Category Archives: Border Life

Beyond the Wall: Shifting challenges on rugged Arizona line

The international border as seen from a Customs and Border Protection helicopter west of Nogales, Arizona. Photo by Mike Christy / Arizona Daily Star.

Arizona’s border with Mexico is desert, wetlands, jagged mountains and cities that depend on their neighbor to the south.

It has rivers that flow north, an Indian reservation the size of Connecticut and some of the nation’s largest and most remote wilderness areas.

About 70 percent of the state’s border is known as the Tucson Sector, which includes seven mountain ranges that reach thousands of feet high.

As Tucson Sector Border Patrol Chief Paul Beeson sees it, “Two hundred sixty-two miles might not sound like a lot, but when you get out there and you see the ruggedness, the mountain ranges, the dense brush, everything that goes on with this place — it is not a place without challenges.”

Apprehensions in the sector are the lowest they’ve been since 1991, but how many get through is unknown. Increased enforcement in the urban areas pushed traffic further into the punishing desert where there’s less fencing and the terrain itself is the international barrier.

As more fencing, agents and technology made it harder to smuggle through here, the lines dividing the human and drug trafficking businesses blurred. The Sinaloa Cartel, one of the world’s most notorious drug-trafficking rings, took control.

Residents of remote areas don’t see large groups trekking through anymore, nor loaded cars flying by. Now people cross a few at a time, often dressed in camouflage and wearing carpet booties to hide their tracks.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.

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Beyond the Wall: Border fence cuts Tohono O’odham Nation in half

Francisco Valenzuela Sr. presents his tribal identification to U.S. Border Patrol agent Carlos Ortiz, before crossing back into Mexico through the San Miguel gate on the Tohono O’odham Nation on Thursday June 2, 2016. Valenzuela says he crosses into the United States twice a week to bring water, food and other supplies back to his home. Photo by Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star

TOHONO O’ODHAM NATION — Steel barriers line most of the 75 miles of the Tohono O’odham Nation’s southern boundary. But a wall?

“Over my dead body,” says Verlon Jose, the nation’s vice chairman.

“We have animals that migrate back and forth, and when you start affecting one animal, it’s going to change the entire ecological system,” says Tribal Chairman Edward Manuel. “The plants that grow here rely on some of those animals, the animals rely on each other and we have to rely on all those in order to survive in our way of life.”

Besides, “artificial barriers are never going to stop human trafficking, they’ll find a way to get through,” he adds. What he hopes is that the government comes up with comprehensive immigration reform.

Over the years, the reservation has been caught in the middle of illegal trafficking and enforcement.

The reservation, roughly the size of Connecticut, is sparsely populated with about 30,000 members and thick vegetation of tall saguaros, mesquite trees and creosote.

Before the fence, dozens of loaded trucks used to barrel through daily on their way north.

Then came 9/11, followed by the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which aimed to add barriers along most of the border. The three-strand, barbed-wire fence was replaced by waist-high metal posts.

“We are older than the international boundary with Mexico and had no role in creating the border,” former Chairman Ned Norris Jr. testified before Congress in 2008. “But our land is now cut in half, with O’odham communities, sacred sites, salt pilgrimage routes and families divided.”

The traffic, the cartels and the hundreds of agents and technology that followed have changed the O’odham way of life.

Some members stopped crossing the border to avoid the hassle. Trips to ceremonies in Mexico got longer. Tribal members can’t hunt without running into a Border Patrol agent.

Apprehensions are down, but the western corridor is still busy, especially for drugs. Besides, how many get through is unknown.

Now, a plan for 15 surveillance towers within the Chukut Kuk and Gu-Vo border districts is underway.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.

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Beyond the Wall: Why we don’t need Trump’s ‘great, great wall’


This spring, with Donald Trump’s “build the wall” message resonating so powerfully that he became the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, I was part of a team of Daily Star reporters that visited the southern border states. Our goal was to go beyond the political rhetoric and talk with people who live and work along the international line.

Check out the project at the Arizona Daily Star


Specter of cartel-made opioid rears head in Arizona

Reuven Shorr with a photo of himself and his younger brother Ezra as kids in Tucson. Ezra died of a mixed-drug overdose, which included fentanyl, in November 2014. Photo by Ron Medvescek/Arizona Daily Star.

A strong synthetic opioid made by the Sinaloa cartel is increasingly making its way through Arizona, and officials fear a rise in drug-related deaths will follow.

The strongest opioid available in medical treatment, pharmaceutical fentanyl, is used to treat severe pain and is usually administered through a patch. The euphoria-inducing drug is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and up to 100 times more potent than morphine.

