A new security safe is the most potent symbol of Louie and Susan Pope's life today. It cost $750, and when the couple goes for an after-supper walk, or on a dawn horseback ride in the Chiricahua Mountains, they load it up with household valuables.
Susan puts her purse inside, as well as jewelry, small electronics and handguns. Even though they live about 30 miles north of the border, the Popes can no longer lock their doors, take off and trust that their possessions will be there when they return.
It's one of the indignities suffered by residents north and east of Douglas along the Chiricahua Corridor. (See "The Chiricahua Corridor," Sept. 11, 2008.) Beginning in the winter and continuing through June, residents on the Arizona and New Mexico sides of this heavily trafficked smuggling route have experienced a surge of home break-ins by cross-border smugglers.
The tiny bird-watching town of Portal, on the east slope of the Chiricahuas, has become a major hub within the corridor. A watchful resident estimates that there have been about 100 burglaries around town in the past five years. But hard numbers are difficult to acquire, in part because many residents don't report incidents for fear of losing their insurance. The situation has created a tinderbox of emotion in this part of rural southeast Arizona.
The Popes feel the impact throughout their lives, not just at home. Susan works as a bus driver and teacher at the Apache Elementary School, a one-room schoolhouse with a teacherage beside it. It sits on Highway 80, 35 miles north of Douglas, and serves six students. Since 2005, these structures have been broken into seven times, all when the kids and the two employees have been gone.
The glass windows have been busted out so often, they've been replaced with Plexiglas. All the valuables once kept there—like a camera and a DVD player—have been stolen. In 2007, officials built a fence around the school, but the thieves jump it. An alarm was installed in June this year—costing $500, plus $60 a month—but the school keeps getting hit.
"Sometimes I don't know whether to laugh or cry," says Susan. "Americans shouldn't have to live like this."
As for the Popes' new safe, they bought it after a March 17 break-in at their home near Portal. For safety reasons, the Tucson Weekly will not name the canyon in which the Popes live. They also declined to be photographed.
The home burglary was the Popes' third, which, in this area, almost makes them sweepstakes winners. A close neighbor claims to have been hit 17 times, with the last burglar leaving a spray of blood over the home's interior when the thief sliced an artery after breaking a window.
Many of these crimes are committed by what locals call south-bounders—drug mules and coyotes who run loads up to Portal, 46 miles above the border, then turn around and head back to Mexico. The number of south-bounders has skyrocketed as drug-smuggling has increased. They're a dangerous breed—young, often gang members, sometimes desperate for food, and on the hunt for whatever they can steal to convert to quick cash.
Due to vast distances and law-enforcement response times that can range up to two hours or longer, these thieves often get away.
But they didn't in the Pope break-in. The coyotes responsible were caught and prosecuted. Louie and Susan—who grew up in the area, raised their kids there and wouldn't dream of living elsewhere—agreed to talk about the episode in hopes that something will change. It's a brave decision. But they're fighting for something they cherish—their way of life.
The story they tell opens a window on the world of alien- and drug-smuggling, and the criminals who operate within it. It also shines a light on a system that fails citizens in multiple ways, the most maddening being the number of times these crooks are set free to strike again.
The Weekly has learned that prior to the Pope burglaries, the two men responsible had been released by law enforcement and the courts at least 35 times between the two of them.
"The people are gut full of this," says Louie, an unpretentious retiree whose manner and straw cowboy hat speak to the years he's spent working on ranches, as well as for the U.S. Forest Service in southeast Arizona. "It isn't mainly workers anymore. It's dopers and bandits, and we're seeing a lot more weapons. I really expect to get death threats from this, but we have the opportunity to tell an important story about what's happening out here, and we need to do it before something bad happens."
Louie and Susan discovered the March 17 burglary at about 8:40 a.m. when they returned from their horse corrals. The thieves came in through a bedroom window. They stole $100 from Susan's wallet, two sets of Bushnell binoculars, an MP3 player, a cell phone, some jewelry and coins, and they ate food from the refrigerator. Total loss: $700.
But the thieves also broke into the Popes' new Dodge pickup, which the couple had brought home three days before. They busted the door handle with a screw driver and tore apart the steering column trying to steal it, doing $3,000 in damage.
