Border Battleground

Mexico’s drug violence is state-sponsored—by the U.S.

Arizona rancher Jim Chilton spots a lone intruder near his barn. He grabs his rifle and rushes out, prepared for whatever may come. No threat. The man drops to his knees, hands in prayer, and offers Chilton his rosary. Chilton declines and instead gives him water. As he gulps it down, he asks, “Which way to St. Louis?”

Chilton cannot help with that. He wishes the illegal immigrant good luck wherever he lands—somewhere no doubt south of St. Louis. Perhaps in detention or in the hands of the criminals who haunt the mountains and canyons of this particularly scenic part of Arizona, where the desert suddenly brightens with glistening greenery against a backdrop of shadowed mountains. Small wonder that ranchers, despite the dangers, don’t want to leave. “I’m here to stay,” says Chilton, a fifth generation rancher who has ample reason to go.

His 50,000-acre cattle ranch stretches 19 miles to the southeastern border, supplying a convenient route for drug smugglers. His house has been burglarized, all his valuables stolen, including a prize antique gun. Chilton always leaves home with rifle and pistol, never sure what he will face. In days gone by, it was mostly immigrants parched after a desert trek. They wanted jobs and better lives in America.

Now the game has changed, he says. The lone immigrant is not seen so much. Border crossers tend to come in packs led by a coyote, a criminal guide. He in turn works for one of Mexico’s cartels, which force the immigrants to carry drugs across the border, or sometimes human cargo held for ransom. They are modestly paid for their effort. Those who collapse from exhaustion along the way are left behind to suffer a slow, agonizing death. The Border Patrol often comes across skeletal remains.

Woe to immigrants who try to avoid the cartels if they happen to get caught. Last summer, an independent-minded coyote was leading some 30 people across the border when they were spotted by cartel members keeping watch from a ridge with powerful binoculars that enable them to scan the countryside for Border Patrol. They swooped down on horseback and drove the group back to a safe house in Mexico, where they raped the women and tortured the men. They made an example of the offending coyote by cutting off all his fingers. Then they took their victims back across the border and turned them in—a clear warning to anyone else who would defy them.

It’s a commonplace that women trying to navigate the border must prepare for rape—the cost of crossing. They’re told to carry birth-control pills. Special treatment for children? Not a chance. More likely they’ll be used to hide drugs. A rancher says our own mafia have some limits to their cruelty. Not the cartels. Violence that is thankfully infrequent in the Southwestern United States is everyday in Mexico, where more than 40,000 people have been killed by the cartels in the last few years. Returning to Mexico after 20 years’ absence, Associated Press reporter Marjorie Miller writes that half the country is besieged by the cartels: “Mexico has become a country of mass murders.”

Fewer illegal immigrants are entering the United States these days, but more drugs. This is misunderstood, says Sylvia Longmire, author of Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico’s Drug Wars. Illegal immigration is controversial, she writes, “but worrying about Juan and Maria is totally separate from the issue of criminal drug trafficking. The cartels have been able to hide behind the immigration issue. It’s perfect for them that the attention is on illegal aliens, not them.” With this camouflage, the cartels now have outlets to distribute their drugs in more than 200 American cities.

A woman rancher north of Nogales—we’ll call her “Mrs. Smith”—prefers not to be quoted by her real name; she fears the cartels will seek vengeance on anyone who gives them trouble. She cites the nearby killing of rancher Rob Krentz after the Border Patrol was alerted to a large amount of marijuana on his property and arrested eight people. His widow Sue, who spoke out forcefully about his death, was later hit and badly injured by a car driven by an intoxicated illegal immigrant. Suspicions arose that she, too, had run afoul of the ever watchful cartel. Mrs. Smith must be just as watchful. She has had no close encounters, but her dog was poisoned, some pipes severed, a water tank drained. She is never quite sure who is passing through. Three Chinese passports were discovered on her ranch.

•   •   •

There’s much talk of non-Mexicans crossing the border. Yemenis are often cited, but a favorite seems to be the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. Check “Hezbollah in Mexico” on the Internet and up come page after age of dire warnings from dubious commentators. A frequent source is the anonymous “former agent.” Evidence, such as it is, consists of gang members reputed to have tattoos in Farsi and drug tunnels similar to ones dug by Hezbollah in Gaza.

Are the cartels and Hezbollah working together? Nonsense, says George Grayson, author of Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State. The cartels don’t want to jeopardize their lucrative trade by allying with a terrorist-identified group that could bring down the full might of the United States on them. Besides, the cartels are not keen on cooperation and have a way of dealing with competition.

In October, three top U.S. officials involved in anti-narcotic operations testified before Congress that there’s no connection between Hezbollah and the cartels. Rodney Benson of the Drug Enforcement Administration, Mariko Silver from the Department of Homeland Security, and William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, reported that Hezbollah is raising money in some South American countries but is not a threat to the United States. Former Border Patrol undercover agent David Ham says he never encountered any Hezbollah on the border and thinks their presence in other parts of Latin America is exaggerated.

