BY WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE
THE BOUNDARY BETWEEN the United States and Mexico is in places merely a trace in the dirt. Its permeability is famous. In the cities the boundary hardens into a steel fence to keep northbound immigrants out, and it does not work. In the open desert it dwindles to three strands of barbed wire to keep cattle in, and it works better, at least for the cattle. For more than half its length the border is the Rio Grande, a small, swimmable river. Given all this, what is most surprising about the boundary is its power to divide. For slightly more than a century it has cleaved the North American continent, and now it separates rich from poor, First World from Third World, with no Second World in between. Without ocean, high mountain, or other natural barrier, it is largely a human construct. And it has a human custodian. His name is Narendra Gunaji, and I spent a morning with him in El Paso, Texas.
At age sixty-one, Gunaji is a trim, white-haired man with the accent of his native India and a severe disposition. He is an American success story—an immigrant who rose to prominence. He has a Ph.D. and his résumé is ten pages long. For twenty-eight years he taught civil engineering at New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, where he was also active in Republican politics. In 1987 Ronald Reagan appointed him to head the U.S. section of the International Boundary and Water Commission. His Mexican counterpart, Arturo Herrera Solis, is based across the Rio Grande, in Ciudad Juárez. Together the two men manage the physical boundary—the markers and water flows along 1,951 miles, from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. It is not a small task. Gunaji has 270 people working under him. When I got to his offices in El Paso, I heard a lot of “Yes sir. Commissioner.”He seemed to relish it. He gave the day’s orders easily, with his arms folded. Then he took me for a ride along the border in an official minivan.
The twin cities of El Paso and Juárez, with a combined population of 2 million, mark the midpoint of the border. This is where the Rio Grande, having flowed due south from its origin in the Rockies, snakes through a gap in the desert mountains and turns southeast. It is also where the two halves of the boundary join: to the west the line runs crisply across the deserts; to the east it rides a more ambiguous midchannel course through the curves of the Rio Grande.
As it flows between El Paso and Juárez, the river is hemmed in by levees. We drove for a time along the northern side. On the opposite shore the tin and cardboard shantytowns of Juárez sprawled over low hills. The Juárez slums are as bad as the shantytowns I know in West Africa. They are less crowded than but as bad as the slums of Bombay. A gully spewed black water into the river. Tainted upstream by agricultural runoff and sewage,the Rio Grande swallowed the filtheasily.Afamily bathed among the bushes. Out of modesty the women washed themselves with their dresses on; the men had stripped down to their shorts. They stood in the water and watched us pass. Ahead the bridges between Juárez and El Paso spanned the river. A rowboat heavy with passengers nosed against the U.S. shore, bypassing Immigration. One woman couldn’t climb the steep embankment. Others, who had made it to the top of the levee, went back down to help her.
Sealed in the air-conditioned minivan, we crept through the crowd on the levee. There were about a hundred people, getting their bearings and watching for the Border Patrol. Though the levee is technically U.S. territory, in practice it is neutral soil; retreat to the river is easy. The crowd was mostly local—unemployed Juárez youths without border-crossing cards, going to El Paso for the day. Some were going farther; they might have come from the interior of Mexico, or from Central or South America. These travelers carried suitcases and scurried away from the van. The locals were not so shy. Recognizing the Boundary Commission seal on the door, they tapped on the roof, peered through the windows, smirked and joked. They begged cigarettes, which we did not have. Boys stood in our way nonchalantly, showing off for girls.
Gunaji seemed oblivious. He spoke about his decision to become an American citizen. His older sister objected, but he insisted. “I told her, ‘I’m going to serve India by staying out of India.”’
I interrupted him. “Doesn’t it seem odd, if you think back, to find yourself managing this boundary?” I gestured toward the crowd.
He looked annoyed. “In the United States I have always tried to participate in the workings of government. I served on the Las Cruces City Council. Now I serve as commissioner. I am happy such an honor has been bestowed upon my family. A nation needs its boundaries, no?”
I nodded yes. You need a them to have an us.
We drove downriver to the Free Bridge, so called because no tolls are charged. The Free Bridge belongs to the Boundary Commission. It spans the Rio Grande at a patch of river land named the Chamizal, after the desert shrub chamiza that once grew there. The Chamizal is Mexican territory that was lopped off and delivered to the United States by a southward shift in the river. This happened during a flood in 1864, and kicked off a century of squabbling. The remedy, finally agreed upon in 1963, was radical surgery: 4.3 miles of new concrete riverbed was laid and the Free Bridge was built. On December 13, 1968, Lyndon Johnson came to town, met Mexico’s President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz at the border, and diverted the Rio Grande into its new course. Mexico walked away with a net gain of 437.18 acres. For this Johnson has not been forgiven by many on the U.S. side. The problem is, one nation’s gain is another’s loss. And the Boundary Commission is guilty by association. I learned this within minutes of landing at the El Paso airport, having mentioned to a pilot that I had come to visit the commission. “Those sons-a-bitches,” he said. “They’re the ones who gave away Texas.” He assumed that I shared his sentiment, since I, too, had lived in Texas, and for several years had flown the border as an air-taxi pilot.
The remaking of the Rio Grande at the Chamizal was not the first operation of its kind. In the 1930s the Boundary Commission rectified the river downstream from El Paso. “Rectified” means this: the meanders were cut off, the river was straightened and run between levees, and the length of the boundary from El Paso to Fort Quitman was shortened from 155 to eighty-six miles. The two countries exchanged 6,920 acres of land in equal amounts, and none of Texas was lost. Here and there the commission has rectified the Rio Grande all the way to the Gulf.
But rivers make old-fashioned, troublesome boundaries. One problem lies downstream from Fort Quitman, where the rectification ends and the Rio Grande resumes its natural course, through faulted mountains. This 500mile stretch is the emptiest section of the boundary: a rift valley, a searing desert of canyons and badlands, two opposing towns (Presidio and Ojinaga) linked by the region’s only bridge, and a string of isolated villages. The villages have adobe houses, adobe cantinas, cinder-block churches, maybe some Honda generators. Some of the irrigated fields are 500 years old. The villagers ignore the boundary, and move freely on both sides of the river. No one stops them unless they catch a ride and go too far, or try, after days of walking, to enter the modern world. The river is easy to cross, especially along the 200 miles from Fort Quitman to the confluence of the Rio Conchos. Starved of water by upstream diversions, heavy with silt, it braids through jungles of salt cedar. The location of the channel, and therefore the boundary, is often impossible to establish. This imprecision bothers the surveyors.
In the 1970s the commission decided on an engineering solution: if for these 200 miles the boundary cannot follow the river, then the river will be made to follow the boundary. The two countries agreed. The commission filed environmental-impact statements. It reached compromises with conservationists, and promised to “enhance wildlife.” Finally, in 1980, it unleashed the bulldozers. The work continues today, shared by the two countries. The channel is being “restored” to a configuration six feet deep, sixteen feet wide at the bottom, and thirty-eight feet wide at the top. Floodways fifty-six feet wide are being scraped along both banks.
There have been difficulties with equipment and international coordination, and the project is years behind schedule. From an airplane the river looks as it has always looked. Floods have washed away the floodways. And cedar spreads almost as fast as it can be cleared. The conservationists must be pleased. They agreed to a compromise, but this is better—the river itself is fighting back.
The engineers, however, show no signs of fatigue. They are armed with a 1970 treaty that resolved all pending boundary disputes, reaffirmed the channel as the dividing line, and outlawed any further unruly conduct by the water. The Rio Grande has become boundary first and river second, Time is on the side of government. Such is the power of Gunaji’s line.
THE U.S.-MEXICAN BORDER IS OF COURSE WIDER SND more intricate than a simple boundary line. Defining it is a problem that concerns members of a group called the Association of Borderlands Scholars. I have met only a few of them, but I have read their papers.
What is the border? The traditionalists confine themselves to the fifteen or so sets of twin cities that straddle the line. Seven million people provide ample material for study.
Others feel less constrained. They refer to a “zone of influence” perhaps sixty miles wide on either side. With one simple assertion they double their population base. And why not? If they stretch a bit farther, they can include Tucson, which is a nice city.
Diehard regionalists emphasize the similarities of language and interests, and talk about a unified border region as if it already existed. Some speak of a third nation, and call it MexAmerica. The radicals among them are reads to draw up new boundaries.
Finally, global thinkers go all the way. In Mexico they point to the explosive grow th of the north, the recent U.S.-inspired economic reforms, and the corruption unleashed by drug smuggling. In the United States they point to immigration problems, industrial decay, and unlaw fulness. They say the border encompasses all of both countries.
The border is a word game.
It is also grimy, hot, and hostile. In most places it is ugly. The U.S. side is depressed by the filth and poverty in Mexico. On the Mexican side the towns have become ungovernable cities, overrun by destitute peasants, roiled by American values. The border is transient. The border is dangerous. The border is crass. The food is bad, the prices are high, and there are no good bookstores. It is not the place to visit on your next vacation.
Neither the United States nor Mexico wanted this intimacy. The boundary was drawn after a two-year war of conquest, during which U.S. troops invaded northern Mexico and occupied Mexico City. By the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) and the subsequent Gadsden Purchase (1854), Mexico was forced to cede the northern two-fifths of its territory—a national tragedy it has not forgotten. The role of U.S. business in the exploitation that eventually led to the Mexican Revolution added to the resentment. For these reasons and others, anti-Americanism has long been a strong element of the Mexican national character. This has changed somewhat, but only recently, and—despite the new political rhetoric—unsurely.
The United States has less complex emotions: we would have preferred a second Canada on our southern flank. To put matters simply, the current move by Mexico and the United States toward some degree of economic integration—under the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which would tear down tradebarriers—is an attempt to create, eventually, a more prosperous and stable Mexico. It is also a recognition of the fact that the border is no longer remote and no longer a buffer against our chaotic southern neighbor. Quite the opposite: growth on both sides of the border has physically bound the countries. Mexico’s problems inevitably become ours.
In Mexico the sense of urgency is infinitely stronger. The free-trade agreement is only one element in an attempt to rework the very basis of national life. Diplomatic niceties do not make it clear that Mexico was terrified into action. For ten years the nation has been sick with debt, cynicism, and inefficiency. Mexicans use the word “cancer,” and say it has metastasized. They hope desperately that in economic liberalization they have found a cure.
