We were invited to participate in the Teaching Border Reporting workshop hosted by the Dart Center For Journalism and Trauma out of the University of Washington being held in Tucson. We thought it a good idea to go down a bit early to catch a few interviews we need.
We got a late start on Wednesday, so we didn't arrive in Silver City, where we stayed with my brother Barry, until about 8 p.m. It was Richard's birthday and we wanted to have a nice dinner, but small towns being what they are, we ended up at Pizza Hut. It was either very good or we were very hungry.
We had a nice visit with Barry and were on the road to Lordsburg, NM, relatively early Thursday morning. Since University Communication & Marketing and Communication & Journalism both see the value in connecting with local media, we visited the Hidalgo County Herald, the local paper. The writer, editor, photographer, ad salesperson and designer, Brenda Hood, was very helpful. We had a meeting scheduled with Sue Krentz, widow of rancher Rob Krentz, who was killed in March of this year, purportedly by undocumented immigrants. Unfortunately, Sue was hit by a car last weekend and was in the hospital in Tucson. Hood suggested we speak with Sheila Massey, who owns a farm near Animas.
We went to visit with the Border Patrol, hoping to get an officer willing to talk. We found a great guy who would have been a great interview we think, John Hackworth, who has 22 years of experience in the region. He was unable to speak to us without approval from the public information officer out of the El Paso sector for Homeland Security. That officer, Valeria Morales, proved to be singularly unhelpful and unyielding in our request to interview someone in Lordsburg. She insisted that the interview had to be with someone in El Paso despite the experience that existed right in front of us. Richard spoke to another officer, Ramiro Cordero, and we're still hoping something might pan out there.
We went into the local convenience store which has been in the same family's hands for more than 100 years. Most of the people in the area speak Spanish. We heard about Border Patrol officers on ATVs, SUVs and horses. We heard of marijuana dropped on property either because someone left it behind in a chase or it was left as a drop off. We heard of increasing numbers of breaking/entering and burglaries. We learned that most in the region are opposed to immigration because of the "nuisance," gun trafficking and crime.
One local also told us about jumping cholla - a cactus that, if touched, forces one to pull back from the plant. It responds much like a porcupine, sending spines into the victim. It is one of the many dangers he told us the desert holds.
He told us how he used to go hunting south of Tucson, near Sasabe, Sonora, Mexico. "You can't hunt there anymore because of the threat of throngs of migrants, and the coyotes armed with AK47s," he said. Plus, he said, "they steal everything from your campsite."
From there, we headed toward Douglas, Ariz., and a scheduled interview with Sheriff Alberto Melis. On the way, we stopped to check out a monument to Geronimo near Apache, NM, then passed through Rodeo, NM, the "Ground Zero" for the Land of Enchantment's border enforcement.
A realtor told us that besides the recession hurting business, ranches in New Mexico's Hidalgo County and Arizona's Cochise County remain unsold because people who considered purchasing them have been run off after learning about what happened to Rob Krentz and to another couple who were tied off. People who operate chile, alfalfa and cattle farms and ranches in remote places are not easily scared.
Douglas was a nicer town than either of us anticipated. It has a mining history and some interesting landmarks, particularly Hotel Gadsen.
We had lunch there. The hotel features Tiffany stained glass windows, a beautiful old check in desk, desk in the restaurant and a long soda counter that had me spiraling back in time. The building still has old phone booths and an elevator that cries out for an attendant in a buttoned jacket and hat. We enjoyed our lunch there and then headed toward the Douglas police department.
Melis's office is in a renovated railroad depot building. It is an amazing edifice with a large circular opening in the entryway and beautiful stained glass in the center. Old chairs, heating apparatuses and more provide a feast for the eyes.
Melis is a big guy, who came from Cuba at 11 years of age in 1960. He got bachelor's and master's degrees in criminal justice in Miami and then worked extensively in Florida and Waco before, in 2007, going after the experience of being chief to 37 officers in an area crawling with Border Patrol and other federal law enforcement officers.
"Walls don't work," Melis said, saying he got the words from General Santa Anna. And yet, he said, we need to secure the border. "We see the downside to open borders in the EU."
With regard to narcotics trafficking, he said that there are those who represent both spectra, from decriminalization to the death penalty. The other dichotomy is a need for works against the illegal arrival of immigrants.
Hidalgo County in southwestern New Mexico features a "significant boundary obstacle in the Peloncillo Mountains," despite the Animas pass, he said.
With regard to his own jurisdiction, Melis said that the number of "UDAs," or undocumented aliens, is down. "Crime is down, but Douglas isn't a destination," he said, noting the lack of employment opportunities in the town. He added, "You can't go down a city block without seeing some kind of enforcement from ICE
The economy soured in the 1980s when the copper mine in nearby Bisbee closed. "The smelter was in Douglas," he said.
Although I haven't had a chance to ask him, I'm sure Chief Melis wasn't surprised by the news of the tunnel being filled with concrete in Nogales. "There are 175 tunnels in Nogales," he told us. The area is rife with "drive thrus" of marijuana. "We've even seen a scuba diver who took drugs through the sewer," he said.
Melis knows that the federal money coming in is good for the Douglas economy, but he sees his primary responsibility to the people of Douglas. "We work overtime with those engaged in combating drug trafficking," he said.
Drug dealers force migrants into serving as drug mules, he said. "They guarantee them free passage if they carry a big package across. They get paid well, but often it's the only way they can get here." It's not an easy journey. Melis said they have a saying that "everything in the desert stinks, sticks, scratches or bites you." I'm still freaking out from thinking about jumping cholla.
Ranchers, he said, find people dead and alive on their land. There is a fear among the ranchers after criminal incidents, but not all migrants pose a threat or wish to take advantage of the residents. Melis told the story of a rancher who was out riding the range on his 20,000 acre ranch on a four-wheeler. "He came home to find people waiting on his porch to ask permission to drink the water from the horse trough," he said. Often the ranchers give aid - give food and water to people in need.
Melis reminded us that our New Mexico driver licenses are not considered valid ID because New Mexico provides undocumented persons with driver licenses. "It doesn't show the holder to have legal status," he said.
The sheriff said that Douglas is the "Baghdad of the West," because of the prevalence of "OTMs." "That's 'Other than Mexicans,'" he said. People from Fiji, Yemen, as well as Hondurans, Guatemalans, Paraguayans and others come across the border, he said.
We then went to visit Oscar de la Torres, Mexican consul, who mostly had one thing to say, "Migrants move to make money to support their families or to reunite with family members."
He questioned the "cleanliness" of US Border Patrol and ICE agents. He said he knew of only two cases where Mexican migrants claimed to be abused at the hands of Mexican officials, but he was aware of 200 cases where migrants pointed to U.S. officials as perpetrators of offenses. We find no credence in this statement since we've heard the exact opposite from vast numbers of migrants. Arturo Lopez Duran, our third CBIG co-founder, would be proud of us for picking up on the spin.
He said one thing that we've been saying, "The wall, and other measures taken to stop immigration only promote coyotes and allow them to raise their prices. "In 2001, they charged $500. Now immigrants are paying thousands of dollars," de la Torres said.
With regard to drug traffic, we agreed with him that the U.S. has responsibility in that it provides the market for the drugs. "The same holds true with labor. The U.S. has employers and Mexico has laborers." he said.
From there, we made a hasty retreat out of town because we had a drive from Douglas/Agua Prieta west across northern Mexico to Altar, Sonora. More on that to come!