Bleeding Arizona

The state’s crackdown on illegals is as much about drugs as immigration.

Rob Krentz was emblematic of Arizona. He ran a cattle ranch in the southeastern part of the state that had been in his family for four generations. But he was concerned for more than just his herd; he was in the habit of giving food and water to illegal immigrants who came though his land on their way north. They were usually headed for farm work. He was a farmer. Ron was “an old school cowboy with no known enemies and a big heart,” writes Paul Rubin in the Phoenix New Times.

That was no help to him on the morning of March 27, when he was out with his dog Blue checking conditions in a remote part of the ranch—which also happened to be a familiar trail for drug smugglers coming from Mexico 35 miles away. An unknown assailant shot Krentz several times and killed Blue as well. When police got to the scene, they followed the killer’s tracks south toward Mexico until they faded.

Who did it? The murder remains a mystery—and a rarity since most victims of border crime are Hispanics. But the day before his death, Krentz had discovered a quantity of marijuana on his ranch and alerted police. A gang may have sought revenge. Ordinarily, knowing they are probably being watched, ranchers look the other way when they spot contraband on their property. Leave well enough alone.

The killing may have had another connection to the drugs pouring across the border. Perhaps it was a warning to U.S. law enforcement to keep its distance: We are coming, like it or not, and the profits in our business are more than $30 billion a year. We mean to keep them. Drugs and immigrants go north to America; cash and weapons come back—a satisfactory transaction for all involved. Good neighbors mean good money.

Little can stop drugs or people from illegally entering the country. The U.S.-Mexico border is 1,969 miles long with only 700 miles under effective control. It was once thought that mountains and barren deserts would prove a formidable barrier to crossings. Think again. Mexicans are so desperate to escape the grinding poverty and vicious crime of their country that they are willing to risk all. They put themselves in the hands of “coyotes,” agents of the criminal cartels who know the trails.

Carrying drugs on their back for payment, some migrants fall along the way. They are left to the mercy of the desert and the four-legged variety of coyote. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer was ridiculed in the eastern press for alluding to headless corpses in the desert. The corpses may not be headless, but they’re armless and legless, says Gary Thrasher, a farm veterinarian who comes across fragments of bodies as he makes his rounds. On one occasion he was startled by a watch still ticking on a severed arm.

Once they reach their destination, usually Phoenix, migrants coming through Arizona are crammed into some 1,300 drop houses, many now located in comfortable middle class neighborhoods thanks to declining real estate values. There they await their fate. The cartels may demand ransom; if it’s not paid, captives can be tortured or killed. The migrants are sometimes worth more than the drugs they carry, which, after all, can be confiscated. Not the people, many of whom are returned to Mexico and can be brought back again and again for a price. Hungry for profits, the cartels now steal victims from one another, earning Phoenix the nickname “kidnap capital of the country.”

As the smuggling increases, so does the corruption of U.S. officials on the border. El Paso special agent Tim Gutierrez explains: “If you’re an inspector and you are legitimately waving through 97 out of 100 cars anyway, and you realize you can make as much as your annual salary by letting the 98th go by. It can be easy to rationalize that.”

Beyond the border, corruption has reached the American banks that launder money for the cartels. Wachovia, in particular, let $378 billion in illicit funds slip through its vault, the largest laundering operation uncovered in U.S. history. “Wachovia’s blatant disregard for our banking laws gave international cocaine cartels a virtualcarte blanche to finance their operations,” says Jeffrey Sloman, the federal prosecutor who handled the case.

Even so, Wachovia escaped criminal prosecution because that might have caused panic in financial markets—after engaging in criminal activity, some institutions are still too big to fail. Remember this, says bank investigator Martin Woods, when you consider the 22,000 people killed in the Mexico’s drug wars. Wells Fargo has now taken over Wachovia, paid a token fine, and pledges stricter oversight.

What are ordinary Americans to do in the face of Wall Street’s complicity and Washington’s indifference? Rob Krentz’s family issued a statement that they hold “no malice toward the Mexican people for this senseless act, but do hold the political forces in this country and Mexico accountable for what has happened.” Other Arizonans had a stronger reaction. There was a rush to gun shops and a surge of support for SB 1070, a bill that provides for a state crackdown on illegal immigrants.

Known as the “Krentz law,” it aroused fervent opposition, starting with the White House. For supporters and foes alike, the legislation is more symbol than substance. It largley mirrors federal law already on the books, though it makes detaining illegals somewhat easier for local law enforcement. Yet given their other commitments, police are apt to proceed as usual. Illegal immigration in itself is not their first priority.

In striking down some provisions of 1070, a federal judge noted that immigration is the federal government’s responsibility. Then why not exercise it? reply many Arizonans. Testifying to Congress, Larry Dever, sheriff of Cochise County, noted, “While securing our borders is clearly a federal responsibility, we are left with the problems associated by failure to do so.” Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, a liberal Democrat, says, “what we need are Border Patrol agents on the border, not lawyers in court.”