The carcinogen was oil. Mexico sits on some of the largest reserves in the world. The oil-price rise of the 1970s—what we north of the border called the energy crisis—meant that Mexico, flush with petrodollars, suddenly looked rich. U.S. and European banks rushed in to lend money. Counting on future oil revenues, Mexico overborrowed and overspent. When oil prices dropped, the petrodollars evaporated and the structure collapsed. In August of 1982 Mexico came to Washington and threatened to default.
If the Mexicans had stopped paying, U.S. bankers would have been forced to acknowledge enormous losses, an intrusion of reality they could not risk. The Reagan Administration answered with a multibillion-dollar emergency package. Eventually the loans were rescheduled, which worked on the ledger sheets, allowing the bankers to continue to show the questionable debt as an asset. But the banks were not eager to lend more. The peso collapsed, inflation ran wild, and the Mexican economy spiraled out of control.
In aviation, accident investigators sometimes write about “negative climb rates” before airplane crashes. By this they mean that the pilots wanted to gain altitude and couldn’t. Economists writing about Mexico use a similar term —“negative growth”—to describe the 1980s. They mean that the rich didn’t get richer as quickly as they once had, and the poor kept getting poorer. Most Mexicans are poor, and most are young.
The country’s population growth rate of nearly two percent, though lower than past rates, means that the 85 million inhabitants of today will be 100 million by the year 2000. The question is not only Will the economy keep up? but also Will it satisfy the population? The poor are better educated and healthier than before, and they are less willing to live in misery. This places enormous stress on the political system. I am sure someone has described the problem as a negative decline in human expectations.
All this bears on another word, “revolution,” which on the banners of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) refers only to the glorious past. “Counter-revolution” is the best description of the PRI’s present policies. Their architect is President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, a slight, bald, moustachioed man with something of an academic disposition. Salinas came to power in 1988, at the age of forty, for a single six-year term. He won the election with 50.4 percent of the vote, amid widespread allegations of fraud. His narrow victory was proof that the patronage system, which had kept the PRI comfortably in power for sixty years, was ailing. The new President arrested a few corrupt officials and set to work saving the nation.
Salinas has a doctorate in government and political economy from Harvard. He speaks excellent English and feels at home in Boston. U.S. officials call him a technocrat, because he thinks like us, or appears to; they try not to worry that he sends his children to a Japanese school in Mexico City. Salinas wants competition, entrepreneurship, and investment from abroad—the American way. He acts by decree, slashing import duties, privatizing banks and national industries, and rewriting the laws that once excluded foreign companies. “Foreign” in Mexico usually means “Yankee,” and the investments renew old questions of national sovereignty. Salinas sees little choice.
Inflation has dropped from 200 to 20 percent, and there are parallel signs of progress, notably in debt reduction. The United States often holds Mexico up to other Latin American countries as an example of good behavior. But for the PRI, the improvement has not come fast enough. Despite Mexico’s sincerity and its promise of cheap labor, foreign investors still worry about corruption, political instability, and poor infrastructure. Several years ago Salinas concluded that the pot needed further sweetening—for instance, a promise to those investing in Mexico that they would have unfettered access to the greatest consumer market on earth. A free-trade agreement came naturally to mind, since the United States and Canada had implemented one in 1989. As Salinas saw it, the point was not so much to eliminate barriers, which he had already reduced, as to guarantee continuity in the future. A free-trade agreement would add the force of international law to the changes under way, and would tie the hands of his successor in 1994. When Salinas approached the Bush Administration with the proposal for a deal, he found a willing audience.
In the United States we use sports analogies. We say that Mexico has joined the league and wants to play ball. The White House and Congress instituted “fast track” procedures, whose purpose was to shield the negotiations from opposition. It was said, probably correctly, that the Mexicans were too sensitive to withstand the battering they would receive on the U.S. political field. The idea was to present Congress with a finished treaty, to be accepted or rejected without modification. Nonetheless, the opposition has made itself heard. Labor unionists worry about the loss of factory jobs. Some economists worry about the U.S. balance of trade: without stringent rules of origin for goods coming across the southern border, other countries could use Mexico as a duty-free platform for launching trade attacks on the United States. Environmentalists worry about unregulated industrial pollution. There is also concern about the potentially enhanced ease of drug trafficking. With the proposed treaty, the border region will become even more freewheeling than it already is.
Whatever their opinions about specific details of the free-trade agreement, economists and Mexico specialists tend to approve Salinas’s attempts at reform. No Mexico specialist myself, I was surprised by their certainty. In the wood-paneled office of a historian I said, “Don’t the Mexicans historically have a reason to fear us?” He dismissed this notion with a pout and a flutter of his hand. “That’s the old, divisive way of thinking. Learn to think ahead!” I admired his courage. He did not seem bothered by the long-term question: Is it wise for the United States, by committing itself to free trade, to assume some measure of responsibility for Mexico’s gamble? He asked the other question: Can we afford to have Mexico fail?
San Diego: The Ground War
IT WAS MORNING IN SAN YSIDRO, CALIFORNIA, AND THE air blew cool with an ocean breeze. San Ysidro is the southernmost district of San Diego, where the city presses hard against Tijuana. I stood at the border fence while six boys came over the top. The fence here is a welded steel wall, and it supported their weight easily. The boys wore jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers, and carried no luggage. The last one balanced on top and watched his friends dashing north toward a Kmart. He was thin, red-haired, and clearly disgusted by their haste. He glanced at me, seeking eye contact. I guessed he was twelve or thirteen. He wanted me to understand that he was unafraid. To prove it, he turned and dropped through a full backflip, ten feet down into the United States. He landed beside me with a thump and a grunt. In Spanish I said, “What’s happening?” He answered, “Not much,” and ambled off into the city.
In places the fence is new, and reinforced. Not everyone is athletic enough to go over the top. Enterprising Mexicans dig holes underneath it, and charge a dollar for each passage. Along older sections they also hack right through the steel. I watched a woman squeeze through a gap, careful not to tear her dress. A quarter mile inland the U.S. flag flew over the official port of entry. The “port” is, in fact, two gates—one Mexican and one American—big, boastful structures that span the north-south freeway. Together they tally 50 million crossings every year, and claim to be the busiest border point in the world. Southbound traffic slows but rarely stops. Northbound traffic backs up for hours. In 1991 U.S. gatekeepers blocked some 52,000 fraudulent entries, but for every unauthorized foreigner they turned back, perhaps twenty others hit the fence. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was meant to solve that problem. The gatekeepers still cling forlornly to it. “The law should have worked,” they say. But California beckons, and the immigrants feel neither reformed nor controlled.
Border scholars believe that half of all illegal entries into the United States occur here. The immigrants choose San Diego not just because the crossing is easy (it is easy everywhere except in the harshest deserts) but because it is convenient. Three million people live in San Diego and Tijuana, and another fifteen million live in Los Angeles, to the north. The hustle is relentless. Even in recession there is opportunity. Ambitious workers from all over Mexico and Central America come to Tijuana by bus. Tijuana is the sort of Mexican success story that free-trade proponents promise: tourism has been supplemented by industrial development; the city claims full employment and factories that hire at seven dollars a day. Still, many of the new arrivals keep going. They are met at the bus station by “coyotes,” smugglers who can lose them into California cities. In California they can find friends and family. They can find work at five dollars an hour.
The boundary here is a fourteen-mile stretch from the Pacific through brushland and city streets to the first desert mountain. In daylight the immigrants trickle across the fence; after dark they hit it in waves, and come by the thousands. The San Diego sector of the Border Patrol has 800 agents, by far the largest concentration anywhere on the border, and they only touch the flow. If this is a war zone, it has its recurring battlefields—places like Dairy Mart Road, McDonald’s, Denny’s, the borderland motels. The earth is hard-packed, and scarred by polished trails.
The morning’s calm was a form of exhaustion. From the port of entry I walked along the fence, past the boy who had backflipped, to the point where the Tijuana River flows in from Mexico. The Tijuana River is an open sewer. After it enters the United States, it turns west and runs parallel to the boundary, between massive levees. An indignant San Diegan instructed me to “go look how the Mexicans pointed that river at us!” But the river was once a natural flow, and it still approximates its original short course to the ocean.
A bulldozer was clearing brush from the banks. Brush makes good cover, especially at night. Some congressmen believe that clearing it away and installing bright lights, thereby “sanitizing” the border, will reduce illegal immigration. But I watched a family cross within a hundred feet of the bulldozer. The father led, followed by four children and the mother. They balanced on old tires that had been laid across the shallow river like stepping-stones. After the family left, the bulldozer eased into the current and pushed the tires onto the south bank. I thought the tires should have been piled on the north side. The man on the bulldozer probably figured it made no difference.
Later I watched as a young man shepherded across a group of stocky, dark-skinned women. Wearing plastic bags around their legs, they bunched together and waded shin-deep through the filthy water. On dry ground again, they stooped and peeled off the leg protectors. The bank was littered with hundreds of these bags; vendors sell them on the south side for a dollar a pair, rubber bands included. The guide told the women to wait, and he scrambled up the levee to scout for the Border Patrol. He stood near me, breathing heavily, and checked the neighborhood. We did not speak. He beckoned to his group, and they started up, bent forward against the slope. Suddenly a green Border Patrol Bronco drove onto the levee, and accelerated toward us. The women retreated to the river. The guide took two steps down the levee and stood his ground. The Border Patrol agent stopped above him and didn’t bother to get out. He was a burly man in a green uniform and a felt cowboy hat. My presence seemed to make him uncertain. He backed away and parked below the levee in a field. The guide returned and squatted comfortably. He seemed amused.
THE BORDER PATROL IS THE UNIFORMED LAWenforcement branch of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. It deploys about 2,800 agents along the U.S.-Mexican border. Texans are heavily represented. Border Patrol agents have had various names for the people they catch. They used to call them wetbacks, even in dry country. Responding to the times, Washington encouraged the use of the term “illegal aliens.” After critics objected to “illegal,” Washington compromised on “undocumented.” This was one change too many for the Border Patrol agents, who are not inclined to chase fashion.
Ninety percent of the people they catch are Mexicans. The other ten percent are “OTMs,” which stands for “other than Mexicans,” and means mostly Central and South Americans. The distinction is important, because OTMs cannot be shipped to Mexico; they must be flown home. Deportation is a serious setback for them; it maybe months before they can return north. Mexicans move faster. They waive their right to a hearing, take the INS shuttle to the border, and if the night is young, turn around and come right back. The official estimate is that half or two thirds get through, but in the long run the real numbers are higher. Anyone who tries will eventually succeed.
