So it was the night of July 16, when an ATV, almost certainly loaded with drugs, rumbled north across the Mexican border. It likely crossed the line on the west end of the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge, east of Douglas, came north along Black Draw through the heart of the San Bernardino Valley, then swung west across State Highway 80 into the Pedregosa Mountains.
From there, the smuggler bulled his way north through draws and washes up to Rucker Canyon on the west side of the Chiricahuas, possibly as far as Turkey Creek. It was a mad dash for sure, and the best evidence indicates he rode the entire distance, as much as 40 miles, in a single night, his wheels turned backward to foil trackers.
Residents view the ATV incursion, the first of several, as an escalation in an already intense battle with smugglers working the so-called Chiricahua Corridor. Perhaps optimistically, some view this pathway through southeast Arizona as one of the last wide-open border smuggling routes, and they fear the traffickers will grow more desperate as they fight to keep it open.
Already, residents have had to make room in their lives for everything the traffickers bring with them--suspicion, constant watchfulness, vandalism and break-ins. As a matter of course, few people dare leave their homes without a sitter. Alex Stone, a helicopter specialist for the Forest Service who owns a house near Portal, on the east side of the Chiricahuas, says flatly, "If you leave your house empty, it will be occupied."
Law enforcement? Border Patrol might be an hour away on a good day, and on a bad day, residents have to fend for themselves when the agency dispatcher in Douglas says, as sometimes happens, "Sorry, we have nobody to send."
The traffic has also brought to the Chiricahua Mountains, one of Arizona's special places, the same ugliness we see in other sanctuaries closer to the border: Piles of trash now foul major canyons and waters in the northeastern part of the range. Erosion bedevils established hiking trails, and illegals are making new trails in areas as high as 9,000 feet.
What's happening in the corridor challenges the government's campaign of using this year's decrease in arrests, nearing 25 percent in some areas, to convince citizens they're finally getting the border under control. It also shows the relentless northward march of the smugglers. After all, those who cross the Chiricahuas and walk all the way to Interstate 10, at the northern end of the corridor, have trekked nearly 70 punishing miles--evading law enforcement--putting them deep into the United States.
The siege of the Chiricahuas can best be described as a low-level guerilla war, intermittent but always simmering, the scenes of trouble shifting regularly.
How much it affects your life depends in part on luck. One family can live in relative peace while a close neighbor, a mere mile away, finds himself caught in a genuine nightmare, because his home sits along a smuggling trail. It's that way in Portal, on the northeastern slopes of the Chiricahuas, a quaint and cool town of pickup trucks, funny hats, a general store from a different century and bird-watchers from a different planet. They flock to this part of the Chiricahuas hoping to catch a glimpse of the Elegant Trogon, or some other airborne superstar, and to them, Portal looks like paradise.
It doesn't look like a bull's-eye in the border war. But illegals and drug smugglers have opened trails that spider-web the town, 46 miles north of the line. Those who live in the village proper will tell you life is good, and on most days, it is. There are enough people, and enough eyes, to keep the worst of the illegal elements at bay. Move into the outlying areas, though, and it's a fight for survival.
In March 2007, Stone, whose house sits a mile and a half outside Portal, went on a bicycling vacation in the east, leaving his place empty. Drug runners broke in and basically took up residence for five days. They found Black Angus steaks in a freezer and grilled them on the stove. They dismantled Stone's 8-inch mirror telescope, pulling out lenses and undoing all of the tiny screws, possibly because they were stoned. They left a brick of marijuana atop his desk in the living room.
They drove away in his pickup truck, loaded down with two motorcycles, a stereo, pots and pans, 30 years worth of tools and his shower curtain. They made $1,700 in calls to Agua Prieta, Mexico, and left the place trashed. No one noticed. The nearest neighbor lives 800 feet away, and that house faces the other way.
"I built the house myself, and that was hard to come home to," says Stone, adding that he got none of his stuff back, although MCI did forgive the phone bill. "But break-ins are a fact of life now in that vicinity."
Some in the area have responded by turning their homes into forts. One man described for the Tucson Weekly the steps he has taken to secure his house--installing metal shutters over windows and doors; burying gas lines and a propane tank; concealing all water valves or placing them under lock and key. He also rigged his vehicles so they'll turn over but not start, tricking thieves into thinking the battery is dead.