"If they'd just waited, we would've fed and watered 'em," says Louie. But now he was mad and wanted his stuff back. Louie, who probably knows the Chiricahua range better than any man alive, grabbed his 30-power Bausch and Lomb spotting scope, used for hunting, and hurried to a nearby mountaintop.
"This mountain is the closest place I could get altitude and start glassing," says Louie. "After an hour, I saw them walking near the mouth of Horseshoe Canyon." He radioed the location to sheriff's deputies and Border Patrol. It was just before noon.
One of the thieves, later identified as Luis Arturo Ventura Chico, from Agua Prieta, Sonora, across from Douglas, gave up quickly. The second was 26-year-old Saul Martinez Morales, also from Agua Prieta. He's nicknamed Chango—in English, monkey—and he showed why: He bolted straight up the mountainside and kept running, easily outpacing Border Patrol agents, who later returned empty-handed and completely drained.
"This guy Chango was like a man from hell," says Louie. "He went clear over the top of that mountain in less than 15 minutes, through some hellacious country."
Later, at 4:30 p.m., Louie reached a second vantage point, a mile south of Horseshoe on Sunrise Road, overlooking the entire San Bernardino Valley. Within 15 minutes, he spotted Chango again. The goal of Border Patrol and sheriff's deputies was to get ahead of him. "But it was hard, because this guy was moving so fast," says Louie. He sat atop Sunrise until dark watching Chango make his mad dash to the border, fearing he might get away.
But pursuers caught a break at 8:30 a.m. on March 18.
About 10 miles south of Horseshoe, two cowboys out checking waters spotted a man running south along a dirt road. Thinking he was trying to go for help, they approached and asked what he needed. But the man wasn't in the mood to chat. He said he was headed to Mexico and kept moving swiftly south.
The cowboys rode back to ranch headquarters, still unaware of the break-in at the Popes and the manhunt for Chango. But a ranch employee—the wife of Louie's brother-in-law—filled them in on the excitement, and the cowboys, who still hadn't unsaddled, rode back out to see if the man fit Chango's description. He did.
This time, the cowboys stayed with him as Border Patrol closed in. It wasn't quite a chase, but the cowboys weren't going to let him out of their sight. Chango ran through brush and along roads, moving so swiftly that the cowboys had to trot their horses to keep up. When he was on roads, the cowboys trotted alongside him, one on each shoulder.
Twice, Chango darted at the horses to scare them, and he jabbered at the cowboys most of the way, cussing, threatening and pleading with them to go away. He kept saying to the older cowboy, "Come on, man, let me go back. Go take care of your cows." At one point, Chango jumped a barbed-wire fence, turned and taunted the cowboys, saying, "Bad luck for you. I'm behind a fence." One of the cowboys pulled wire cutters from his jacket, held them up and said, "Bad luck for you. I'm cutting the fence."
This went on for six miles. Chango got within a mile of the border near Geronimo Trail east of Douglas, and the Border Patrol arrested him there about noon. He'd traveled 25 miles in 28 hours, yet, as the cowboys said, he was barely winded. But they did see him pick up a discarded water bottle, with murky, brownish water inside, bring it to his lips and chug it.
"He reached down," said one cowboy, "grabbed it without breaking stride, chug-a-lug, and the water came running out of both sides of his mouth. He made a face like it didn't taste too good and threw the bottle down. He had to have a thirst on."
At their request, the Weekly is withholding cowboys' identities and the name of their ranch.
But Chango still had the energy for one more getaway. While being hauled to jail in a Border Patrol truck through downtown Douglas, he reached out a rear window, grabbed the outside door handle, jumped out and raced toward the Mexican line. He sprinted 16 blocks and was close to hopping the border fence when agents nabbed him, Pope said.
But the crimes these men committed didn't have to happen in the first place. They should've been in jail already.
The Weekly has learned that at the time of the Pope break-in, Chico had three prior arrests for alien-smuggling—on June 8 and July 22, 2008, and on Jan. 2, 2009, according to a law-enforcement source. All took place around Douglas, and each time, instead of being prosecuted, Border Patrol pushed him back into Mexico.
It's called voluntary removal, and it's a sweet deal for crooks—but lousy for American citizens.