What about the Iranian-American who tried to get the Zetas cartel to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington? Seems he shared the plot with an informant of the Drug Enforcement Agency who gave it away. The event has fired up neoconservatives and others anxious to confront the Islamic Republic, but I’ve found very few Arizonans who believe the story. Tony Estrada, the esteemed sheriff of the border county Santa Cruz, says Iranian operators are ruthless but smart. This action was just plain dumb.

Robert Baer, a CIA case officer in the Middle East for 21 years, agrees. “This doesn’t fit their modus operandi at all. It’s completely out of character. They’re much better than this.” It would help, he adds, if we had a back channel to Iran to explore these controversies when they arise.

•   •   •

There is a state sponsor behind some of Mexico’s cartel violence, but it isn’t Iran. The U.S. federal government’s “Operation Fast and Furious” involved the transfer of some 1,500 weapons from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to the cartels, including 34 powerful sniper rifles. “A perfect storm of idiocy,” says Carlos Canino, an ATF attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico. He testified to Congress that “U.S. law enforcement and our Mexican partners will be recovering these guns for a long time as they continue to turn up at crime scenes in Mexico and the United States.”

“This is going to be bigger than Watergate,” asserts Pima County, Arizona sheriff Paul Babeu, who notes that nobody died in the earlier scandal but the current one has led to innumerable Mexican deaths from the misdirected guns—as well as the killing of at least one American, Border Patrolman Brian Terry.

Former Border Patrol Agent David Ham says the giveaway goes against everything he learned in his 13 years working undercover. “Whatever causes harm you don’t spread around,” he says. That most emphatically includes guns and drugs. Guns did away with people who cooperated with him in Mexico. He will not go back to furnish another statistic.

Fast and Furious was supposedly intended to trace the firearms up the ladder to the cartel bosses who could then be apprehended. But the guns were not followed across the border, and Mexican authorities were not informed of the project. So how was anyone to be caught? Don’t worry so much about an explanation, cautioned ATF group supervisor David Voth to dissenting agents in a 2010 email. “If you don’t think this is fun, you’re in the wrong line of work.”

ATF supervisors are not as talkative now that a congressional investigation is under way. The scandal has already claimed several scalps: the U.S. attorney for Arizona has resigned and two top-level ATF administrators have been reassigned. “More heads will roll, as well they should,” says George Grayson. One neck that’s on the block belongs to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who has been caught in contradictions. Documents released by the Justice Department, which supervises ATF, show there was a cover-up of Fast and Furious. Department officials said they didn’t know about it. They did.

Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, leading the congressional investigation, told Holder: “Your lack of trustworthiness about Fast and Furious has called into question your overall credibility as Attorney General. The time has come for you to come clean to the American public.”

Mexico has been the recipient not only of ATF guns but of money from the Drug Enforcement Administration. The New York Times reports that in another effort to track down cartel kingpins the DEA has allowed millions of dollars from illicit drug sales to be returned to Mexico, fattening the cartels’ coffers. But the Times says this has led to no real disruption in drug trafficking. It may take months or years to make a seizure or an arrest, while the cartels carry on undisturbed. It seems DEA and ATF are making up their own rules—and losing.

•   •   •

There’s a different border around the city of Nogales, a kind of oasis of calm amid the tension. An imposing new 20-foot iron fence and more than 800 law-enforcement personnel keep Nogales and the surrounding area safe and under control. Even so, it is not without problems: tunnels are dug under the fence since it’s a lot more difficult to go over it. Recent ones have emerged under metered parking spaces close to the border; the car above has a trap door through which drugs are lifted. Ordinarily, the tunnels are a tight, claustrophobic squeeze, but recently one was discovered that was 319 feet long, equipped with support beams, electricity, and water pumps—a home away from home.

Tunnels aside, peace extends across the border to much larger, more festive Mexican Nogales. There, in contrast to the rather subdued American side, stores open early and cheerful crowds gather in the streets. There’s no sign of hostility toward Americans. There’s talk of reviving tourism despite the dangers elsewhere, and officials on both sides of the border are pleasant and accommodating.

This used to be one city, says Tim Smith, comptroller of the upscale clothing store Bracker’s, who has lived in Nogales 27 years. Crossing the border was like crossing the street. It could be again. People appear much the same on both sides, mostly Hispanics who tend to have relatives on either side. Each morning a long line of Mexicans waits to cross the border for better paying jobs. At night they return to Mexico with its lower cost of living.