"I've spent a lot of time the past few years trying to think like a criminal," he says.
Like many of the more than 35 people interviewed for this article, this man asked for anonymity. Everyone in the Chiricahua region follows the cartel violence in Mexico, where grotesque blood-letting has become routine. In June and July alone, four Mexican cops were murdered in Agua Prieta, Douglas' sister town, and several more crossed into this country for asylum, according to a recent Washington Times article. The paper cites a report--by the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center and the High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Investigative Support Group--warning that cartel turf wars are spreading into the United States.
News like that travels the corridor like a virus. So do reports of traffickers threatening ranchers if they work with law enforcement.
It has happened. The legal Mexican workers of some ranchers have also been compromised--by druggies threatening to kill their families in Mexico--which flips a cowboy's loyalty. Bottom line: Everyone in the corridor knows that cartel soldiers could be in their backyards tonight.
Even so, the man quoted above doesn't base his desire for anonymity on fear. He's not afraid. But between 2001 and 2006, his home on the east side of the Chiricahuas was broken into 15 times, and he believes it's important to live defensively.
He says: "People in cities have no idea what's happening out here. The volume of traffic is huge, and we never know who we're dealing with. We don't know who's coming into the country, and we don't know who in the community is sympathetic to illegal activity. These break-ins usually occur when they know people are gone. So I assume they're watching our homes. Everything is blurred. A lot of these illegals are also drug mules. When people say it's just someone looking for a job, I always ask, 'Why would you break into someone's house if you're looking for a job?'"
And if you're looking for a job, why steal someone's guns? Ed Ashurst manages an 84-square-mile ranch on the east side of the Chiricahuas, near the tiny town of Apache. On March 6, thieves broke into his home and made off with $5,000 worth of guns, including an AK-47, as well as jewelry, credit cards, Social Security cards and all of his clean socks. The thieves were never caught, and Ashurst's guns are still out there.
But the episode continues to rankle because of what happened later that day. Ashurst called the Border Patrol to tell them he'd found the thieves' tracks, and to ask if they could please send agents back. No one came. Three hours later, Ashurst called again and asked the shift supervisor why they hadn't responded. "I was told if there's somebody out there with an AK-47, don't bother calling us, because we're not coming," says Ashurst. "He wouldn't put his agents in that kind of jeopardy. I said, 'Then what good are you?'"
In recent months, the worst of the traffic has shifted to the west side of the Chiricahuas, where the number of break-ins has been shocking. Those who commit them are either illegals or drug mules who've gotten lost, or perhaps Border Patrol has jumped them and they've quailed in 10 directions. After a while, they get hungry and start kicking in doors looking for food. Nobody who breaks into a house is harmless, and that's especially true in border country. As Border Patrol reports, 10 to 15 percent of arrested illegals have criminal records in the United States.
This new boldness jacks up the nerve level. Twice last year--in January and December--an elderly woman living on the corridor's west side encountered men she believes were druggies trying to break into her house--while she was inside. In the first episode, at 10 a.m., two men tried to force open the glass door in her dining room. In the second, they pounded on her carport door, planning, she believes, to rush in if she opened it. The woman says she now lives frightened in her own home.
The December episode occurred days after home break-ins in nearby Pearce and Elfrida, both of which abut the corridor to the west, and a third in Willcox to the north. The four thieves, who'd crossed from Mexico, stole firearms in the Elfrida and Willcox jobs and used them in the Pearce episode, which proved especially dangerous. Three of the men invaded the guest house of a 58-year-old woman and tied her up in her bathroom at gunpoint. She was able to get free after the men left. The alleged perpetrators were caught the next day, Dec. 6, and charged with a number of felonies.
Several west-side ranchers talked to the Weekly about this new wave of trouble. One rancher, sitting at his kitchen table, told of suffering three break-ins between June and August--one at home, two at his garage. This fellow also rattled off the names of neighbors similarly besieged. One has been hit three times in the past three months, another twice. A third, the prize winner, has had nine break-ins over the summer.
This rancher, who doesn't share Ashurst's view of Border Patrol, says: "We're targeted here on the west side of the Chiricahuas, because Border Patrol is few and far between. They're busting their butts trying to help us, but they have no backup, and they're frustrated to no end. There aren't enough of them.