When Border Patrol arrests an alien near the border, they take their name and fingerprints and run them through computers. If the individual can't be linked to a current crime—other than illegal entry, a federal misdemeanor—and if he isn't wanted for a serious past crime, he gets a sandwich and a free trip back to Mexico. Illegals taken into custody in most areas around Douglas get up to 12 arrests before they're charged with entry without inspection. If, on the 13th arrest, they're taken before a judge and found guilty, they're formally deported. If caught entering the country after a formal deportation, they're charged with a felony.
The system, which Border Patrol is working to change, creates a revolving door in which agents arrest the same people again and again, often on the same day. According to agency spokesman Mike Scioli, of the roughly 317,000 aliens arrested in the Tucson Sector last year, 17 percent were prosecuted—and that's actually a big number, considering the amount of resources it takes to prosecute a single case.
Of the 83 percent not prosecuted, some were put through one of the alternative programs the Border Patrol has established to cut the number of voluntary removals. The majority, however, were pushed back into Mexico. "We can't prosecute them all," says Scioli. "Due to the influx of traffic here, the court system really can't handle that load."
But how could a coyote win release three times for alien smuggling, a felony? Scioli declined to comment, saying the matter is "too sensitive" to discuss. "It would actually be illegal for me to talk about it," he said.
Sandy Raynor, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona, also declined to discuss individual cases.
Retired agent Zack Taylor, a former supervisor of Border Patrol's prosecutions unit, says it's not that unusual for coyotes to be set free, and there could be multiple reasons—the Border Patrol being unable to arrange transport and arraignment within the required time limit, the unwillingness of swamped U.S. attorneys to take what can be viewed as low-priority cases, and a lack of detention space.
"Some days, I'd go to muster at 6 a.m. and see a message from U.S. Marshals or Tucson detention that they had no bed space and weren't taking any prosecutions," says Taylor. "So you catch a guy, do the paperwork, document him as a smuggler and walk him out the front door back to Mexico."
Taylor said he sometimes got three or four good, prosecutable cases in a day, even criminal cases, and had to turn them loose. Often it had to do with what the system could handle. "Sometimes, you had to weigh which case was most important and cut the least important because of the amount of paperwork involved and other factors," says Taylor.
But think of the damage a crook can do with 12 arrests—that's at least 12 chances to sneak into the United States to break into houses, steal trucks, run drugs and people, wreck property, frighten citizens, set forest fires and foul the landscape with trash.
In a post-arrest interview with Cochise County sheriff's deputies, Chico admitted to the Pope burglary and said he and Chango had been leading a group of 14 illegals toward Portal, and ultimately Phoenix, when the Border Patrol jumped them. He said he was paid $900 to help lead the group.
And he went further, saying he'd previously led 15 to 20 groups north—again, all felonies. The shoes he wore bore the sign of a practiced smuggler; they were several sizes too large, a common tactic to throw off trackers. Asked where he got them, Chico said: "Well, I bought these shoes from a gang member in Agua Prieta for 250 pesos."
When the deputy asked Chico how many times he'd committed burglary, he seemed insulted, saying, "I'm not a burglar. I'm a coyote. But this is my first time."
We know by these arrests that Chico had been in custody at least three times. But the number rises to four if we count the traffic ticket he received from Douglas cops in early June 2008, according to court records. He was cited for speeding, having no license, no ID, no registration and no insurance, strong indicators he was in the country illegally. He could've been arrested for not having ID and the likelihood he'd abscond without paying his fines, but Douglas police couldn't confirm for the Weekly whether or not that occurred.
It's likely Douglas handed him to Border Patrol and Chico got his first voluntary removal.
Needless to say, his traffic fines have gone unpaid.
But Saul Martinez Morales, the man known as Chango, makes Chico look like a rank amateur. While in custody in Maricopa County in 2007, he told authorities he'd been arrested and voluntarily removed from the United States an astounding 27 times.
The Weekly has also learned, through law-enforcement sources, that Chango had been formally deported on June 29, 2007. Later that same day, he was arrested again for transporting aliens back into the country. In Chico's police interview, when asked what Chango did for a living, Chico said: "He smokes marijuana, but mainly he smuggles illegal aliens."
Information gleaned from court papers state that Chango is a longtime drug and alcohol abuser. He told authorities he began drinking at age 8, and has been smoking marijuana daily and snorting coke monthly since he was 14. But he said he had recently quit booze and coke.