Over the last couple of years, more than 700 people have died of fentanyl abuse in the United States, but the real number is likely higher because many state labs and coroner’s offices do not routinely test for fentanyl. Most deaths are attributed to the illegally manufactured version of the drug.

Since 2015, law enforcement agencies in Arizona have made at least five seizures of fentanyl — ranging from 4 ounces to 16 pounds — found inside stash houses and vehicles.

There are about 500,000 potential lethal doses of fentanyl in about 2 pounds, the Drug Enforcement Administration calculates. The equivalent to three grains of salt can be lethal to someone with a low tolerance.

“Fentanyl can put people to sleep to the point they can stop breathing,” said Greg Hess, chief medical examiner in Pima County. “Because fentanyl is more potent, the window or margin of error might be less for someone not as experienced.”

Only a small amount is needed of the illegal powder fentanyl cartels make to mix with heroin to make it stronger. Nationwide, persons dying from fentanyl are mostly heroin users exposed to fentanyl without knowing it.

There is no state data on fentanyl-related deaths, but the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner reported an increase from seven overdose deaths where fentanyl was listed as a contributing factor in 2014 to 17 last year.

“But what it means in the larger scheme of things, I don’t know,” said Hess.

The numbers include all overdose cases from Cochise, Santa Cruz and Pinal counties and additional cases from eight other counties.

During this time, there were only two deaths where combined heroin and fentanyl toxicity was listed as the cause of death. Medical examiners can’t distinguish between the pharmaceutical fentanyl and the illegally manufactured fentanyl smuggled through the U.S.-Mexico border.

But as the seizures continue, officials said it’s only a matter of time before the potentially deadly fentanyl-laced heroin makes its way here.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.

Big birthday gift for Palestinian seeking asylum in Tucson

Mounis Hammouda, center, a Palestinian from Gaza seeking asylum, celebrates his 30th birthday in Tucson with friends. Photo by Perla Trevizo/Arizona Daily Star.

One of two Palestinians seeking asylum celebrated his 30th birthday this week in Tucson after being released from an immigration center 80 miles north of Tucson.

Mounis Hammouda presented himself at the port of entry in Nogales in November 2014 and asked for refuge. He was detained at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement center in Florence while his case was processed.

Hammouda was released earlier this month, after members of the University of Arizona Students for Justice in Palestine chapter helped raise the $9,000 he needed to pay for his bond. He now lives with one of them close to the UA campus while he awaits his work permit.

“I feel optimistic,” Hammouda said recently as he celebrated his birthday with a new group of friends. “I hope I now continue my life, have a good job, go to school. I hope in future I continue my university, learn English, get married and have my family.”

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.

Tucson-area Cubans share thoughts on Obama visit

Arnaldo Mendez, Sr., right, and his son Arnaldo Mendez Jr. own a service station. The Mendez family fled Cuba in 1962. Photo by Mike Christy/Arizona Daily Star.

This week, President Obama plans a historic trip to Cuba, where he will meet with Cuban President Raúl Castro as well as with entrepreneurs and other residents from various walks of life.

Obama will be the first sitting U.S. president to visit the island in 88 years. Over the last year, he has worked to loosen restrictions on travel and commerce and has removed Cuba from a list of nations that support terrorism. Both governments have reopened embassies in Washington and Havana.

The Arizona Daily Star spoke with local Cubans about what all this change — including Obama’s visit — means to them.

Continue reading at the Arizona Daily Star.

Arivaca, a ‘live and let live,’ kind of town

ARIVACA — This tiny town about 11 miles from the border has become the face of growing frustration toward interior border immigration enforcement and checkpoints.

But when you get a group of independent-minded people in a close-knit community, nothing is simple.

Founded in the 1800s, Arivaca has been a haven for miners, ranchers, hippies, smuggler, addicts and retirees. In the past 20 years, people and drug smuggling has spiked.

That led to more Border Patrol agents, surveillance towers and checkpoints, which have come to symbolize concerns about civil rights violations and loss of privacy, the deaths of border crossers and the effectiveness of the Border Patrol.

For the last three years, a local group with outside support has called attention to the checkpoint in nearby Amado where vehicles have to stop as Border Patrol agents ask about occupants’ citizenship. Opponents monitor the checkpoint and pass petitions, all in an effort to shut it down.

Regardless of whether they are for or against it, at the end of the day it’s a “live and let live” kind of town, residents say.

“This is Arivaca, we all have different ideas,” said Jim Chilton, a fifth-generation Arizona cattleman, “we respect people with different perspectives, that doesn’t make them not our friends.”

Continue reading through Atavist.