"What really worries me is what's happening in Mexico. The cartels are going into ranches on the Mexican side, around Juarez,and saying, 'We're taking over; shut your mouth, or we'll shoot you.' We're afraid that's going to start happening on this side.
"If we get our names printed, we might wind up on some cartel list. We're not scared, and we're not running. But the situation is getting worse, and we need to be very careful."
The Chiricahua Corridor has for decades been a major pathway into the U.S. from Mexico. It begins at the Mexican line east of Douglas, with the Geronimo Trail forming much of its southern boundary. This 32-mile gravel road runs along the border east from downtown Douglas out to the New Mexico state line.
The corridor's eastern boundary extends beyond the state line into Hidalgo County, N.M., and north beyond the little town of Rodeo, N.M. Arizona's Swisshelm Mountains and State Highway 181 form the corridor's western side. The north is bordered by I-10 and the tumbleweed towns of San Simon and Bowie, which the coyotes use as pickup destinations.
In its early years, in the '60s, '70s and into the '80s, the corridor's main trail was Stateline Road, a dirt track running north from the border along the boundary between Arizona and New Mexico. Most of those walking it were farm laborers from Chihuahua.
Louie Pope, who has lived in the Chiricahuas all his life, says that up until 1986, when it became illegal to hire them, he'd sometimes offer these men wages to do jobs around his ranch. He says they were good workers and good people; the Popes gave them the run of the place. They taught his children how to speak Spanish and how to cook tortillas, and the family never had a worry.
He tells of once hiring some of them to build a cattle guard. The workers included an older fellow whom Pope called the Maestro. He was returning to Mexico after doing seasonal labor in the fields around Safford. With the cattle guard complete, the Maestro resumed his trip home, not realizing he had Pope's tape measure in his pocket. The next year, on the way up to Safford again, he stopped at Pope's house to hand over the tape measure.
"That's how honest these guys were," says Pope.
But those days are gone. Residents stressed to the Weekly that these farm workers have been, to a large extent, replaced by drug mules and their handlers--men with tattoos, piercings, AR-15 assault rifles, black camis, expensive boots and water bottles painted black to keep them from glowing in the moonlight.
They'll do anything to get their loads through, including roaring down Geronimo Trail at high speeds, sometimes running citizens off the road. Nothing is beyond being stolen. In February, a $270,000 Caterpillar road grader belonging to Cochise County disappeared from Geronimo Trail. The thieves got it started, but couldn't figure out how to raise the blade. So they drove it a handful of miles into Mexico on a cattle trail, making gouges in the ground as they went.
Life isn't much better on the corridor's east side. Retired Judge Richard Winkler saw his home outside of Rodeo broken into three times in 2007, and he had 10 break-ins at his second residence in the Peloncillo Mountains, part of his cattle operation. At his mountain home, Winkler leaves the door unlocked with food out in an effort to win the bad guys' favor. "You don't want to be seen as too mean, or they'll retaliate," says Winkler, a well-known figure in southeast Arizona. He worked for 12 years as a Superior Court judge in Bisbee, often handling drug cases, and for 10 years had a law office in Douglas.
Winkler endured a particularly harrowing day in the fall of 2007, when he returned from Douglas to find his Rodeo home had been broken into. That same night, about 8 p.m., after sheriff's deputies and the Border Patrol had departed, an exhausted Winkler retired to his bedroom for the night. While on the phone with a neighbor describing the events of the day, Winkler heard noises at the far end of the house. He said, "Wait a minute; I hear something. I think they're breaking in again."
Determined to defend himself, Winkler, 69, grabbed a gun and started down the hallway. Luckily, the thieves departed the house before he reached them. Back came law enforcement. From assorted evidence, investigators determined the criminals were drug runners who probably hid in a nearby wash after their first effort, waiting to return after dark.
Winkler now has big dogs and a fence around his dream house.
North of Winkler, Randy and Sheila Massey operate a farm with land in Arizona's San Simon Valley and in New Mexico. Their home is near Animas, N.M., just east of Portal, Ariz. In February 2006, the Masseys made a disturbing discovery in a bunkhouse where illegals often hole up during their treks north: Someone had tagged the door with the words La Mara Salvatruca-13, a hyper-violent Salvadoran gang commonly referred to as MS-13. It now has branches in cities across the U.S.