At the time of these statements, made to Maricopa County authorities in August 2007, he'd been living illegally in Phoenix for 10 years, but he'd recently been laid off from a $500-a-week construction job. He has a long criminal past. In Phoenix on June 6, 2007, police spotted Chango driving slowly past a known drug house. After he made an illegal lane change, police confronted him at a Circle K and tried to arrest him for not having an ID.
But Chango bolted as he was being cuffed, starting a wild chase down alleys, through backyards and over fences, according to police reports. When pursuing cops approached him, he tried to force his way into a private home by pushing on the front door, as the terrified homeowner pushed back from inside. Even though surrounded by cops, Chango wouldn't submit until they used a Taser on him.
He was booked for two felonies—escape and criminal trespass—and then released on his own recognizance. When the inevitable happened and he failed to appear in court on June 21, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
After that June 29 arrest for alien smuggling—which, following a formal deportation, should've resulted in a felony charge—Chango must've been released again, because the following month, he was back in Phoenix leading police on another chase.
It happened July 21. He was driving a stolen Ford F-250 pickup when a cruiser pulled in behind him, and before police even turned on their lights, he jumped out and ran. Chango hid under a parked car and resisted commands to come out; this time, police had to use pepper spray to subdue him. He was booked for auto theft, another felony.
Prosecutors combined these cases, and on Aug. 10, Chango pleaded guilty to criminal trespass and one count of felony theft. He got three months in county jail and 18 months of probation. He was ordered to pay $1,995 to the owner of the pickup for damages he caused and reimburse the owner's insurance company for more than $9,000.
But Chango wasn't done yet. On Oct. 18, 2007, while still in jail, he was hit with a money-laundering charge dating to June 2003. According to the Arizona Attorney General's Office, he used an alias and a fake Social Security number to obtain $9,400 in Western Union transfers. State investigators suspected he was moving far larger sums as part of people- and drug-smuggling operations.
Given the time that had passed and other factors, the state didn't have enough evidence to charge him with those crimes. This time, Chango pleaded guilty to a single felony count of money laundering. In February 2008, he was sentenced to four months in Maricopa County jail and three years of probation. He was ordered to pay $9,400 to the Attorney General's anti-racketeering fund.
In his sentencing report, Assistant AG Todd Lawson wrote that probation was appropriate, because this was Martinez Morales' "first state-level offense." Knowing Chango would be deported to Mexico after his jail term, Lawson insisted on three years of probation, the maximum allowable, to deter him from again entering the country. If caught re-entering within that time, he faced potential prison for the probation violation. "The state's sincere hope," wrote Lawson, "is that the result of this sentence is that the defendant does not return to the United States."
Not a chance. Not only was Chango released without reimbursing the owner of the truck in the felony theft, without reimbursing the insurance company, and without paying his state fine for money laundering; he went right back to his old line of work, smuggling—which is how he wound up at the Popes' bedroom window.
Like Chico, Chango did a lot of talking to a Cochise County deputy after his arrest. He admitted to the break-ins, described how they were done and even talked about the sandwich he stole from the Pope's refrigerator. "It was bacon and cheese, and it tasted all right," he said. Chango also said he found a yellow wallet belonging to the Popes and was asked if he took money from it. He replied: "Well, if there was any money in it, I would have taken it, too. I only had $33 on me."
Chango also said that months before he broke into the Pope's truck and home, he also burglarized the Apache School. He did $200 damage and stole a number of food items, including sugar cubes, because "he'd never seen sugar in cube form before." After this admission, and after all of his other arrests, charges and probations, Chango made a startling remark that speaks volumes about his lack of fear of our laws: "I hope all this doesn't hurt me. I just want to be sent back to Mexico."
This time, he didn't get his wish. Last Friday, Sept. 11, in Superior Court in Bisbee, he pleaded guilty to the Pope burglaries and was sentenced to six years in prison, with a requirement to serve 85 percent of it. With his history, Martinez Morales faced 11 to 20 years, but Deputy County Attorney Gregory Johnson made a deal, saying he didn't want to "risk taking the case to trial and seeing a jury set him free."
The Popes were pleased with the result.