Meanwhile, vulnerable ranchers await the next incident. The New York Timesoffers comforting statistics that show a drop in violent crime in Arizona. But that’s for all of the state, reply law enforcers. It’s not the case in the south, where much crime—break-ins, car thefts, deaths in the desert—goes unreported. The area is so vast and resources so limited that no statistics are to be trusted. Inhabitants rely on experience and intuition instead.

Enforcing the border is never easy. Immigrants are ingenious about getting across. “Whatever you try to devise, they can get around,” says a Border Patrol agent who should know. Fences of all kind, costly to build and maintain, have been erected. Don’t rely on them, cautions Wendy Glen, a cattle rancher celebrated for her many community activities, among them working with her husband Warner on the Malpai Borderlands Group, which aims to preserve about a million acres of open space in Arizona and Mexico.

On the Geronimo Trail along the border, Wendy explains the limitations of barriers. “If these intruders face a wall 20 or 30 feet high, they will cut through it or dig under it or get a rope ladder to go over it. A truck with a ramp sometimes serves. These people coming up here don’t sit around an office all day. They are athletic. They know what they’re doing. That’s how they make their living.” And what a living. Toting drugs up north to avaricious American consumers can earn them more money in a day than they would otherwise make in a year.

The U.S. Border Patrol has one of the nation’s least enviable jobs. There are far from enough agents to control the border, and Robert Cotter, former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, says he would keep them away even if plenty were available. It’s too dangerous, he says, without sufficient armored protection. That leaves a no man’s land where cartel coyotes can freely venture. But don’t call this a borderless “third country,” as some do, insists veterinarian Thrasher. “That way, we surrender our sovereignty.”

Border Patrol agents pursue their quarry for days, weeks even, using detection methods they call “sign cuttings.” They look for footprints in a remote area that may indicate an illegal crossing. Is it recent? Not if insects are hovering over it. A crushed ant hill indicates immigrants may be close because ants quickly rebuild their hills. Despite all the electronic devices spotting movement over the border, people must still catch people, and sign cutting is an acquired skill.

Agents are given three to four months of training and, if not Hispanic, are required to learn Spanish. They take pride in their job because it’s protecting the homeland, they say. But their personal safety can be jeopardized. One said he was having dinner at a restaurant near the border when a smuggler came up to the table to say “Hello.” A cordial gesture or a not so subtle warning? “They have a vast intelligence,” says the agent. “They get to know you.”

Arizona Hispanics are deeply involved in the border battle. Alberto Melis, the genial police chief of the town of Douglas, says his city has a 95 percent Hispanic population and 5 percent that lie about it—a good line but not quite the case. OTMs—other than Mexicans—are easy to spot in Douglas. There is racial tension in Arizona, as in every society, but the state’s 30 percent Hispanic population is well integrated. Anglos mingle casually with Hispanics and are usually careful to distinguish between the good majority and the minority causing trouble.

Chief Melis says with pride that there is no spillover of violence in Douglas, and I can attest to a very peaceful quiet town where the motorists are so courteous you can almost cross the street without looking. “The bad guys,” says the chief, “go through us, not to us.” And they keep going.

But sometimes not too far. At a recent Douglas City Council meeting, residents from the outskirts of town spoke up. They mentioned coming across dead bodies left by coyote guides. Gunfire was frequent outside of town, and one woman said she was luckly someone shooting at her had bad aim. Another woman said she would not go outside without a firearm. There are endless piles of trash in the wake of the migrants. Said William Mercer, “the people crossing over do not know any better, and they die trying to make it to Phoenix.”

Douglas has changed. Emilio Durazo, a retired mining engineer, whose father was naturalized in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, says in his youth Douglas was an “Ozzie and Harriet” kind of town, open and friendly where everyone knew everyone else. “We would ride our bikes across the border, which was hardly a border.” Just across the border in Agua Prieta, Mavi Valenzuela, wife of a cattle rancher, says much the same thing. She loved the enticing shops and restaurants that lined Douglas’s main street and she, too, crossed the border. Mexicans and Americans “drank, ate, laughed, cried, fished and hunted together,” recalls American businessman Shields Fair. “We went to each others’ funerals, weddings and parties.”

Not with today’s rampant crime. Murders are routine in Mexico. Last year in Juarez, a major port of entry for contraband, some 2,600 people were killed in the drug wars, and there has been no letup this year. A former Juarez hit man, now repentant, says his habit was to behead special offenders or saw off their arms or legs. Otherwise, bullets would suffice. Charles Bowden catalogues these atrocities to numbing effect in his recently published Murder City. He calls Juarez the most dangerous city in the world, and it’s right across the border from the relatively crime-free city of El Paso, Texas.

Adequate law enforcement is one reason for El Paso’s tranquility. But there is another. While engaged in unceasing violence in Mexico, the cartels do not want to antagonize American customers as they ply their trade. Business is good. Why jeopardize it with unnecessary bloodshed? Today Mexico provides more than half the marijuana consumed in the United States and 90 percent of the cocaine, among other drugs. “It’s as if our neighbor were the biggest drug addict in the world,” complains Mexican President Felipe Calderón. In exchange, Mexicans acquire much of their weaponry from the United States. We help them keep fighting.