"To think my grandbabies are growing up not a mile from where these people were," says Sheila Massey, who no longer leaves the kids alone at the farm, even while driving a mile to Animas to pick up the mail. "It curls your toenails to know the kind of people that are coming into our country."
The Border Patrol once believed that mountains were its salvation, a natural barrier. The theory was: Cover the valleys, and leave the crossers no choice but to trek over the mountains, and they'll quit and go home. It hasn't worked--not in the Huachucas and the Baboquivaris near Sierra Vista and Sasabe, or in the Peloncillo and Chiricahuas inside the corridor. The traffickers want in too badly, and the profits are too big.
So into the mountains they've gone, into ever more remote terrain, pushed there by the Border Patrol themselves. Even if law enforcement flies over in a chopper and spots them, the agents have no option but to wait until they come out. And the traffickers can decide where and when they emerge.
To understand how the traffickers use the corridor's mountains, look at a map of the terrain east of Douglas. The San Bernardino Valley stretches north from Geronimo Trail, with State Highway 80 angling northeast across it, eventually blending with the San Simon Valley farther north. The San Bernardino encompasses a vast area, much of it crossed by smuggling trails that follow the natural cover of drainages and underbrush.
But a group headed for Portal, and walking strictly in the San Bernardino and San Simon Valleys, would have to expose themselves at points along the way. To avoid that, more sophisticated crossers might jump the border on the east end of Geronimo Trail, go into the shelter of Guadalupe Canyon, then over the Peloncillo Mountains, which straddle the Arizona-New Mexico line. The group walks north through the Peloncillos about 25 miles before exiting to the west through Skull Canyon.
Before them stretches 6 to 7 miles of mostly flat ground across San Simon Valley. They walk that, crossing Highway 80 between mileposts 402 and 423, and head straight into the shelter of Horseshoe Canyon or Jack Wood Canyon in the Chiricahuas. From there, it's due north through the high, rugged mountains to their pickups in Portal, or off Forest Road 42. An equal number walk north all the way to Interstate 10, 28 miles above Portal.
The traffickers have a big advantage here, because the corridor's east flank runs along the seam between the Border Patrol's Douglas and Lordsburg sectors. Military tacticians have long understood the advantage of riding the divide between adjacent enemy commands and exploiting the resulting confusion in communication and coordination. Louie Pope's wife, Susan, sees that situation firsthand.
She works at the schoolhouse on Highway 80 in Apache, about 35 miles north of Douglas. She also drives the school bus and often sees illegals walking the highway. She estimates that between her and the other woman at the school, they call Douglas Border Patrol 30 times each school year. "Douglas usually tells us they have nobody to send," says Susan. "I'll call Lordsburg, and they'll say, 'We're 2 1/2 hours away; do you still want us to come?' I'll say yes, and they come. Lordsburg saves us. This area is Douglas' responsibility, but 90 percent of the time, they don't come."
The reason, as Susan has learned, is that agents' cell phones quit past a certain point on 80, and their truck radios lose contact with dispatch. The traffickers know this as well. And they know that residents' cell phones don't work, either, and the Cochise County Sheriff's Department doesn't regularly patrol that far south on Highway 80.
As a result, the traffickers ride the corridor's eastern seam through a kind of law-enforcement no-man's land.
Located in the spot where the Rocky Mountains, the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts and the Mexican Sierra Madre Mountains all come together, the Chiricahuas are a special place. Many consider them Arizona's most beautiful mountains, and photogs would certainly agree. They've made the range famous worldwide with images of their soaring cliffs and teetering stacks of boulders that seem to grow from the ground itself into the sky.
But tourist photographers steer clear of the alien garbage piling up in the mountains. Although the dumps aren't of monster size, as they are in the Huachucas or around Sasabe and Arivaca, they're still gross and depressing.
"People in Tucson need to know the illegals have moved into the Chiricahuas, and if we don't get a handle on it, they'll ruin them," says Louie Pope, who worked for the Forest Service in the Chiricahuas for 35 years and probably knows the range better than anyone. "All the pristine waters are trashed. It's nasty. On the major creeks, you see clothes, milk jugs. When it rains, all that junk goes down the canyons."