In the Chico case, however, the Popes are fuming mad. Right now, he is back in Mexico after claiming to be 17 years old, thereby winning a favorable sentence in juvenile court in Sierra Vista.
But there's reason to suspect Chico lied about his age.
After his arrest, law enforcement began processing Chico to send him to the Cochise County jail in Bisbee, meaning they thought he was an adult. Adults go to the Cochise County Jail, while juveniles go to the Juvenile Detention Center in Sierra Vista. But the destination changed when Chico suddenly claimed to be a juvenile. To settle the matter, a call was made to his mother in Agua Prieta, and she gave his birthdate as Dec. 11, 1991, which would make him 17—and off to juvenile he went.
But Chico has a habit of being confused about when he was born. In each of his three prior arrests for alien smuggling, he gave different birthdates. Sources say he used Dec. 11 all three times, but the year changed, from 1988 to 1989 to 1991.
The options available to judges dealing with juvenile defendants from Mexico are narrow, at best. The defendants can either be sent to juvenile prison here, or turn-styled back to Mexico. But the latter effectively means no punishment, because the juvenile is then beyond the court's supervision.
At a hearing in Sierra Vista on April 28, Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Ann Littrell said she wouldn't send Chico to juvenile prison, fearing the impact that contact with such a population might have on him. But she wanted to hold him for a time in the local juvenile jail, during which he could earn money in a work program and repay the Popes. Littrell initially considered a 30-day sentence. She upped it to 60 in response to complaints by the Popes and 15 frustrated citizens of Cochise County who attended the hearing.
When she issued the sentence, however, Littrell was unaware of Chico's prior arrest record and his use of multiple birthdates. While he was still in custody, the Weekly informed Littrell of these facts and asked if they merited re-opening the case, perhaps to obtain better evidence of his birthdate. After all, if Chico is an adult, the judge had no jurisdiction in the case.
"It's not something I'm going to pursue," said Littrell. "Luckily, judges don't have to go out and enforce the law." Based on the call to his mother and Chico swearing in court to being 17, Littrell expressed confidence the court had the correct date—and she might be right. But the odds aren't good. Chico had three shots to give law enforcement his correct birthdate, and we know he lied at least twice, maybe all three times.
After serving 60 days, Chico was sent back to Agua Prieta, but probably not to his mother's home. According to court documents, the mother told juvenile-court authorities that her son was living with his girlfriend, a 35-year-old woman, and the mother didn't approve of the relationship and didn't want her son returning home.
Those 15 citizens of Cochise County left the courtroom in agreement that 60 days is better than 30, but still not enough. They were also certain Chico won't be deterred by his probation terms. One requires him to notify his probation officer within 30 minutes of entering the United States. When Littrell read that aloud, a disgusted grumble passed through the gallery as they imagined Chico, the veteran coyote, leading yet another group, stopping just over the U.S. line and saying: "Would you folks mind waiting a sec? I'm supposed to call my probation officer."
Another probation requirement was for Chico to write a letter of apology to the Popes. He never did. Another was to repay the Popes $750 from his jail work. He didn't do that, either—until the Weekly notified Littrell of that fact on Aug. 4, weeks after his release. Within two days, the Popes got a check for $453. But they're still short $297.
It gets worse. After the sentencing, Louie talked with Chico's probation officer about setting up a meeting with Chico. Louie wanted to ask where he ditched the Popes' binoculars, cell phone and jewelry so he could try to find them. The probation officer told Louie he was busy and asked Louie to get back to him. Louie later left a message with the probation officer to set up a meeting, but he never called. Rather than keep trying, Louie dropped the matter in frustration. "I didn't push it too hard. But it's the point of the thing, not the money," he says. "Don't just blow me off."
"I'm mad," says Susan. "The court did not hold Chico accountable."
As for the Popes' response to the news of 35 releases, Louie says, "It just blows us away. But at the same time, we're not surprised." For years, he and Susan have watched local, county and federal agencies try to cope with the border crisis, rarely communicate with each other, and mostly flail around against these smart and fast-moving criminal operations. And Louie doesn't believe his family's nightmare is over.