Border Patrol agents simply do their job. One said to me, “Catch’em, write’em up, back to Mexico. Catch’em, write’em up, back to Mexico.” In fiscal year 1991, which ended last September 30, they wrote them up 1,077,000 times. This number should not be confused with the number of aliens; the Border Patrol acknowledges that it includes people who have been caught more than once in a fiscal year. What it does not mention is that some are caught twice in a fiscal night. Still, the figures are not complete nonsense: they measure the labor performed by the agents and give a rough accounting of the flow.
In the afternoon I drove through the eerie flatland where the Tijuana River meanders its last five miles to the ocean. Few people live here, though the real estate is cheap. This is the war zone at its most dismal. There are killings, rapes, robberies. Placards with skulls and crossbones warn of contamination. The river is diseased, and the stench of sewage is inescapable. Coastal winds stir clouds of fine-grained fecal dust, making you want to cover your face when you breathe. There is a sod farm, a nursery, and a stable that advertises horse rentals. At an abandoned ranch house a hand-painted sign reads NO MAN’S LAND.
The boundary runs just to the south, along low hills that slope down into Tijuana. All day the crowds gather at the fence. By late afternoon you see hundreds out there, dark lines of people waiting for the sun to set. Vendors sell them drinks and tacos. Where the fence is torn, they swell through it and stand inside the United States. Border Patrol agents square off against them in a few scattered trucks, radios crackling, hoping that their mere presence will serve as a deterrent. They face a near riot every afternoon, and they keep a safe distance. For the city toughs who jeer at the agents and sometimes throw rocks, the fence is a shelter.
At dusk the line crumbles. Down in the flatland, a group of men and women hurry across Monument Road. They emerge suddenly from Smuggler’s Gulch and disappear without a trace into the bushes. You wonder if in the twilight your mind has tricked you, but then you see another group, and another. The night turns black under ocean clouds, and fills with immigrants moving north. A dog barks viciously. A helicopter circles low in the distance, probing the land with its spotlight. The port of entry glows to the east. There are no birds, crickets, or frogs. You hear the muted roar of the cities, and the crunch of footsteps on gravel.
Two miles away, along Interstate 5, the first wave sweeps across the freeway. Interstate 5 starts at the port of entry and heads north, through downtown San Diego and Los Angeles. It is lit, but the immigrants hide in the shadows, waiting for a gap in the traffic. Some misjudge the speed of the oncoming cars; since 1987 more than 150 have been hit and killed. California has lowered the speed limits and installed flashing yellow lights above warning signs. The warning signs show figures immediately recognizable as immigrants—they run, they hold hands, the women wear scarves. But people drive fast in San Diego, rarely under seventy. A local driver said to me, “Gee, those poor Mexicans. You know who I’m more concerned about?”
I thought, Let me guess.
He said, “The people who hit them. When you run out on the freeway, you make a choice. When you’re driving the freeway, you have no choice. You go straight ahead or into the cars next to you.”
“You could slow down,” I suggested.
“They’re causing people to have accidents,” he said. “We ought to build a fence.”
Most of the people who run onto the freeway go all the way across and melt into the city at San Ysidro. But others stop halfway, along the freeway’s concrete median strip. The median is neutral ground, where the Border Patrol will not chase them. By midnight several hundred people have gathered there, under the glare of overhead lights. They wait with their guides for prearranged rides, or rest before moving on. They sleep, eat, play cards. I have watched them dancing. Some may have made love, or given birth. At dawn you see those who are stuck, afraid to move on. Like any neutral ground, the median can be a trap as well as a haven.
“A Vast and Silent Invasion”
A BORDER PATROL AGENT TOLD ME A WAR STORY. HE said, “I was on horse patrol. We caught a group and put them on the ground. There was this old woman, about seventy, who motioned to me. You know, ‘Officer, Oficial!'
“I go, ‘What.’
“She had a four-year-old boy with her. She says, ‘Do you know anybody who wants this kid?’
“I go, 'What?'
“She was Salvadoran. She says, ‘My son and daughter-in-law were killed, gunned down. I’m the only family this boy has. I figured I’d come up north, give him to somebody, give him a life. He’s a good boy.’ She says, ‘Why don’t you take him? You live well here.’
“He was a beautiful boy. If I could have stuck him in my pocket and taken him home, I would have raised him up. We can’t do that—it’s an impossibility. But I looked back at this old woman, and she was desperate. Like, what’s going to become of him?
“That happened nine years ago, and I still think about it today. There are some desperate people who have some desperate reasons to come up here. Good reasons.”
The agent was the son of an immigrant, as am I. He took a breath and said, “But so many people want to jump on the bandwagon, and don’t have the right reasons for coming here. When I started with the Border Patrol, the majority of the men I apprehended were between twenty-five and fifty. Now this is just a bunch of young . . .” He stopped himself. “We still catch men with families, but now you see a lot of juveniles, kids, guys seventeen, eighteen, twenty-one. They don’t have any skills. They don’t know what it is to work out in the fields. They go to Los Angeles and the big cities. Let’s face it, they’re young and they’ve got one-track minds: they just want to have a good time. They want to get a boom box, get some nice clothes, and party. To do that they’ve got to have money, and the best way to get money is dealing—prowling cars, dealing dope, getting into the fast lane.”
I listened carefully to him. His emotions seemed conflicting. So are those of most Americans: in this nation built on immigration, each new surge has frightened us. As early as 1750, after German farmers settled in Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin worried about their “political immaturity and social incivility,” and wrote that “those who come hither are generally the most stupid of their own nation . . . not being used to liberty they know not how to make a modest use of it.” In Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, published in 1751, he asked, “Why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our settlements and, by herding together, establish their language and manners to the exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a colony of aliens who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our own Anglifying them?” Similar fears have surfaced about the French, the Irish, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Greeks, the Poles, and the Italians—and most recently about Latin Americans. The concerns are not unreasonable. We worry that the immigrants will change us—and they have.
Of course, history cannot provide the absolute reassurance that some might seek. Each wave of immigration is different, and the current one—in a time of economic difficulty—has placed serious burdens on American society. The fact that nativist fears of today are similar to those of the past does not prove that these fears are unfounded. Only the most wild-eyed libertarian would advocate the open-immigration policies that we maintained when travel was difficult and the nation was younger. The truth is that no one knows the consequences of Mexican immigration: it is a movement of the largest scale, immensely complicated, around which various arguments can easily be constructed. The view from San Diego is admittedly unnerving: these newcomers may indeed be the ones we cannot accommodate. Our history, however, suggests otherwise.
Seventy-five thousand Spanish-speaking people remained in the Southwest when the United States acquired this territory after the war with Mexico. In the 1880s Mexican nationals were imported by the thousands, to build railroads and work in mines and factories. Americans worried about the permeability of the border not because of Mexicans but because of Chinese. Excluded by an immigration act in 1882, Asians were walking in the back door. Mexicans were considered preferable to Chinese coolies because in theory they could be sent home when they were no longer needed. Despite the fact that many stayed, raised families, and became citizens, the idea of the Mexican as a temporary worker persisted.
In the 1920s more than half a million Mexicans arrived. Unions lobbied against this competition with limited success: we fear the stranger, but we require cheap labor. The Border Patrol was formed in 1924. and in 1929 unauthorized entry into the United States became a misdemeanor. Throughout the Depression, emigration exceeded immigration and Mexican workers fled the country. During the labor shortages of the Second World War the United States extended a now notorious invitation in the form of what was called the Bracero program. The program reached its peak in the 1950s, when hundreds of thousands of seasonal farm workers were imported under the auspices of the federal government. Even then the demand for workers outpaced the program, and great numbers of Mexicans slipped across the border illegally. In 1954 the INS conducted a systematic roundup named Operation Wetback, which resulted in the repatriation of perhaps a million Mexicans. When the Bracero program ended, in 1964, the migrant-labor tradition continued. Mexico’s population had swollen, and people needed jobs. Border Patrol apprehensions climbed steeply.
In 1975 Leonard Chapman, the commissioner of immigration, warned of “a vast and silent invasion of illegal aliens.” Chapman was a general, a former commandant of the Marine Corps. He reported that as many as 12 million aliens had taken up residence, and that most of them were Mexican. In 1978 former CIA Director William Colby asserted that Mexico was a greater threat than the Soviet Union. He predicted that there would be 20 million unauthorized immigrants by the year 2000, and said, not unreasonably, that the only way to stop them was to develop Mexico’s economy. Chapman and Colby were alarmists, and their numbers were too high, but no one really knew how many immigrants had gone underground. By 1980, estimates ranged from one million to 6 million. The difference in opinion arose from one crucial question: Once the migrant workers crossed the border, how long did they stay?
In the fifties and sixties perhaps 90 percent of the Mexican migrants were temporary. They were lone males, cowboys and farm workers who traveled north each year, sent their earnings home, and dreamed perhaps of saving enough money to buy some land in Mexico. For them the north was a cold and soulless place. By the 1970s the profile began to change. The farmers still came, but they were joined by increasing numbers of city dwellers looking for steadier work in manufacturing and the service industries. The city people stayed longer, and melted more easily into the general population. Though most of them probably intended to return to Mexico, many were persuaded to settle by the material benefits, and they began to bring in their families.
THERE IS AN OLD, CIRCULAR ARGUMENT ABOUT what drives illegal immigration: pressure from the south or suction from the north. The answer is, of course, both, sometimes more one than the other. Mexico’s economic troubles in the 1980s—which reduced real wages by 40 percent—hit the country’s cities hardest, and accelerated the changes already under way. More women and children came across. Technicians, teachers, and graduate students joined the exodus. American bankers were not the only ones who had given up hope for Mexico.
In 1986 Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). The new law, which recognized that immigration could not be stopped at the border, had two important provisions. The first outlawed the hiring of undocumented workers, closing the largest loophole in immigration law. Henceforth employees had to demonstrate their right to work, and employers had to record this information on a form, called the 1-9, for future inspection. This part of the law introduced employer sanctions: it threatened fines and prison sentences for employers who did not comply. Civil libertarians labeled it a government intrusion into the workplace, and fought off the call for a national identity card.
IRCA’S second provision was legalization: it offered amnesty to immigrants who could prove that they had been living in the United States since 1982, and to others who were working in agriculture. Amnesty was not an act of charity but an acceptance of the facts. These people were entrenched, and difficult to identify. Large-scale deportation would have been cruel, and politically unpalatable.