Three years ago, Burro Springs--pictured above on this page--was a crystal-clear water source in the Chiricahua Wilderness. Now it's a 2-acre garbage dump.
Located in Horseshoe Canyon on the east side of the range, the site is a scatter of backpacks, tin cans, sanitary napkins and more. Some of this debris floats 2 feet deep in the waters of the spring. The only way to get it out would be by pack mule, and it'd take 10 animals to get it all. The illegals have also dragged to the site half of a metal water tank. Flipped upside down, it becomes a hooch for sleeping and shelter.
Burro Springs is 33 miles north of the border, at 6,800 feet. Another dumpsite scars the ground at Horseshoe Pass, half a mile above Burro. Many of the main canyons in the Chiricahuas have a place as bad as Burro Springs, and some of these dumps are at 9,000 feet or higher. Illegals have trashed the top of Pothole Canyon as well as the top of Sulphur Draw, often called Sulphur Canyon, and both are next to impossible to reach.
"The country they're walking in is so rough, you measure progress not in miles per hour, but feet per hour," says Pope. "It's like walking off the side of the Grand Canyon. It blows my mind. I tried to get up to the alien camp in Sulphur Canyon with my hounds, but it was too rough. I had to pull the dogs back. Those tall peaks above Portal? They're coming over those."
The trails through Pothole, Sulfur and Horseshoe canyons constitute the three main alien pathways over the east side of the Chiricahuas. The trail over Horseshoe goes right into the picnic ground at the South Fork of Cave Creek, one of the major tourist birding areas in the U.S.
The heavy traffic has created an erosion problem, too, and this is a serious and long-lasting issue for the health of the forest. In steep terrain, instead of walking switchbacks, the illegals slide on their butts from one switchback down to the next, and when it rains, the water washes out the hillside. The smuggling trail that emerges at South Fork bears the scars from hundreds of butt-sliders. The same occurs on the aliens' hillside trails. When the water comes, the trail becomes a flowing gully.
There's more: The traffickers have also begun painting rocks in the Chiricahuas with black and orange Xs and dots, probably directional signals for groups coming later or markers for GPS positioning. Whatever they mean, they're vandalism.
Much of the badly impacted land, like Burro Springs, is in the 87,700-acre Chiricahua Wilderness. It offers a preview of what could be in store for the Tumacacori Highlands northeast of Nogales, if Rep. Raúl Grijalva gets his way and wins a wilderness designation for that land. Trash dumps will grow. Underbrush will expand. Trails won't be maintained. The land will fall out of the control of the people who should be managing it and under the control of those who don't belong there.
Kimrod Murphy, a retired Arizona Game and Fish officer who lives in the eastern Chiricahuas, says this has already happened in his area. "The Forest Service has no field presence whatsoever in the Chiricahuas," says Murphy. "They've turned their backs on the trash, and they don't maintain established trails. Nobody maintains trails anymore except the aliens. They make new trails, and good ones, too, sometimes 3 feet wide."
Bill Edwards, the Forest Service district ranger in charge of the Chiricahuas, says they do maintain "a few trails every year, but not the hundreds of miles that are in the Chiricahuas." He says he lacks the budget and manpower to do more, and that applies to the trash as well. "You can't see what's going on and feel good about it," says Edwards. "But we're limited in what we can do. A lot of times, Congress dictates how we allocate our budget, and cleaning up after illegals isn't high on their list."
Edwards predicted the situation will worsen soon. He says traffic across the Peloncillo Mountains today mirrors what it was 10 years ago in the Huachuca Mountains around Sierra Vista and in the Canelo Hills, just before it exploded. "Because of enforcement elsewhere, I think we're about to see a large increase across the Peloncillos and the Animas Valley, and the Chiricahuas will draw some of that traffic."
Murphy says it's already there in spades. He regularly rides horseback in the Chiricahuas and encounters so many illegals that he usually doesn't call Border Patrol. "I'd stay on the phone all day if I reported everything I saw," says Murphy. "People are moving north all the time. If it's just illegals, Border Patrol isn't interested. It's like swatting mosquitoes in a swamp."
But the Forest Service's Alex Stone appreciates what Border Patrol faces in the Chiricahua region. "They're as good as they can be," he says. "We're talking thousands of square miles."
