Scoring drugs in Mexico just isn't what it used to be.
At least that's the word from Javier Navarro, who's passing this unusually warm afternoon at the counter of the Diamond Farmacia. His tiny store sits on the hushed Plaza Pesqueira, across from a dentist's office and just south of the Mexico line in Nogales, Sonora.
Navarro once filled prescriptions for armies of Americans eager to buy Viagra or Allegra at a fraction of the cost back home. "In the winters, they used to come down on big buses," he says. "But not anymore. This year has been very slow here in Nogales."
Instead, he now serves a trickle of visitors willing to ignore the bad press and border-crossing hassles that have made travels to his scruffy town an exercise in trepidation.
Like others here, Navarro downplays the effects of the narco-violence that has plagued much of northern Mexico, including Sonora. Rather, he points to U.S. financial troubles as a major drag on the tourist trade. He also believes that increased security at the border—including the recent requirement that all Americans possess passports to return home—are daunting to visitors. "When people are coming back from Mexico," he says, "Customs checks your pockets, your bags, your passports, everything."
Hard numbers behind the economic decline in Nogales are slippery. But glance around these languid streets, once teeming with American, Canadian and European tourists, and the decline is obvious. Today, the sidewalks are filled mostly with hungry-eyed curio-hawkers, desperate to get a warm body inside their stores.
Merchants I spoke with repeatedly argued that the grisly, narcotics-related murders in Nogales and other border towns have been over-hyped by the media. Whether that's true or not, the worst of the bloodletting does seem to have passed. According to Sonora state security officials, the number of homicides in Nogales, Sonora, was 83 in 2011, down from 210 the year before. Still, violent crime persists. According to the U.S. State Department, no fewer than 21 American citizens were slain in Nogales between Jan. 1, 2010, and Dec. 31, 2011.
However, it's widely believed that the increasingly rigorous security at U.S. border crossings is equally to blame for tourism declines. That includes the requirement, implemented in 2009, that all U.S. and Canadian citizens must have a passport when entering the United States. The change grew out of proposals made by the 9/11 Commission, and was initiated under a policy called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. One could assume that most day-trippers are unlikely to trouble themselves with obtaining a passport just for visits to Nogales.
At the same time, an intimidating security apparatus—including massive Border Patrol buildups—has dispelled any notion of the borderland as a carefree travel destination.
Michael Foltz sees the effects of that buildup firsthand. As the owner of the Reisen Arizona tour company, he regularly squires European travelers throughout Southern Arizona. But these days, the Tucson native advises against crossing into Sonora, after having some of his entourage grilled by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents for hours at a time.
"My concern, if they go across and then come back from Mexico, is that there's an extra focus on them for being foreign," Foltz says. "That's also been a major issue with my guests, in terms of them not feeling very comfortable over there."
Other times, he says, passengers in his vans have received intensified scrutiny at U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints, such as the one on Interstate 19 between Tucson and Nogales.
He recalls another checkpoint north of Tombstone, where a Border Patrol agent grilled his vanload of elderly German women. The agent asked the women to read the addresses on their passports aloud, in German, "like they were somehow fictitious passports," Foltz says. "By the time he'd gotten through the second or third person, I asked him if he spoke German. He said no. So I asked him how he even knew what they were saying was right."
Border Patrol spokesman Omar Candelaria didn't return several phone calls seeking comment. But according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Juan Osorio, everyone crossing the border into this country is treated equally.
That's not always necessarily the case. For instance—despite the sweeping policy shifts—Americans are unlikely to find themselves stranded in Mexico just because they lack a passport. "We cannot deny entry to a United States citizen," Osorio says. "That is the law."
On the other hand, not having a passport can mean a long wait while agents authenticate a traveler's citizenship. "A passport just makes it so much easier to travel, to facilitate your entry," he says. "Because when you come into the United States, the burden of proof is upon you."
Regardless of exactly where the burden lies, its fallout is obvious at Corucos Gift Shop, on Avenida Lopez Mateos in Nogales. Standing among metal yard ornaments and decorative folk art, salesman Israel Gutierrez blames slow times on overblown narco-trafficking worries and a weaker American economy. And slow, they are: He estimates that sales have dropped by at least 60 percent in the last few years. To cope, his store has begun manufacturing its own merchandise rather than ordering pricier inventory from far-off Mexican states such as Oaxaca or Guerrero.
Gutierrez calls fears of violence unfounded, particularly in the border-hugging tourist zone that he says is now patrolled by bicycle cops. "This triangle is touristy, and safe for you guys. You never hear about a gringo being held at gunpoint or something like that. ... The cartels are fighting, but that's in the mountains, sir."
A few minutes later, shop owner Efraim Llamas arrives and glances out at the quiet courtyard. He provides security, he says, and tries to make sure that all of the 27 shops in this sprawling complex remain open. Then someone calls from a distant passageway, and he sidles off.
As Gutierrez rearranges a cluster of metal sunflowers, he says that most problems involving tourists arise from situations they've created for themselves. He cites the fact that Americans are occasionally caught hauling guns into the country, or sneaking drugs out. Then there's the occasional traveler who overdoses in some ratty hotel room.
Gutierrez emphasizes that crossing the line can be therapeutic. "We want you to get away from all the stress over there," he says, pointing toward the United States. "We want people to come for their tequila, for getting their teeth pulled, and to buy a couple of little souvenirs, and go home happy."