At first the new law seemed to work. Employers fired thousands of people and filled in countless forms. The illegal back-and-forth traffic across the border dropped off. We now know why. Under the amnesty program more than 3 million people emerged from the shadows to claim permanent residence. Three quarters of them were Mexican, and they stayed in the United States while their applications were pending, rather than making the occasional trip to Mexico and back, which had been the usual pattern. Fearing that the traditional arrangement had finally ended, those who did not qualify for amnesty waited on either side of the border for the dust to settle. They need not have worried. A black market in phony documents sprang up to fill the need. It was a perfectly tailored solution—the kind of spontaneous adaptation that in other circumstances we admire. For a few dollars you could buy a Social Security card, a permanent-residence card, or a birth certificate. At first the counterfeits were crude imitations; by now many are indistinguishable from the real thing. Either way, employers are off the hook, and IRCA has collapsed. Renewed calls for a tamper-proof identity card, this time to be combined with a national employee data base, again raise questions of civil liberties.
The United States accepts more immigrants than any other country. During the 1980s more than 6 million people were granted permanent U.S. residence, a figure exceeded only in the first decade of this century, when some 9 million people were accepted. It is illuminating to weigh these numbers against the total population: from 1901 to 1910 the average annual number of immigrants per thousand U.S. residents was 10.4; in the 1980s it was 2.7. However, these figures apply only to authorized immigration. At the start of the century almost all the immigrants came by ship, and illegal immigration was insignificant. In the 1980s the majority of immigrants came across the southern border. Despite the legalization allowed by IRCA, a large underground population undoubtedly supplemented the official figures.
By 1989 the number of illegal crossings had again begun to increase, and it may by now have ascended to preIRCA levels. The INS estimates that the resident population of undocumented immigrants has climbed back to 4 million. Some scholars disagree, placing the number closer to 2 million. Once again no one really knows. Surveys indicate, however, that the trends of the 1970s have continued: in California, Arizona, and Texas no more than 15 percent ot Mexican immigrants are now believed to work in agriculture. Nationwide, families are reuniting around the men legalized by IRCA. The mutual-aid networks are well developed. The pull runs deep through Mexico. There is a widespread belief that the United States will again grant amnesty.
Some observers believe that we should wait, allow the border to function as a safety valve for Mexico, let Salinas turn the Mexican economy around, and give free trade an opportunity to work. They say Mexicans prefer Mexico, and will stay there if they have hope for the future. The lesson of Tijuana, however, seems to be that economic development (most of which will take place along the border) may actually increase the flow of immigrants. As greater numbers of workers are drawn to northern Mexico, and as their material expectations increase, the United States may appear not less but more desirable. Despite the Bush Administration’s denials, true free-traders must in their hearts accept this, the human influx, as part of the package. The argument goes. Let the market function; the clandestine workers help us, and when we no longer need them, they will no longer come.
Increasing numbers of Americans disagree, and the anti-immigrant cause has made for strange coalitions. On the left, labor unionists and advocates for the poor are frightened of competition of any kind from Mexico; on the right, groups with thinly veiled racist agendas blame Mexicans for everything from water shortages to the decay of American values to suburban sprawl. Sensing a winning issue, California’s Governor Pete Wilson articulates the more mainstream objections: he blames immigrants for his state’s budget difficulties and for problems with the schools, hospitals, and community services. It is an old pattern: where society hurts, anti-immigrant sentiment grows.
The resentment has been magnified by a sense that we have lost control. Inevitably, there are calls to seal the border. This could be done, but only with enormous manpower—for instance, with a large-scale deployment of the U.S. armed forces and the creation of free-fire zones. It would not require much killing: the Soviets sealed their borders for decades without an excessive expenditure of ammunition. The simple fact that there existed a systematic policy of shooting illegal immigrants would deter most Mexicans. But adopting such a policy is not a choice most Americans would make. And. of course, there would be no question of free trade.
The middle course, which we follow now, is untidy, and many people consider it unsatisfactory. Faced with such widespread lawlessness, they argue, if we cannot seal the border, we must at least toughen it.
And Roberto Martinez asks. At what price?
Clients and Victims
ROBERTO MARTTNEZ IS A CHICANO ACTIVIST AND one of the Border Patrol’s strongest critics. He works in San Diego for the American Friends Service Committee and monitors civil-rights violations along the border. Martinez does not smile often or laugh easily. He asked me not to call him Hispanic, and explained that he is mestizo. (In the barrio you can buy T-shirts with the word “Hispanic” crossed out. as in a no-smoking sign.) There is no mistaking Martinez’s Indian blood. At fifty-five, he is a stocky man with heavy jowls, copper skin, and a large. flat face. His hair is jet black. He dresses stodgily in a shirt and tie, wears thick glasses, and complains that his vision is changing so fast his optometrist can’t keep up. His key chain reads WORLD’S GREATEST GRANDPA. He speaks gently, and pursues his work with a single-mindedness that can make him seem distracted.
I asked him a political question, about free trade and the changes in Mexico, and he apologized: “I haven’t given it much thought. I’m so busy here, you see.”By “here" he meant his downtown office—a small, well-lit room, with none of the clutter of a movement headquarters. Martinez does not advertise, or go looking for trouble. He sits at his desk with a telephone and a computer, and trouble finds him. In San Diego and Tijuana it is a matter of common knowledge that you have no recourse if you are beaten by the Mexican authorities; but if you are beaten by the Americans, or if your rights are trampled on, you can turn to Roberto Martínez. He is not a lawyer but a witness, who came up from the streets. He will not be intimidated. He initiates lawsuits. He complains, agitates, publicizes. He is persistent. The agents of law enforcement scorn him. They are dedicated men and women in a difficult situation, and Martínez reins them in. The fact that he can is one difference between Mexico and the United States. In this peculiar way Martínez is an American patriot.
He keeps photo albums of bis clients, men and women with battered faces, bruised bodies, broken bones, gunshot wounds. Their stories pour from his lips:
—This one was caught just after he came over the fence. He ran, and they chased him down.
—This one was sixteen. He picked up a rock, and they shot him in the gut.
—They caught him at a checkpoint and tried to get him to sign a voluntary return. He refused and said he wanted a hearing before an immigration judge. So they took him in the back room and beat him until he signed.
—They assaulted her sexually in front of her husband and child. They called it a body search and spread-eagled her on the ground. Her husband sobbed, “Tolerate it; you will have your day.”
Martínez can sound obsessed. His problem is that the stories quickly become repetitive, and the public is unsympathetic. Local television stations and newspapers have grown reluctant to cover his press conferences, not because they doubt him but because they have heard it all before. The Border Patrol dismisses him with a shrug: “Martínez again, with another one of his unsubstantiated allegations.” And the victims themselves are reluctant to testify. They come from countries where police abuse is the norm, and they don’t want trouble. They broke the law by crossing the border. The protections guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution do not impress them. They want to get on with their lives.
Early one evening, at dusk, Martínez took me for a ride along the boundary fence. He said, “The Border Patrol is the most uncontrolled, unsupervised, and undisciplined law-enforcement agency in the country. They think they are above the law. They think they can get away with anything.”
I prodded him. “But would they want to?”
He answered, “They have a gang mentality, a turf thing, and they act on each other. They have a code of silence, a code of revenge. They will always cover up.”
We parked by an abandoned quarry and watched the first large groups running north. A Border Patrol van cruised by us. Martínez looked tense. “I don’t come here much anymore,”he said. “Especially once the sun’s gone down. My wife worries.”
“About crime?” I asked, not understanding.
He shook his head, and checked the rearview mirror. “About the Border Patrol. They recognize me. Some of them would like nothing better than to catch me alone out here.”
“There are two of us tonight.”
“ They come to my house, you know. They blow their horns. They stop across the street and videotape me. T hey park transport vans there and load them with people. They come into my driveway.”
We drove north in silence. I watched his face in profile, lit for a moment by an oncoming car. His expression was heavy. In blackness he said, “You don’t run, you don’t argue, and you don’t refuse to sign. You don’t assert yourself. You do whatever they say. Even if you are a citizen, you have no rights.”
MARTÍNEZ IS A FIFTH-GENERATION MEXICANAmerican. He grew up in the barrios at the heart of San Diego. His family was poor, but owned the large Victorian house where Martinez lives today. As a boy he worked in the fields, traveling with his parents to the labor camps of the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys. He was harassed on buses in Los Angeles by soldiers who said, “Hey, you must be one of those pachacos.” He remembers the zoot-suit riots of the 1940s, the raids and repatriations of the 1950s, and the constant threat of being deported. “I had no relatives in Mexico. I didn’t speak much Spanish. They might as well have sent me to China.” When he was fourteen, and still in school, he began to wash dishes in downtown restaurants. The jobs rarely lasted long; before payday someone would call the Border Patrol and have the kitchen staff hauled away. Phe police were worse. They would pull up beside him on the street, shove him against a wall, point a gun to his head, handcuff him, and take him to jail. It was a weekly routine. They had composite draw ings of thieves, and all Mexicans looked the same. Martinez was never formally charged. At school he was put into “adjustment classes,” where he did not adjust. A counselor advised him not to graduate, and explained, “We need laborers.”
I asked how he had felt as a child. He said, “I thought they must be doing this to everyone. It must be normal.” He dropped out of school and got a factory job. He married, had five children, enrolled in night school, and eventually graduated from college with a degree in technical design. He rose through the ranks at work, and became an engineer. He bought a house in a white middle-class suburb called Santee, and moved his family out of the barrio. It was another American success story, but with a catch. The day before Martinez arrived in Santee, someone broke into the house and carved anti-Mexican slogans on the walls. Across the street a black family fled after a cross was burned on their lawn. Martinez stuck it out. Other Mexican-Americans arrived, and tensions grew. The Youth Klan Corps began recruiting in the schools, and racial fights broke out. Children were hurt. The police and school officials supported the Anglos. There were illegal raids and illegal arrests. At first politely, and then with insistence, Martinez fought back. He helped pursue a few successful lawsuits against the police, and developed a reputation. Mexican-Americans and immigrants began seeking him out, and the calls came from all over San Diego County. In 1977 Martinez, quit his job as an engineer and went to work full time as a community organizer. Two years later he moved back to the barrio, because he believed that living there would make him a more credible witness.
The barrio has changed: it is rougher and its population is more transient. When Martinez was a boy, English was heard on the streets; now only Spanish is heard. Many of the new residents are first-generation immigrants, but only some have come illegally. The tight weave of the city poses a problem for the border Patrol. Can immigration status be guessed by the dirt on a man’s shoes, by the color of a woman’s lips? Inevitably, agents misjudge. Americans are detained, and sometimes sent to Mexico.
