Alex to be alone at the ranch, and the bars on the windows, and the steel doors, and the security lights, Susie and Heriberto have added a $675 alarm system.

They also spent $300 electrifying a fence that circles the house. It will keep the dogs close by. They have nine dogs now. The newest addition: A pit bull mix.

Call it Fort Morales.

It's a beautiful October morning. The canyon is full of sun and sky and singing birds. We're sitting in Susie's kitchen talking over a decision she has made, and how truly hard this is for her: From now on, she'll no longer give out food and water to passing illegals. Unless they're near death, she'll send them out to the highway to wait for the Border Patrol.

"I just can't do it anymore."

She goes on:

"I'm fifth generation here, and I resent having to look out at my canyon through bars. And every time I hear that heavy security door slam shut, it's like a cell door closing. Every one of these security steps has taken away a piece of me. I grew up here, free, and no one is going to make me a prisoner in my home. That was my attitude.

"But they have made me a prisoner. Now I have to play hardball, because I can't risk it anymore. By helping people, I might be jeopardizing my home, and possibly the lives of my son, my husband and myself. It's gotten to where I have to defend my home and my family first.

"It upsets me that after 50 years of living a certain way, by a certain moral code, I can't anymore. We were brought up not to deny anybody anything. If you have a loaf of bread, you share half of it with someone who has nothing. I've done that and look what's happened."

She goes on. But the more she talks, the more her heart kicks in, and she begins to refine her decree. Well, maybe I'd help in this circumstance. Or this one. Or this.

The pain and the emotional turmoil show on her face. They're carved there.

"You see what this means? It means they've taken away another part of me. It makes me so angry. I can't describe how upsetting it is to have to change who I am. Why, after 50 years, should I have to face this moral conflict?"

Only half-joking, Susie says she might put up signs around her home that read: Alarmed, Armed and Pissed.

This is what the invasion does. It tears apart lives, and souls.

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