This interaction is an underrated part of border life, says Jonathan Clark, managing editor of the Nogales International newspaper. There should be less emphasis on security, he insists, more on economy. True enough, says Bruce Bracker, one of the owners of the store in his name and president of the Nogales Downtown Merchants Association. “We are physically in the United States but economically in Mexico.”

Mexicans spend a million dollars a day on goods and services in the United States, accounting for 49 percent of sales taxes in Santa Cruz County. Much of the produce consumed in the United States comes from Mexico through the port of Nogales. Mexico is now the largest importer and exporter in Latin America.

Yet that is slowing down. Responding to fears of terrorism, customs officials examine documents more closely these days. Mexican drivers wait as long as four hours to cross the border, pedestrians an hour and a half. Many more customs officials are needed to relieve the back-up. Clark says many Americans, distrustful and fearful of the border, wouldn’t understand why he wants to make it easier for Mexicans to come into the United States. But these are the Mexicans who should be coming here, he says, the more the better for both countries.

It would certainly be better for Deborah Grider, who runs the only store in the border town of Sasabe, population 11. She relies on Mexican trade, now much diminished because fewer U.S. visas are granted. The Arizona Republic ran a front-page tribute to her staying power. She serves mixed drinks inspired by the border, e.g., “El Pollero,” the smuggler. Surviving the border today requires imagination.

Despite the slowdown, some American manufactures are moving just across the border to take advantage of lower labor costs while maintaining close proximity to the U.S. market. No need to go all the way to Asia for less rapid delivery of products. Optimists say this is a way of reviving American-owned manufacturing, crime permitting.

Given the current economy, we shouldn’t be too eager to expel illegal immigrants, says criminal defense attorney Scott Donald, who handles immigrant cases in Phoenix. He says there are currently some 100,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona who, like it or not, are vital to the state economy. Under economic and political pressures, many are returning to Mexico. As a result, businesses are hurting, schools are closing, tax revenues are in decline. It’s forgotten, he says, that immigrants, whatever their status, buy products, ride trains and buses, and pay taxes.

Another border area illustrates this dilemma. Because of the unparalleled violence in Juarez, Mexicans have been fleeing in large numbers to the safety of El Paso, Texas. It’s hard to turn down people in clear danger of their lives even without proper documentation, and most of those crossing are thought to be middle-class families, professionals, and business people. There’s no question they’ve changed the look of El Paso, what a demographer calls “a binational living space.” All the discussion about amnesty for illegals may have been overtaken by events in this Texas city. Is this the future?

President Obama has proposed a two-tiered treatment for illegals. Individuals considered dangerous would be deported, while others would be permitted to stay under certain conditions. This would help relieve the huge backlog in the 59 U.S. immigration courts. But it would meet serious resistance. Says former Border Patrol Agent Ham: “If you’re here illegally, you should go back home—period.” TheNew York Times editorializes that the plan seems too vague to make much of a difference.

And then there are the drugs, whose use grows with the U.S. population. Sheriff Estrade says bluntly, “The American people create the problem.”

What to do about it? Most of the people I’ve talked to—left, right, or center—say legalize marijuana. It’s the main drug of the cartels, and legalization would take a large chunk out of their profits. To be sure, it would not put them out of business. Sylvia Longmire notes that the cartels are quite adaptable and are now stealing oil from pipelines and hawking pirated goods, as well as other drugs like cocaine and heroin. But she says certain practical steps can be taken toward legalizing marijuana, beginning with creation of an independent commission that would study the economics of the drug and how it might be produced and regulated like tobacco and alcohol.

President Obama came to office supporting medical use of marijuana, but his administration has been raiding and shutting down state-approved facilities on the grounds that federal law preempts state law. Governors from two of the 16 states that allow medical marijuana—Christine Gregoire of Washington and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island—have petitioned the federal government to let the states continue. Governor Gregoire says that legitimate patients are being made to feel like criminals when medical marijuana is taken away from them.

It’s said that in the war against drugs, the drugs have won. George Grayson writes that the United States spends an estimated $40 billion a year trying to stop the drug traffic and pursue and punish offenders. Yet less than 15 percent of illegal drugs reaching the United States are seized. “The rest feed a $200 billion a year illicit business that caters to an estimated 13 million Americans each month.”

The war, in fact, is spreading south of Mexico to Central America and north to the United States. Don’t consider Arizona’s vast southwestern desert under reliable control, says Sheriff Babeau. “We have people who are kidnapped, people who are executed. We have bodies that are dumped in our desert.”

Nothing on the scale of Mexico’s bloodshed—yet. But when will our devastated next-door neighbor become as important as Iraq and Afghanistan? “The U.S. takes Mexico for granted,” says Sheriff Estrada.  “We should help Mexico to help ourselves.” That means doing something about our unquenchable drug consumption that drives the crime in Mexico and increasingly in the United States. Either we cut back, which seems unlikely, or we stop paying the cartels for it, which can be done.