In INS terminology a raid came to be called a sweep, then a survey. Martinez tells what happens when surveys go wrong: a family is torn apart; a girl is rounded up on her way to school and sent to Mexico; there are beatings, suicides, unexplained deaths in jail. A third of Martinez’s clients are Americans. He no longer makes much of a distinction between resident and alien, between barrio and border. One night, as he drove me through the neighborhoods, he said, “They hit this place hard, day after day. They give no one the benefit of the doubt. They bust into people’s houses without warrants. They rip up legitimate documents. They use German shepherds and stun guns, undercover agents and assault teams. They fly helicopters overhead. Now they want rubber bullets.” He was talking not only about the Border Patrol but also about the police. The agencies work closely together. Until Martínez put a stop to it, in nearby National City even the dogcatcher wore a gun and hunted immigrants.
The barrio is the other war zone—sprawling districts of vacant lots, old wooden houses, razor wire, and barred liquor stores. The streets are quiet; the sense of siege is undeniable. It is a land of knife wounds and drive-by shootings. Gang graffiti covers unpainted walls. Addicts and drunks wander the sidewalks. Martínez said sadly, “Drugs have sapped Chicano pride.” And alcohol, too. The young men who loitered on corners watched us sullenly. Martínez seemed nervous. “Roll up your window and lock your door; a white man’s not safe, even with me. They’ll drag you out of the car. They’ll kill you just for looking.” He took me to see a school, but the street was blocked by squad cars. A body lay face down in the gutter, swept by flashing lights.
Using All Your Senses
ONE SATURDAY EVENING I WENT OUT WITH THE Border Patrol in San Ysidro. I signed a liability release, but there was no danger—this was the Cook’s tour of the combat zone. My guide was one of the supervisors, an affable Puerto Rican from Manhattan named Norbert Gomez. He spoke with a New York accent, and had a habit of asking open-ended questions:
“An alien sees me, what’s the first thing that goes through his mind?”
I forget the exact answer, but it was something like “friendship” or “respect.” Gomez saw the world in Iris image. He had the swagger and self-confidence of the streets.
Gomez wanted to show me the boundary before sunset. We drove east along the fence in a standard-issue Bronco, the back caged to hold prisoners. Looking down into Mexico from a small rise, Gomez swept his hand and said, “Tijuana, Tee Jay, The Quick Fix.” He asked me to roll up my window. “They throw rocks,” he said. “Those are some bad colonial over there. We find dead bodies hung out on the fence here.”
He told me how he was raised: “Grow up. Go to the Army. Get out. Get a job. Vote. Be a good person.” He wanted to be a cop in New York but became one in San Diego, and then transferred to the Border Patrol.
“I’m a happy man,” he said, and, still driving, grabbed a sandwich from the boxed dinner on his lap. “I got a beautiful wife. Gorgeous. A knockout. Used to be a model.”
We drove to the sparsely populated desert on the outskirts of the cities. The fence ended and the boundary was marked by a steel cable strung between low posts. The cable was meant to prevent cars from driving across, but it had been cut. Ahead a family walked along the track, followed by two black mongrels.
Gomez said, “Their intention is not to enter the U.S. but to walk their dogs.”
We turned back toward the port of entry and came upon two small boys.
Gomez motioned them over and gave them the remainder of his meal. We drove on, and he shuffled through a stack of papers. In 1990 in this sector alone, Gomez said, the Border Patrol apprehended 472,323 aliens. The monthly average was 39,360. In 1991 the average was more than 45,000.
“You mean apprehensions, not people,” I said.
He waved away the difference. “If you want action, this job’s better than the E ticket at Disneyland.” He got back to the numbers. Seized: 8,500 pounds of marijuana, 681 pounds of cocaine, eighty-seven weapons, 861 vehicles. OTMs this month: 228 Salvadorans, seventy-five Guatemalans, forty-five Hondurans, eight Chinese.
“Chinese?” I asked. Still?
“Chinese, Rumanians, Brazilians, Africans, Russians, Pakistanis. Mexico is an open visa. You never know what’s coming over the fence.”
NIGHT FEEL, BLACK AND COLD, AND WE DROVE into the badlands east of the port of entry. Gomez had deployed twenty-three men there, guarding three miles of boundary. At the top of a hill we stood with a two-man team working an infrared scope. They were laconic countryboys in camouflage jackets. They radioed the other agents and directed them to their quarry: below you, ten yards west, behind the rock, hiding in the grass. I looked through the scope into a bright greenish landscape of gullies and bushes, and watched the phosphorescent figures moving north. I thought, in Vietnam we would have called in air strikes, and we didn’t win there either.
Gomez grew more intense as the night wore on. In a dark canyon we walked away from the Bronco. He switched off his flashlight, and we stood in silence. He whispered, “You’re an agent out here alone. What do you see?”
The bushes rustled. He whispered, “Animal or alien?”
I didn’t answer.
He nudged me, “What about your nose?”
He said, “Did you know you can actually smell the presence of aliens?”
“I never thought about it.”
He switched on the light. “You see, out here a Border Patrol agent has to use all his senses.”
But in San Ysidro the job seemed like fishing in an overstocked pond. The agents were hauling in would-be immigrants by the dozen. As a demonstration, Gomez called over the helicopter, which lit tip a group for us. Two did not run. Gomez greeted them, frisked them, and ushered them gently into the back of the Bronco. They were men in their thirties, with wild hair and soiled clothes, as if they had traveled far. They seemed stunned, but not afraid. Gomez wrinkled his nose. “Whew, these guys are ripe.”
We drove them out of the hills. I felt uncomfortable, as if I were feeding on their misfortune. I asked them how they were, and they said okay. They said they would try again later in the night. For my benefit Gomez asked, “Who do you like better, the migra or the Mexican police?” They said the migra—the U.S. immigration police—and I did not doubt them.
In a busy parking lot by the port of entry we handed them over to the transport units, and then we turned and watched at least a hundred more people cresting the hill above us. The helicopter clattered furiously, stabbing the line with its light. Border Patrol trucks churning dust fanned out to meet the onslaught. Through the confusion, apparently unaware, walked groups of college students going south to drink in Tijuana. Gomez smiled at three pretty girls and said, “You take care over there,” and they giggled.
We met another agent, an immaculate man with a starched uniform and a narrow, pale face. He spoke about San Ysidro. “Your basic lower-middle class. It’s not a bad neighborhood per se; it’s just that it has its trouble with the alien traffic.” His pronunciation was careful. He told me he had a master’s degree in sociology. “We hear a lot of complaints—your beatings, your civil-rights cases, what have you. When you deal with this volume of custodial arrests, you just have to figure on that. It does not get me excited.”
But Gomez worried about it. We drove back out into the desert and parked, and he said, “The Border Patrol this, the Border Patrol that. There’s people who think all we do is beat on Mexicans. Did you know that wc get only one allegation for every seventeen thousand arrests?”
I had heard the number already from Roberto Martínez, who believes it says more about the stoicism of the immigrants than about the conduct of the Border Patrol. I didn’t know how to answer Gomez without seeming accusatory.
He read my silence anyway, and asked, “What’s an agent to do, not defend himself? Put yourself in our position. You’re out here doing your job, you apprehend some aliens, a fight ensues, someone picks up a rock. A rock can kill you. It can render you unconscious. It can take your eye out. It’s a missile, just like a bullet. People will say, how can you put a gun up against a rock? Well, let me throw a rock at you. I’ll put a gun in your hand, and you tell me when you’re ready to shoot.”
Tucson: The Air War
IN SOUTHERN ARIZONA. I COUNTED TEN FEDERAL agencies out trying to distinguish drug smugglers from ordinary citizens. They use linked computers, data bases, and all the power of modern law. In this they are helped by city police, county sheriffs, and state troopers. At the ports of entry National Guardsmen search vehicles. In remote deserts the Army conducts large training exercises designed in part to intimidate. The Pentagon’s Joint Task Force Six treads a fine line of involvement in civil affairs, distributing military hardware and advice to the various police forces. The Army Corps of Engineers builds access roads; the Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines contribute when they can. Nonetheless, the drugs keep coming. Florida is old history: nationwide, most of the marijuana, half the cocaine, and a third of the heroin are now smuggled in from Mexico. No one knows how much gets through, but it amounts to enough for millions of Americans. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 12.8 percent of Americans used illegal drugs in 1991—down one half of one percent from 1990. Even the most hard-nosed drug warriors admit that demand draws the traffic, and only lack of demand will stop it. In the meantime, they have orders to fight the problem at the border.
It is a big operation. Officially the federal government allotted $11.7 billion this year to fight drugs, 70 percent of which went to law enforcement. The real expenditure was higher, hidden in more obscure budgets and intentions. I was told that one Border Patrol chief had recently ordered his agents not to worry anymore about catching aliens, to go out and catch drug runners. The man needed to produce drug seizures to please Washington. The search for progress is the guiding principle of endless battle: in Vietnam we counted enemy corpses; here we count pounds. You might think there would be plenty of pounds to go around, but the seizures are rare, and the agencies squabble incessantly over money and reputations. In the desert their trackers track one another. A coordinating effort called Operation Alliance looks better in name than in fact. Were it not for a bookkeeping system that allows everyone involved in a seizure to claim credit simultaneously, the competing agencies might resort to sabotage.
The bookkeeping system has another benefit. It generates “attaboy letters" for the agents of the air division of the U.S. Customs Service. In Tucson, I talked to a pilot who had just received his first one. He laughed and said, “I was three hundred miles away, but I happened to be in the air when someone got busted.”After four more letters, he said, he would get an ace patch for his flight suit. I presumed he meant his blue jeans—like most of the pilots, he looked a little street-worn. He said he wasn’t holding his breath waiting for the next bust: in three years with Customs he had not yet seen action. That is one problem with the job. To the extent that your efforts succeed, you won’t find many airplanes to chase. It is hard on a young man. An older pilot heard him complaining and commented, “It’s like anything anymore.” He did not seem to mind.
Air-traffic-control radar is designed to follow legitimate flights, not to detect low-altitude intruders. Until recently a smuggler willing to fly a few hundred feet off the ground could come across the Mexican border unseen. Customs relied on a loose network of informants to call in suspicious airplanes. It did not work. When I lived in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, I sometimes heard the smugglers come over at night, flying blacked-out airplanes. I remember the distinctive rumble of a DC-3, and its silhouette cruising the valley in the light of the moon. My job as an air-taxi pilot gave me an excuse to fly low, and occasionally to cross the border without a flight plan. Never once was I questioned. But it’s like anything anymore: times have changed, and Customs has erected yet another fence. This one is electronic, and takes the form of six tethered balloons carrying military radars that peer at every inch of the border.