The escalating trouble in southeast Arizona has drawn the attention of Democrat Gabrielle Giffords, whose congressional district includes the corridor. She has brokered meetings to bring landowners together with Border Patrol to find solutions, and has generally won praise for doing so. At its Douglas headquarters, the Border Patrol now hosts monthly meetings at which citizens can offer suggestions and air gripes.
For some, though, those sessions are too late. Ashurst, still smarting from the Border Patrol's unwillingness to respond to his second call for help, went to the first meeting in mid-April and says he was treated "like a hot-headed cowboy with an anger problem."
"I'm not mad at the Mexicans," says Ashurst. "They've got a good deal going: If you're starving in Mexico and running drugs, the U.S. government purposely lets you run all over us. I'm mad at the complete incompetence and indifference of the U.S. government. I refuse to go to any more of those meetings and be sneered at."
Louie Pope is close to giving up on the meetings, too, citing the Border Patrol's entrenched political bureaucracy, which he believes keeps good agents from doing their jobs. Plus, his message is already well-known: Rather than rotate agents to different sections of the border, assign them to the same area for extended periods. That way, they get to know the traffic, the trails, the people, the land.
"As it is, they've got new guys from New Jersey out here, and they don't even know where they are," says Pope. "Then they quit or transfer out. But if they had enough veteran agents to train them, and they stayed in the same place long enough, a mouse couldn't burp in those areas without them knowing it."
In spite of the problems, few residents of the corridor would consider living elsewhere. They love their homes and cherish their land, and face the challenges with a grim resolve--the border means trouble, always has, always will.
A bit of gallows humor helps. Anna and Matt Magoffin live along the Geronimo Trail, and they refer to the constant traffic past their place as the Sonoran Hiking Club.
Others wear their frustration more openly, asking why the law seems to protect aliens and smugglers more than American citizens and their property. A number of those interviewed brought up the names Ignacio Ramos and Jose Campeon. These are Border Patrol agents who, in an incident near Fabens, Texas, in 2005, shot a fleeing drug-smuggler in the butt and wound up going to jail for 11 and 12 years, respectively. The U.S. attorney gave the drug-runner immunity to testify against the agents.
When it comes to the law versus the smugglers, the message that sends is crystal-clear. It's also difficult to reach any other conclusion when you hear a federal judge rule that illegal aliens have a right to interstate travel, as John Roll did in March, in a civil-rights case involving high-profile rancher Roger Barnett, a corridor resident.
Roll would do well to discuss his views with those who live and work inside the corridor, especially the Border Patrol, which evidently has been violating the interstate travel rights of illegal aliens for decades with their highway checkpoints and those handcuffs they keep putting on.
And he'd do well to hear residents of the corridor talk about how they'd love to have the same right to travel. These are, remember, American citizens who can't drive to Tucson to shop, or to Phoenix for a weekend, because there's a good chance their homes will be broken into in their absence.
Roll also would do well to walk in the shoes of Richard Winkler, the retired judge. After all, when you're in your late 60s, inching down a hallway in the dark, gun in hand, not knowing what you'll face from the thugs ransacking your home after enjoying their right of interstate travel, you tend to have a different view of things.
"I was scared," says Winkler. "I'm thinking, 'Oh, I don't want to shoot anybody.' I don't even hunt anymore. I did when I was young. But I don't want to shoot stuff. But if they came through the door at me, I would've fired. This was twice in one day, and I'd had enough."
That could serve as a motto for the whole Chiricahua Corridor--enough is enough.
Winkler, a longtime Democrat, adds a coda to his story, about the bias of the media. Asked how the press would've played it if he'd shot one of the intruders, Winkler didn't hesitate in his answer: "The headline next day would've been 'Retired Judge Kills Hungry Mexican Immigrant.' That's just the attitude."
He continues: "I read the national press, and the articles are all the same. I don't know how they get the idea illegal immigration is OK. They mix it all together and put Lou Dobbs down for being against illegal immigration. I'm against anything illegal, too. I was a judge. The law means a lot to me. Both my grandparents came here from foreign countries, and I love immigration. But you have to do it the right way.
"The press makes it sound as if they're all hard-working, wonderful people, and a lot are. But they have their bad people, too, who do bad stuff, and that's what we live with out here."