The station, one of five placed on federal property in early May, was thoroughly ransacked, its water spigot ripped out, its signature blue flag torn down.
"We have no idea who did it," says Rev. Robin Hoover, head of the immigrant assistance group Humane Borders. "But there were a lot of fresh horseprints in the area, and I've never seen a migrant riding a horse yet."
Founded in the late 1990s, Hoover's group erects its distinctive, blue-flagged water stations in the most inhospitable stretches of Southern Arizona, killing fields where each year hundreds of illegal immigrants die of dehydration and exposure.
For its activities, Humane Borders has become a lightning rod in the debate over immigration policy. The faith-based group, which includes more than 30 member organizations, doesn't condone illegal immigration into the United States. In the long term, however, Hoover and his colleagues push for liberalized immigration policies towards Mexican workers, and for altering deadly U.S. Border Patrol strategies that drive immigrants away from heavily patrolled border towns, and further into raw desert.
Nor is this the first time the water stations have been attacked. In Cochise County, there have been a least four vandalisms since last year. Two times, whole stations--with 65-gallon water barrels and 30-foot-tall flags--simply disappeared.
It's a despicable pattern. And to date, law enforcement officials--local and federal--haven't done jack about it. "Everybody passes the buck," says Humane Borders activist James Cooper. "This is a serious problem."
The early May vandalism occurred on the Ironwood Forest National Monument near Old Tucson, in an area administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. According to BLM spokeswoman Lorraine Buck, the Ironwood water station is technically private property. But if there's any criminal investigating to be done, "that would be handled by the U.S. Attorney's office," Buck says.
But a call to the office of the U.S. Attorney for Arizona sent the matter right back into local hands. Spokeswoman Harriet Bernick says that U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton's "understanding is that there is no federal jurisdiction for damage of private property. Jurisdiction lies with the state or county within which the act occurred."
A call to the Pima County Sheriff's Department was not returned.
Meanwhile, in Cochise County, "one site had to be taken down because it had been vandalized so many times," says James Cooper, who also heads that county's Democratic Party. The ransacked station was on property owned by the Holy Trinity Monastery in St. David. "Over a period of eight months, it was stolen once, vandalized three times, and we finally just pulled the station," he says.
And get this: The crime occurred practically under the nose of Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever, who lives only a few blocks away.
Cooper has a good idea who's behind the vandalism, but won't name names. "There are a lot of nasty people in this area," he says. "But we received a tip about who it could possibly be, gave that to the sheriff's department, and they said, 'Oh, we know these people. It could not possibly be them.'"
Nor is Cooper surprised that Sheriff Dever has basically scooted the whole thing into a closet. He says the sheriff doesn't make much effort to hide his sympathies for anti-immigrant vigilante groups, such as Glenn Spencer's Sierra Vista-based American Border Patrol. Indeed, Dever addressed a gathering of Spencer's outfit in Sierra Vista last September.
"There has never been an active prosecution of a crime against a migrant by this sheriff's department," Cooper says. "And I think that reflects not only (Dever's) own philosophy, but probably reflects his politics for re-election next year."
If Cooper is right, it's scary to imagine what constituency the sheriff might be wooing. Dever, a Republican, will run for his third term next year. He didn't return a phone call seeking comment.
For the feds, sitting on their hands after the destruction of a water station on federal property is likewise inexcusable. Still, it must be noted that the BLM and U.S. Attorney are caught in the noose of an immigration policy that--among other qualities--is downright bizarre. While federal law criminalizes undocumented immigration, it allows water stations to be placed on federal property. And while the U.S. Border Patrol forces destitute immigrants--moms, dads, kids, grannies--into the hard desert, the agency equips highly trained search-and-rescue teams to bring them back out, dead or alive.
Standing in the parking lot of his First Christian Church on Speedway Boulevard, Hoover argues that Humane Borders' mission rises above politics. "Rational people can argue about change" in immigration policy, he says. "But the current increase in the number of deaths each year is phenomenal. If we don't cap that off, it will make even the strongest supporter of the status quo angry about what's going on."
As he talks, his cell phone buzzes. "We have teams out already this morning," he says, before taking the call.
When he's done, Hoover flips the cell phone back into his pocket. He squints at the sun, already reaching summertime intensity. "We'd like to see stiff penalties for tampering with these water stations," he says. "They're proven lifesaving devices. It's like emptying a fire extinguisher and not telling anybody."