THE BALLOONS, WHICH ARE PARKED 10,000 FEET above the surface, are called aerostats. The term sounds impressive but lacks precision. All balloons—whether hot-air or helium, zeppelins or toys—are aerostats: they fly not by dynamic lift, achieved by forcing air down, but by static lift, which is analogous to a ship’s floating. The Customs balloon is somewhat longer than a Boeing 747, but less graceful. A puffy white blimp with a bulbous radar pod and oversized tailfins, it flies a fixed position at the end of a Kevlar umbilical cord. In desert sunlight it shines brilliantly; at night it flashes with powerful strobes to keep airplanes from flying into it. The idea is not a new one: balloons were used for reconnaissance during the Civil War, and they were widely deployed along the Western Front during the First World War. They were called “captive balloons” in English, and Fesselballone in German—Fesselbeing “fetters.” They carried artillery spotters, who telephoned their observations along wires built into the tethers. When attacked by fighters, the spotters had to jump; this was the first regular use of parachutes.
The Customs balloons are different in one important way: they carry radar, which from the maximum altitude sweeps the horizon for 150 miles around. The radars do not blink, panic, or worry about their girlfriends. Combined, they form an overlappingpolka-dot line from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico.
The balloons are tethered in Yuma and Fort Huachuca, Arizona; in Doming, New Mexico; and in Marfa, Eagle Pass, and Rio Grande City, Texas. Their gleanings are transmitted to the Customs radar room in Riverside, east of Los Angeles.
The system is not omnipotent. Already three balloons have crashed and been replaced. They are vulnerable to, among other things, high winds, dust devils, jet-stream turbulence, ice, and snow. Thunderstorms, which hit the border by the thousands, are their mortal enemies.
At Fort Huachuca, I stood with a ground-crew chief while he eyed a growing thunderstorm and ordered his ship reeled in. He was a retired fighter pilot with a chiseled jaw. He gave me his plan for weather: “If the cell’s ten miles out, we’ll fly at ten thousand. Cut the distance in half, and we’re down to five thousand. The idea is to dock it, secure it”—he pointed to the pavement—“and step across that yellow line when the first drop falls. If the crew gets wet, I buy steaks.” It seems like a reasonable plan, because the balloons are fairly safe when secured to their docking masts, but it means they spend much of their time on the ground, where the radar is essentially blind.
There is another problem. The balloon is like a giant flag—when you raise it, you proclaim your seriousness; by hauling it down, you signal that the border is again open for business. In theory, Customs can fill the gap by sending one of its long-range patrol airplanes aloft. The patrol airplane is the all-weather Lockheed P-3, a fourengine turboprop stuffed with electronics, shouldering an early-warning radar in a twenty-four-foot flat dish— fancy battlefield stuff, expensive to buy and to fly. Customs bases its fleet in Corpus Christi, Texas. The equipment has excited the agency into military prose: “The Defense in Depth strategy provides for offensive and defensive capabilities via the use of mobile and fixed detection resources deployed in depth and reaching to source and transit countries from the borders of the United States.” In other words, we keep the balloons here and send the P-3s offshore, over international waters, to watch deeper into Mexico and Central and South America. What this means, however, is that when the balloons are hauled down, as they are regularly, the chances are that no patrol airplane is available. With equipment like P-3s, you don’t sit around waiting for bad weather in Fort Huachuca.
The Customs agents are not naive. They have flown the border for decades, and know its size and challenges. They like to take reporters to high altitude over southern Arizona and show them a land so vast and empty that the cities look like cloud shadows and the mountains like veins under the skin of the earth. This is hot drug-running country, on the direct line to California. Customs never claimed that it could stop the air traffic, only that it could slow it. Despite the problems with the radar fence, it appears to be succeeding. The goal of a one-in-four interdiction rate no longer seems impossible.
Interdiction means more than seeing your quarry on radar—you have to catch it, too. That is where the aircrews come in. Once a suspicious airplane has been spotted, they fly out to intercept it, follow it, and seize the load. Aircrews are positioned at airports all along the border. The Tucson station, at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, is one of the biggest. There is new drug-fighting money here—lots of it. Since 1985 the staff has grown from fifteen to eighty, half of whom are pilots. Their main interceptors are $8 million versions of the Cessna Citation business jet, equipped with F-16 target radars and forward-looking infrared scopes. The Citation is a match for the opposition: it can dash to 400 miles an hour and slow to 100. It can even land on the short dirt runways preferred by smugglers—though it cannot take off again. Therefore, for the final stage of the chase Tucson sends out the Sikorsky Blackhawks, powerful $16 million military helicopters equipped with night-vision devices. The Blackhawks carry the “bust crews,” meaning anyone who happens to be sitting around the station. Everyone wants to go. Sometimes there is gunplay, but the agents don’t think of the dangers. Busts break the monotony of the job.
Tucson is strong in the numbers: last year it generated roughly 170 arrests, eighteen seized aircraft, 140 seized vehicles, 6,000 pounds of cocaine, 26,000 pounds of marijuana, $5 million in cash, and untold attaboy letters. Between sorties the crews endure a firehouse routine. They thumb magazines, read technical manuals, and hope for a call. They don’t talk much, because they have said it before. They watch videos. They run missions to Burger King. On some shifts they practice emergency procedures, or grab one of the confiscated airplanes and poke around the border airports. Sometimes they get calls from the police for their Boelkow helicopter with the 30 million candlepower “night sun" spotlight. “Very psychological,” one pilot told me. “It intimidates people.”
When the weather is good, the jet crew is expected to take a Citation out and cruise the border for a few hours, searching for traffic with the F-16 radar. They call it trolling; it’s a way of keeping their flight hours up and practicing their intercepts. To avoid a pattern, they fly where they want, when they want.
THE CREW I ACCOMPANIED CHOSE SOUTHEAST Arizona, where the balloon at Fort Huachuca was down again. We climbed on autopilot past blossoming clouds to 17,000 feet. The captain, named Sayrahder, was a former air-traffic controller with long blond hair and an aging face. His copilot looked like a fraternity boy; his name was Cruciger, but they called him Junior. It was his turn to fly the airplane. Besides the standard instrumentation and some extra radios, the flight deck contained special radar scopes, small repeaters of the big screens in the back, where the radar operator was at work, aiming the antennas. He was a slight, prematurely balding agent named Forcum, who told me he liked action.
The only action around was one of their own Blackhawks coming at us, trundling east to FI Paso at 150 miles an hour. We picked it up on the target radar, 9,000 feet below. Sayrahder radioed the other pilots, and Cruciger showed me his technique—a cold, stern intercept. He turned toward the helicopter, passed it high and fast, dropped behind into its blind six o’clock position, slowed, and crept up until he locked into place about twenty feet behind it and slightly to the side. The idea is to read the registration number on the tail, transmit it to Riverside, and then, if the computers do not suspect a smuggler, depart without being seen. Sayrahder thought Cruciger had approached too aggressively, and reminded him of another Customs pilot who had shot past a suspect airplane in an embarrassment of brakes, unable to slow in time. We watched the Blackhawk’s tail vibrate, commented on the shaking of helicopters in general, and accelerated away through a steep turn.
Sayrahder said, “Who else’ll give three guys a Citation with full fuel and a credit card?”
We came around for a high-speed pass, clipped past the Blackhawk at 400 miles an hour, and swept into a climb. The helicopter pilot radioed his laughter and said, “Whooee, Junior’s bad.”
An unusually high-flying bug hit the windshield at 16,500 feet, and we discussed it for a while. When the Fort Huachuca balloon went up, I asked the pilots how they decided which targets to intercept. They said, more or less, We use discretion, we don’t intercept the airlines.
Finally we had someone on the radar, off the right nose, doing 140 miles an hour eastbound at 9,500 feet. Riverside checked its recent flight path and confirmed that the plane had been following the airway. Cruciger looked eager, and Sayrahder said, “Lotta times they’ll try to mix into the legitimate traffic.” He flew the intercept, and approached carefully from miles astern. Standard radar shows an airplane as a symbol on an electronic map; forward-looking infrared radar shows a ghostly image of the target much as you would see it with your eyes. It is intended as a night-vision device, but it works as well in daylight. The airplane ahead began to take on definition in infrared while it was still only a speck in the sky: high wings, two engines, slow-turning propellers, strange outboard pods. Closer in, we discovered it was a flying boat, a Grumman Albatross. Sayrahder snuggled up to the tail, and the airplane filled our windshield. Gruciger had trouble reading the registration number, because of the aquatic curvature of the hull, and Sayrahder had to move farther to the side. This did not please him, because it put us within view of the other cockpit—but, as he said, how often do pilots look back? Once we had the number, we dropped into a trailing position and waited while Riverside ran a check. The check came up empty; it almost always does. We got a name and an address in Miami, no history of smuggling, and we turned away.
Cutting for Sign
SOUTHWEST OF TUCson, in an emptiness of jagged ridges and wild valleys, lies an Indian reservation nearly the size of Connecticut. For some sixty miles it backs on the border, which is merely a cattle fence. This is the high country of the Sonoran desert, with thick growths of cacti and smallleafed bushes, watered in the summer and winter by seasonal rains. The people who live here are the Tohono O’odham, a loose configuration of Pima-speaking Indians also known as the Papago. Like many Indian groups, they are poor and troubled, and survive largely on government handouts. Their ancestors lived a semi-nomadic life across large tracts of the desert.
When the border intruded, in 1854, slicing their land in two, its immediate effect was to provide a refuge in the United States from persecution in Mexico. While Mexican settlers were pushing the Indians aside in Sonora, across the line in Arizona the O’odham lived in valleys no one wanted, and fought alongside the Army against their traditional enemies the Apaches. As “good Indians,” they were mostly left alone. The southern O’odham began to migrate north. Since Mexico has never believed in reservations, those who did not flee were slowly engulfed. By 1400 the identifiable population in Sonora had shrunk to a thousand; today it is estimated at two hundred. The holdouts live in remote villages just south of the border, under threat from encroaching ranchers. In desperation they tear down the new fences built across their pastures. Hired cowboys answer with flashed weapons and mutilated cattle. They call the Indians squatters, and bulldoze vacant houses. The Indians say they will fight—brave words in a violent land. This is the backcountry of Sonora, a long way from Mexico City, and justice has been corrupted.