Chango is gone for several years—and that's a good breather. But there are many others to take his place, and they'll continue making life a misery for residents of the Chiricahua Corridor. The Popes count Chico among them. "I'm sure he'll be back leading groups past our house again, if he hasn't already," says Louie. "The best thing for him would've been to sit in jail for a long time to think about what he did."
But these cross-border criminals have learned not to fear the system; it doesn't deter. The result is a kind of Groundhog Day in which the same bad guys keep committing the same crimes. This has created a corrosive cynicism among law enforcement, who often see the men they arrest turned loose, and among overwhelmed prosecutors, who lack the money and time to take cases to court.
In the middle stand citizens just trying to live their lives in a 21st century frontier.
Cochise County Attorney Ed Rheinheimer says he understands the severity of the situation, especially in Portal, and admits law enforcement is playing catch-up there. But he says his office is trying to respond. "If we can aggressively prosecute a few of these cases, we might be able to deter some of this and accomplish something for the people of Portal," says Rheinheimer. "We know they've been suffering."
That response stems from work done by people like the Popes and others who don't wish to be named. They've met with Cochise County officials, the Border Patrol and the U.S. Attorney's Office to describe the siege conditions under which they live and agitate for help in the fight to win back their way of life.
The effort has paid dividends. Louie says the Cochise County Sheriff's Office and Border Patrol have cracked down the past two months, easing the scary wave of break-ins that occurred during the winter and early summer. But calm on this border is usually just calm before another storm.
"Law enforcement has proven that if they keep a presence here, they can shut down a lot of this stuff," says Louie. "But if it gets slow, and they pull out, the trouble will come right back again."
From February through the end of June, residents of the Chiricahua Corridor suffered through break-ins and drug incidents with regularity. The Weekly has compiled a list of incidents, but it is partial. From the start of this year through May, for instance, Bill Wilbur had nine break-ins at his rental house, but only one is listed here. Other victims are not named to protect the privacy of an already nervous population:
Feb. 27: Attempted break-in at a residence 5 miles south of Portal. Alarm drives off thieves.
Feb 27: Break-in at Apache Elementary School. Digital camera and food stolen. Saul Martinez Morales pleads guilty.
March 17: Break-in at the Popes' house near Portal. Stolen items and truck damage almost $4,000. Martinez Morales pleads guilty.
April 30: Thirteenth break-in at ranch east of Arizona line in Peloncillo Mountains. $750 worth of tools stolen.
May 3: Break-in at Wilbur's rental east of Portal, near New Mexico state line. Thieves are so hungry that they try to boil birdseed in a pot on a stove to make it edible. Nine men are arrested, several carrying marijuana backpacks.
May 3: Break-in at Apache Elementary School. Administrators vow to install alarm system. Damage: $100.
May 5: Break-in at residence in Apache, near Geronimo Surrender Monument. Burglars leave freezer door open; all food spoils.
May 6: Break-in at residence on Rock Springs Road, just off Highway 80. Food stolen.
May 8: Break-in at residence off Sulphur Canyon Road south of Portal. Thieves steal two automatic pistols.
May 15: Attempted break-in at a ranch in Rucker Canyon. A rancher sitting on a toilet sees men staring in a window at him.
May 15: Eighth break-in at cabin in Rucker. Nothing left to steal.
May 18: Break-in at teacherage next to Apache Elementary School. Nothing left to steal. Damage: $138.
May 18: Break-in at residence at mouth of Horseshoe Canyon near Highway 80. Thieves kick in front door, steal clothes, and food.
May 27: Break-in at residence on Sunrise Road, 10 miles south of Horseshoe Canyon.
May 28: Break-in at residence east of Horseshoe Canyon. $800 in cash stolen. Thieves leave filthy clothes piled on floor.
June 9: Commercial trailer found parked 100 yards from Apache Elementary School on Highway 80. Inside, Border Patrol finds 2,000 pounds of marijuana. Value: $1.7 million.
June 18: Break-in at Apache Elementary School. Nothing left to steal. Damage: $100.
June 19: Break-in at residence on Sanford Hill, 4 miles south of Portal.
June 22: Four drug mules arrested at Stateline Road.
June 24: Homeowner off Sulphur Canyon Road south of Portal sees six drug mules walking near his house. Law enforcement arrives. Five captured.
June 30: Break-in at residence in Portal. Thieves throw rock through window and try to steal a truck.