We assume that the violence won’t spread here—we’re immune. In his recently published book, Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State?, George W. Grayson, professor of government at William & Mary College, takes a contrary view. He writes that “some of the cartels have swarmed across Arizona, which has been called a giant narcotics storage center.” They have divided up turf within the United States, and one of the worst, Los Zetas, has been involved in multiple assaults and murders in Texas. According to the Justice Department’s National Drug Intelligence Center, the cartels now have outlets in 230 American cities where local gangs act as distributors.

As if to concede defeat, the U.S. government is erecting signs at its national parks—some just 30 miles south of Phoenix—warning people against traveling in them because of the danger from armed drug smugglers. Millions of acres of Arizona parkland are off limits to visitors and the Border Patrol but not to the criminals. So whose land is it?

July elections in Mexico were not exactly reassuring. The vote was held down by intimidation, with four corpses dangling from a bridge on election morning in the violent border state of Chihuahua. Some candidates went to the polls in body armor accompanied by guards. There was no clear winner among the various political parties, perpetuating the fragmented government that allows cartels to flourish, says Professor Grayson. “Power flows from the center to the states where governors act like arrogant viceroys who control almost everything except the cartels. With them they arrange a modus vivendi.”

That’s also what the Juarez newspaper El Diario did when a staff photographer was recently shot, one of more than 30 journalists who have been killed or disappeared in Mexico over the last four years. “What do you want from us?” a front-page editorial asked the cartels. “What are we expected to publish or not publish so we know what to abide by? You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city because the legal authorities have not been able to keep our colleagues from falling.”

Can anything be done before Mexico collapses and the United States suffers the consequences? Some observers point to Colombia, where equally ruthless drug cartels threatened the state. With the aid of U.S. military equipment and training, Colombia’s government broke up the major cartels and restored peace—for now. But on the fringes, smaller cartels, harder to apprehend, are sending more drugs than ever to the United States through Mexico. All the fighting has not made an appreciable difference. Eliminate one drug lord and another takes his place. Demand creates inevitable supply.

Some realism is needed in confronting the twin problems of the drug trade and illegal immigration. Many illegals have found useful jobs in America and become part of society. In most respects they are indistinguishable from Hispanics with legal standing. The inevitable crackdown on the border will, of course, affect mainly Latinos. It’s essential not to add to tensions and create a shrap racial divide in America that does not now exist.

For that reason Arizona State University President Michel Crow favors a partial amnesty like the so-called Dream Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), which would cover people under 35 who entered the United States before they were 16, who have been in the country for five consecutive years, who have graduated from high school, and have a “good moral character.” Under these conditions, they could apply for U.S. residence on the path to citizenship. “There’s no point in punishing children for the actions of their parents,” says Michele Wucker, Executive Director of the World Policy Institute.

But a more fundamental change in policy may be needed to stop the violence in Mexico. The drug war is already lost, asserts author Charles Bowden. The drugs have won and are more plentiful than ever. Marijuana accounts for more than 60 percent of the cartels’ profits. It’s also the least harmful of the drugs they trade in—thought to be no worse for the human body than cigarettes or alcohol. If it were legalized with proper regulation and control, like alcohol, the cartels would be undermined, perhaps fatally. Legalization could save billions of dollars and tens of thousands lives.

There are currently moves in that direction. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has decided to allow patients in its hospitals to use marijuana for pain relief in the 14 states where medicinal use of the drug is legal. State initiatives for decriminalization have been proliferating, and more Americans seem to be willing to consider whether ending the drug war would have much the same effect on crime that ending Prohibition had. As the influential economist Milton Friedman wrote: “Illegality creates obscene profits that finance the murderous tactics of the drug lords; illegality leads to the corruption of law enforcement officials; illegality monopolizes the efforts of honest law forces so that they are starved for resources to fight the crimes of robbery, theft and assault.”

If even conservatives must think about such radical proposals, liberals need to recognize that traditional law-enforcement is still necessary—and legislation like the Krentz Law is not racist. The notion of Arizona as a land inhospitable to newcomers could not be more wrong. The New York Times reports that in recent years Arizona has accepted more refugees per capita than all but three other states, far more per capita than California or New York. You name it, they come from there: Burma, Sudan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Iran. Race and religion don’t seem to matter. The welcome mat is out for humanitarian reasons. Says Robert Carey, vice president at the International Rescue Committee, “In the degree of welcome and receptivity we see, I would certainly put Arizona at the top.”

For an eastern transplant like myself, there’s an openness and camaraderie here that does not sit well with bigotry. There’s genuine crime—drug cartels—and Westerners know how to handle that. It comes with the territory. But Mexican crime can be kept separate from Mexicans, who are seriously fighting it and suffering much more from it. Arizonans on both sides of the debate over the Krentz Law recognize this. They are confronting the hard policy choices that have to be made to address the threat of border violence. Sooner or later the rest of the country will have to make some similarly difficult decisions.