But the holdouts are not alone; the official count underestimates the strength of the O’odham in Mexico. It is based on a legalistic definition of the border, and on “pure race” concepts that do not necessarily reflect people’s views of themselves. Many O’odham are still seminomadic. They live a few weeks here, a few weeks there, and do not let the border stand in their way. I talked to a tribal official who said that a third of the families on the U.S. reservation retain close ties to Mexico. They keep households in the Mexican villages, shop in Mexican stores, and pray in the Mexican churches. They attend festivals and visit friends. Crossing the border here is illegal, but there are thirteen gates in the cattle fence, and they are left open.
I asked a tall young man to name the gates. We stood by a trailer in Sells, Arizona, the capital of the reservation. Speaking softly from the chest, clipping the words with his throat in the Indian way, he said, “Buenos Aires, Newfields, Valenzuela, San Miguel, Whitehouse, Serapo, Vamori, Irak, Rockpoint, Christmas, Papago Farms, Salt Well, Menenger’s Dam. There’s a bunch of cuts in the fence ain’t got a name.”
He had done a stint in the U.S. Navy as a jet mechanic, and now lived in Mexico, helping his grandmother with her cows. Since his truck had broken down, he was spending a few days in Sells. I asked, “Are you a Mexican or U.S. citizen?”
He looked away at the mountains. “What do you mean?”
“What passport do you have?”
“Don’t have one.”
“If you had one.”
He pulled out his wallet and showed me his tribal card. “Tohono O’odham. The O’odham Nation.”
I learned he had been a heavy drinker. “But three ghosts came, told me I’d have trouble. So I don’t drink no more, and I don’t do dope.” I asked him if he ever had done dope. He did not answer. I told him I had come to write about smuggling on the reservation. It is pervasive, and may now constitute the most common occupation among the O’odham. I had heard an O’odham schoolteacher say this is not all bad: success of any kind is better than the hopelessness of the government dole. The argument is a measure of the reservation’s despair.
I spoke one day with the Customs agent responsible for fighting smuggling on the reservation, a lanky white man named Floyd Laccwcll: age forty-seven, boots, jeans, turquoise shirt, graying hair, weathered skin, a pistol on his hip.
He said, “After fifteen years of the same shit, you look back and wonder what you’ve done.” He smiled wryly. “The last few years we’ve caught a bunch, which means there’s just a whole bunch more getting through.” In other words, while Washington peddles the theory of wearing down the drug cartels, I ,acewell is out in the field getting overrun. Frustration has developed in him a fine sense of the absurd. About his work he says, “It’s a civilian version of Vietnam. That makes it the second losing war I’ve fought.”
AS DAWN BROKE ONE DAY I MET BOB ANTONE IN SELLS, and we drove south in a small four-wheel-drive truck, across the reservation and toward the border gate at Papago Farms. Antone is one of the Customs Service’s O’odham trackers, a burly man of forty with longish black hair. He was dressed in jeans and lug-sole boots. Trackers are also known as sign cutters; they “cut for sign.” “Sign” is evidence of recent passage across the land—a tire track, a footprint, a broken branch. “Cutting” is the action that applies to it, whether searching, finding, or understanding. It is a high art. Antone described his work as “Come out here, cut for sign, maybe jump a load.” He is a man of few words.
The land was green with mesquite, dense with desert scrub. We followed a dirt road past a white adobe chapel and a village of traditional houses with walls of spiny ocotillo plastered with mud. Later we came to more-typical cinder-block houses of the style built by the government on reservations throughout the West. We cased by a cow. A car passed, swirling dust. Antone peered at the driver, a woman he knew and suspected of occasional smuggling. He said. “I wonder where she’s coming from.” To stop her, he would have needed a reason to believe that she had just crossed the border.
A Gila monster waddled across the road. Antone said, “Second one I’ve seen this year. Last year didn’t see any. Haven’t seen any rattlesnakes this year. Seen a couple run over on the highway, but not out here on patrol.”
We passed Papago Farms, a 3,000-acre irrigation project with a long and troubled history. The road grew rougher and dissolved into deep puddles still standing from the previous week’s rain. We parked by the open border gate, where the road widened and continued south. I walked across the metal grate of the cattle guard into Mexico. The day was hot already, and I walked back across to the United States. Antone told me a story: When Customs tried to stop a pickup carrying a load, the driver turned around and raced for the gate. Antone blocked the gate with his truck. The driver sped right through the fence.
I thought, anyone would have. The fence is three strands of barbed wire strung between wooden posts. The purpose of the gate is to keep the fence intact. When Antone blocked it, he caused some poor cowboy an hour of cursing in the sun.
All day we followed the primitive dirt roads along the fence line and north through the desert pastures. Antone drove at walking speed with his head stuck outside, looking down, checking the dirt for tracks, cutting for sign. He told me more stories: We found fresh tracks and followed them through the desert, an hour, a day, two days. We jumped smugglers and arrested them, or we saw where they had been, but they were too fast for us, and got away. Once Antone said simply, “Last week a guy found five hundred pounds of coke under a tree.”
Most of the cocaine that comes through Mexico and into the United States comes right through the ports of entry, concealed in truckloads of vegetables or seafood or anything else that Customs can examine only cursorily because it spoils in the heat. The smugglers guard the load from a distance, and often don’t inform the truckers that they are hauling contraband. It is a good technique, likely to become better with the free-trade traffic. Marijuana, because of its bulk, is harder to conceal, and it goes around the ports. Some cocaine does too. For pickup trucks the most common entry is by dirt road across the reservation; the open gates and historic traffic make smuggling by the Indians difficult to detect. Drug organizations pay up to $5,000 a load, and find plenty of O’odham willing to take the risk. The most intricate procedure calls for “heat vehicles” equipped with radios to lead the loads and scout for trouble.
But the surest method is a string of backpackers walking for days through the desert. The packs are made of sugar sacks roped together, and weigh up to a hundred pounds. Increasingly, marijuana and cocaine are combined in a single trip. Led by a guide, perhaps supplied by prearranged caches of water and food, the backpackers walk the loads fifty miles north and hide them near state highways.
We drove on, the radio sometimes crackling with police talk. The best place to cut for sign is a loose-dirt road, smoothed and fluffed by recent rain. If you study the ground against a low sun, the tracks appear luminescent. Our conditions were different; the earth was packed, dry, and heavily traveled, and soon the sun was high. We saw hundreds of footprints, mostly old and irrelevant. I found them confusing.
Across one road that afternoon we found a group of new footprints. Antone studied them, frowning a little. He walked around them, and he crouched. He poked at the soil with the toe of his boot to check the depth and compare for freshness. He went out in the desert to see if the walkers had turned after crossing the road. They had not. He pointed and said, “They’re guiding on that mountain.” He counted fourteen people, and concluded they were immigrants.
I asked how he knew. He explained, They’re going for speed, not caution; they have small feet, like Indians from Oaxaca; this one’s wearing rubber-tire sandals; these are children; and look, here is a woman in high heels. He said they had crossed that morning, and he showed me the weathering that had just begun to soften the edges, and the bird tracks across the prints of a man’s pointed street shoes.
Other immigrants are more careful about crossing the dirt roads. Some walk backward, to appear to be heading south. Some attach severed cows’ hooves to their feet, and some attach horseshoes. One man was a pole vaulter, and left a mysterious indentation at the center of each road.
Smugglers leave a different record. They wear waffle-soled hiking shoes or smooth-bottomed sneakers, and they rest every quarter mile, setting down their heavy packs. They camp and sleep. Caution counts for more than speed; otherwise the load would have been sent by truck. The backpackers stick to low ground and the heaviest vegetation. They follow cattle trails, but otherwise do not walk in single file. When they come to a road, they disperse and cross it at widely different points, seeking hard and stony soil. They brush out their prints. Some wear carpet on their feet. But once the O’odham trackers are on to them, none of it helps. The trackers are persistent, and the slightest disturbance attracts their attention—an overturned pebble, a bent blade of grass. The best among them can follow a trail across bare rock.
Antone discovered tire marks leading unexpectedly into the desert—a pickup pulling a horse trailer. We followed the marks slowly through the brushland until we came to the place where the pickup had backed up and turned around. The ground showed that two horses had been unloaded and two men had mounted up. The horse tracks headed south and returned from an angle. Antone and I followed on foot. He moved with surprising agility for someone his size.
He said, “Probably a couple of cowboys, but I don’t know who.” After a half hour he said, “See how the tracks spread, like they were out looking for cattle?” He said, “Somebody else was out here too, cutting for sign, checking the area. Looks like Brian. But I noticed back there the trailer tracks were on top of his.”
We came to a rock pile, climbed it, and found two empty Budweiser cans. Antone cut for sign south of the rock pile and found nothing. We followed the horse tracks back to where the trailer had been. As we drove away, Antone said quietly, “It was Arivicio and his man out looking for strays. Didn’t find any. Brian noticed the tire tracks, found the trailer, went out on foot, ran into Arivicio on the way back. Sometime yesterday.”
BUT NO MATTER HOW well the Customs trackers read the land, the fact remains that they hardly slow the drug smugglers. I went south of the border to a meeting of O’odham and Mexican cowboys, who described trucks stacked high with marijuana bales, moving under armed guard to staging areas just south of the fence. I asked about Customs, and one man said, “Day after day we see the dope going through the gates. Sometimes we see Customs.”
The meeting had been called because of an increase in cattle rustling. Eight men gathered under a mesquite tree in Mexico, stirring the dirt with their toes, smoking, and speaking softly, mixing words from three languages. During the long silences, when each man looked away, the desert intruded with buzzing flies and birds chirping in the bushes. The land was pale and hot and smelled faintly of dung. I asked an O’odham rancher from the reservation how many animals he had lost to rustlers. He wore a hat with a turned-down brim, and I could not see his eyes. He answered, “Last year I found about thirty tracks in four miles of fence. Just this week I heard a cow sounding like site was getting pulled by the neck.”
“What do they do with the cows?”
He tilted his head and glanced pityingly at me. “Some they eat, some they keep. Some they butcher, and sell the meat.”
Wondering how the loss of thirty cows affected him, I asked the size of his herd. He answered, “Sometimes we have drought and they die out. In a good year we ship quite a few. Hard to say how many are out there. We can’t do it like the white man and count each one.”
It was a good dodge; I had the feeling he knew the number within a calf or two.
The men weren’t optimistic about stopping the rustling. One rancher had tried to organize regular patrols along the border fence, but had been restrained by threats to his family. Most of the rustlers are known—
Mexican cowboys who have gotten involved in the drug business, and who profit from the lawlessness to steal the occasional cow. To stop the rustling, the men agreed, you would have to stop the drug traffic.
One man, a Mexican who wanted to help, said, “I am convinced that in the state of Sonora nothing can be done about anything. The ranchers and drug traffickers have it under control. The army and police have sold out. And the men in power wouldn’t appreciate it if we tried to go over their heads to Mexico City.”
I said, referring to Salinas’s attempts at reform, “But there are changes, real changes.”
“And they will answer you, ‘That’s Mexico City. It will never get here.’ These people are damned serious. They are fighting Salinas, and I think they will win.”
An O’odham from a village to the south said, “The traffickers are organized, and they are ruthless. You are either with them or against them. The people are afraid. When they hear the trucks coming, they hide in their houses.”
One night I sat through a storm and waited for traffic with a Customs Service tracker named Lambert Cross. Cross is a big man with an easy laugh. We were parked off the road in a four-wheel-drive Suburban, a mile north of the gate at San Miguel. Thunder ripped overhead, and lightning slashed the valley around us. To the north, water had risen in the arroyos, cutting off our return to Sells.
Cross was happy. He said that sound travels better after a rain, so you can hear an engine at two miles, and a truck crossing a cattle guard at five. In the meantime, since no smugglers would come across until the arroyos subsided, he played me a tape of old-timey music by an O’odham group, the Gu-achi Fiddlers. We listened to the “Tohono Special Polka,” the “Second Time in San Xavier Two-Step,” the “Pinto Bean Two-Step,” and the “Cababi Polka,” which is named after a village. He called it pascola music, a dying tradition, and said his brother-inlaw is one of the greats. Cross himself plays guitar and sings gospel. Two years ago he played at the Indian National Finals, which is a big rodeo in Albuquerque. At my insistence we listened to a recording of him singing “He’s My Lord and My King.” Afterward he told me, “Jesus is my salvation.”
Cross is forty-seven. He grew up on a small branch of the reservation along the Gila River. His family had eighteen horses for plowing and pulling wagons. Each night they were turned loose, and each morning before breakfast Cross went out to find them. By the age of ten he was an accomplished tracker. The family chopped mesquite, sold the wood, and with the money bought coffee, sugar, salt, bacon, and lard. Everything else they grew or hunted. They were so poor that they bought the children shoes two sizes too big and made them go barefoot when they came home from school. They had a radio, and at night they sat around it listening to The Lone Ranger. Afterward the grandfather tried to teach them traditional songs, which told the story of the world.
Cross was sent off to the big Indian boarding school in Riverside, California, where he was required to speak English. For lack of practice he forgot his grandfather’s songs, and now he regrets that his granddaughter must learn them from someone other than himself. After graduating, Cross married, moved to Oakland, and went to work in factories. He drank heavily, almost lost his family, returned to the reservation, stopped drinking, and became a cop and a born-again Christian.
While he talked about his life, the rain ended and the storm rumbled off to the west. The wind was cool and damp; it smelled of wet earth, mesquite, a trace of skunk. Scattered clouds slid over a half-moon, and the desert darkened and brightened. The Baboquivari Mountains rose in a jagged black ridge above us; Cross spoke about I’itoi, the O’odham Creator, who is said to have lived among the peaks. A coyote began to yelp and howl, and the entire valley came alive with a thousand high-pitched answers. The singing lasted for minutes and suddenly died, (iross said, “When I’itoi was making people, he let Coyote help with the cooking. But Coyote didn’t pay attention, and he undercooked some and made whites.” Cross must have thought I needed more cooking. He handed me an Atomic Fireball, a peppery candy that burned in my mouth. I spit it out, and he laughed. He had a bag of Fireballs at his feet. He said they kept him alert during these lonely watches.
The Best Video Game in Town
IN GOVERNMENT JARGON THE CUSTOMS SERVICE’S facility in Riverside, California, is known as C3I, for “command, control, communications, and intelligence.” It is the home of the Customs Service’s knowing eye, the border voyeur. The radar building is a low tan fortress on March Air Force Base, enclosed by
fences and barbed wire, watched over by closed-circuit television cameras. The lobby is an armored room, where a uniformed guard questions visitors through thick glass. But the guard smiles easily, and has grown bored by the precautions.
The building hums with air-conditioning. It is well lit and heavily carpeted. The people who work there dress neatly and took like headquarters staff. Before letting me into the radar room, they cleared classified information from the computer consoles, hinting that it related to politically sensitive joint operations south of the border. Direct U.S. involvement in Mexican counternarcotics operations has increased in recent years, the theory being that an American presence will stiffen the resolve of dishonest Mexican police forces. President Salinas knows that if his reforms are to succeed, he must move effectively against corruption—perhaps Mexico’s most intractable problem. This is one way to do it, or at least, in the eyes of Washington, to appear to do it. But few Mexicans are comfortable with the idea of U.S. paramilitary forces roaming their territory, and many resent the presumption of American moral superiority.
The enthusiast who demonstrated Riverside’s tracking system was a sharp-faced young radar operator who had learned his trade as an officer in the Air Force. I will keep the list of wonders short: The system can track 2,000 targets at a time. It looks deep into Mexico, combining returns from the balloons, air-traffic control, patrol airplanes, and the military. It superimposes those returns on ground maps that show the smallest dirt tracks. It picks up road traffic. It provides names, criminal records, traffic violations, and personal financial reports.
We sat for hours watching traffic move across the screen, and pulled up information at random on declared flight plans: the names of the pilots, where they lived, where they were going. The radar operator was absorbed in his work; he called the screen the best video game in town. We talked about ways to fool the tracking system.
He said: You can slow an airplane to car speeds, stick to a Mexican highway, and then dash across the border. You can fly north in the shadow of a train and at the last moment break off. You can work a piggyback scheme with two airplanes, one declared and one not, flying in such close formation that they merge on radar. You can cross the border legally, avoiding suspicion with a flight plan, drop the load to a ground crew, and return to Mexico without touching down.
For each of these moves the radar operator had a countermove. He was a chess player. He could not, however, explain the logic of the moves that followed: as we watched, a target fly ing at 500 miles an hour streaked in from the south and landed on a ranch airstrip just below the Rio Grande, in the state of Coahuila. Like many ranches in northern Mexico, this one was a known staging area for drug runners. According to Riverside’s maps, the runway there was dirt and barely 3,000 feet long—short for what was clearly a small jet. He said, “It’s incredible what those pilots can do.” But physics governs flight, and there is no magic to performance: shoehorning an airplane requires only that you gamble. And the entire drug business, like any black market, thrives on risk. Risk eliminates small-time bunglers, restricts the competition, and keeps the profits up. The big drug organizations depend on Customs to help them with this.
Now a slower target took off from Del Rio, Texas, crossed the river, and flew into the field where the jet had landed. Riverside alerted a Customs flight crew. After ten minutes on the ground the two suspect airplanes took off from the ranch, turned north, went through the official border-crossing procedures, and landed back at Del Rio. They were met by Customs agents. We got word at Riverside: the jet was a French-made Falcon 10, and the slower airplane was a single-engine Cessna Centurion. Both appeared clean, but the Cessna pilot claimed that he had never seen the jet before. The agents started tearing the airplanes apart.
In Riverside the radar operator called up the performance specifications for the Falcon 10 and discovered that the airplane was missing from the data base. He did get the numbers for larger models, the Falcons 20 and 50.
I glanced at the stated runway requirements: they were the most conservative possible figures, the lengths a pilot might calculate at maximum weight with company executives aboard, and they understated the real capabilities of the airplanes. No wonder in the eyes of the government the smugglers seem superhuman—they do not play by the official rules.
I noticed the same tendency in Tucson: on nights when thunderstorms are raging and the balloons are down, the Citation crews are not expected to fly their random patrols. This is as it should be, since thunderstorms are dangerous. But the weather provides cover for smugglers who fly anyway, picking through the storms, taking risks with the mountains. In a perverse way, this pleases me: there are summer nights when the Arizona sky is still wild.
Del Rio found no drugs on the airplanes. Riverside entered the registration numbers into the suspect list, and I went for a sandwich with some of the agents. They complained about the ability of the smugglers to outmaneuver them, and the clumsiness of their own response. They blamed bureaucracy.
I said, But your role by definition is to wait; even your intelligence is just an attempt to predict your opponents’ initiatives.
The assistant chief was not happy with my description.
He wanted to use the word “proactive.”
I asked if they felt restrained by the courts, and they said sure, but less now than before. The conversation turned to a congressional proposal floated several years ago that would have allowed Customs to shoot down suspect airplanes.
A slick-talking man said, “That was crazy. We make one mistake, take out one Mexican doctor with his family in a Bonanza . . He shook his head at the thought of the consequences.
A burly helicopter pilot disagreed. “What mistake? You’re up there looking in this guy’s window, and hell, you see the dope. And he Hips you off. Or he does this . . .” He sucked air and made a show of smoking a joint. “We’ve even had them drop their pants and moon us.
They just laugh and head back to Mexico.”
“There’s nothing you can do?” I asked disingenuously.
“Not the way it is now.”
Still, they had a couple of stories. One pilot raised a smuggler on the radio and said, “Land.” The smuggler answered, “No way,” and turned toward Mexico. The pilot radioed, “This is a joint operation. There’s a Mexican federate on board, and his people are waiting on the other side.” So the smuggler landed, was arrested, and said, “Hey, that wasn’t fair—there was no federate on board.” And the pilot said, “Fair?”
“Do you mean he was so afraid of the Mexican police?”
The helicopter pilot laughed. “Police, army . . . Unless you’ve paid them off, they’ll blow you out of your boots.”
The slick man said, “Then they’ll take your watch.”
The next story was shorter: A Customs pilot pumped two rounds through a smuggler’s wing. The smuggler landed.
Those were the old days, a decade ago, when Customs air was underfunded and the pilots were frustrated. Despite their grousing, they no longer are. The slick one admitted it. “Don’t get us wrong. We’ve finally got the setup, and we’re doing the job. Our traffic is down by sixty percent. We’re getting better all the time. We feel pretty good about that.”
They feel good because the job is compartmentalized. Their orders are to take the smugglers out of the air, to channel the traffic, to put it on the ground. The larger problem is beyond their control: Once you force the smugglers to the ground, they are harder to stop. If they can’t fly the dope, they truck it in, or bring it on the backs of men. There are 400 million crossings of the border every year, and the future belongs to free trade.