Reporter's Notebook

The War on Immigrants and the Resistance in Arizona

Part 1: Defying the Wall

Revolutionary Worker #1073, October 8, 2000

The 19-year-old woman hiding in the bushes was tired, frightened and distraught. She and her 17-year-old sister were trying to enter the U.S. across the desert, from the Mexican state of Sonora to southern Arizona. They made it past the border, but the group they were in was spotted by La Migra, the Border Patrol, and everybody ran. The two sisters, who had traveled together from Ecuador, had gotten separated. And now, the older one was waiting, wondering what would happen to her, trying to figure out how to find the sister she was supposed to take care of.

She was lucky. She was not hunted down by the Border Patrol or caught by the racist vigilantes who "hunt" human beings. Someone took her to a place of refuge, to people who are resisting the U.S. government's war on immigrants. The activists gave her water, food, a place to stay. They called her family in the northeastern U.S., to tell them she was OK and to make plans to get her out of the area. It took a week for the activists to find out that the younger sister had not been deported back to Ecuador, and to locate her in a nearby Mexican border town. They figured out a way to get the 19-year-old out through the network of government checkpoints, while the family made arrangements for the younger sister to cross. A few weeks later, they received good news--the sisters were reunited with their family.


This is what the Arizona Star called "a modern underground railway." Today, the greatest concentration of undocumented immigrants trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, and the greatest number of Border Patrol "apprehensions," is near Tucson in southern Arizona. Three sets of towns sit on or near the border between Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora: Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico; the U.S. town of Douglas and nearby Agua Prieta in Mexico; and Naco and Bisbee on the U.S. side and Naco across the border. An RW team recently went to this area and talked to activists, immigrants and other residents about the impact of the Migra clampdown and the growing struggle against it. The following Reporter's Notebook was written by a member of the team.


This "Tucson corridor" is the target of Phase II of the U.S. Strategic Plan for the U.S.-Mexico border, which started in 1994. This plan is the U.S. government's answer to the thousands of displaced Mexican peasants and other unemployed coming to the U.S. looking for work, especially in the wake of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement). The plan was put together by the Border Patrol with help from the Center for Low Intensity Conflict of the Department of Defense--the people who specialize in the kind of war on the people carried out in places like El Salvador.

Operation Gatekeeper began in the San Diego-Tijuana area on October 1, 1994. It is a murderous system of steel fences, stadium-style lights, and "automated surveillance technology." The National Guard and semi-secret U.S. military units were deployed on U.S. territory. At the same time, a massive build-up of Border Patrol agents began. With Operation Gatekeeper, incidents of La Migra brutality increased, including the killing of several unarmed immigrants.

The government's fortifications on the border have made it nearly impossible for undocumented immigrants to cross in the major cities of Tijuana and El Paso. And it is difficult and dangerous to try to cross near these cities. Hundreds of immigrants have died in the rough, dry mountains east of Tijuana alone, where few now attempt to cross.

Interstate 8 going east from San Diego runs down the center of a militarized buffer zone extending hundreds of miles north from the U.S.-Mexico border. On every northbound road, there are checkpoints with Migra buses waiting alongside. It's like a second border. You can drive right through if you don't "fit the description," but campers and vans driven by Latinos get stopped. Planes and helicopters fly overhead, white-and-green Migra SUVs race along side roads. At night, along the border near Yuma, Arizona, the stadium lights on the border are visible from miles away. Dozens have drowned in the All-American Canal, which is parallel to the border. Hundreds have perished in the desert once named the "Valley of Death"--the hottest and driest part of the United States.


Nogales, frontera por donde quisiera a mi pueblo volver
Frontera querida, yo dierá mi vida por volverte a ver
Adiós, mi Sonora, donde el bacanora enciende pasión, tierra idolatrada, serás venerada en mi corazón

--Corrido "Sonora querida" by
Saúl Castell, from Vélez, Gilberto.
Corridos Mexicanos. Mexico City:
Editores Mexicanos Unidos, S,A,, 1994.

"Nogales, I long to return to my native village through your gateway. Beloved frontier, I would give my life to return to see you again. Farewell, my Sonora, where the bacanora inflames the emotions, cherished land, you will be revered in my heart." ("Bacanora" is a liquor made from the maguey cactus.)

So wrote a Mexican songwriter in an earlier era of migration, at the beginning of the 1900s. Today, a hundred years later, imperialist "development" on the border continues to bring misery into the lives of many.

Nogales, Sonora is 60 miles south of Tucson, an hour's drive on a flat four-lane highway. Ten years ago, it was a tourist town and favorite weekend destination of Tucson college students. Nogales is a focus of the maquila industry--factories where U.S. and other imperialist countries pay Mexican workers 30 pesos (currently $3) a day, with few protections for workers or the environment. There has been an explosion here of diseases like cancer and lupus brought on by contact with chemicals. The population has mushroomed, with desperate people from the Mexican interior looking for work, and frustrated migrants who can't cross to the U.S. An 18-year-old woman who grew up there says there didn't use to be shantytowns in Nogales, but now there are.

West of the main road leading to the port of entry is a 20-square-block shopping area, with restaurants and pharmacies and stores selling beautiful fabrics, clothes, leather goods, and works of folk art. Tourists come from the U.S. looking for bargain prices. Others come to save money by buying medicines in Mexico. Around the corner is el muro--a wall on the border that extends miles into the desert. Sections of it are tagged with graffiti that says, "Mueran los muros"-- "death to the wall."

On May 20, 1997, Ezekiel Hernandez was murdered by U.S. Marines. The 18-year-old resident of south Texas was herding goats near the border when he was shot and killed by Marines from Joint Task Force 6 (JTF6).

This year, on the third anniversary of the murder of Ezekiel Hernandez, hundreds of people marched here to protest the War on Immigrants. It was a demonstration that showed the breadth and diversity of the resistance movement. Participants in the demonstration included supporters of the Zapatista movement, Citizens for Border Solutions (CBS) from Bisbee, Arizona, near the border town of Naco; MEChA students and members of Derechos Humanos from Tucson, Bob Carney, the pastor of St. Luke's Catholic church and others from Douglas. Protestors marched to the wall from both sides of the border.

"I've always been conscious of human oppression, just living on the border all my life," Mario, a 25-year-old social worker and member of La Resistencia, told the RW. "There's always something that really bothered my conscience and I always wanted to do something. So I sing a song about the Border Patrol in this band that we have. I tried to come to different protests they have here and just be involved wherever I could. Back in December I came to this march they had here and this woman gave me this flyer of La Resistencia. A few months later in April I met Grupo Kaos and then the whole vigilante thing started to pick up. I personally said, 'I need to do something about it.'" Grupo Kaos are young punk-rock-loving Mexican rebels whose slogan is "Sin fronteras y sin banderas"--No borders, no flags.

Mario recalled the first time he met Grupo Kaos: "I went over there and I started talking to them and we really clicked. So I told them, 'Why don't we do something May 20? I told them what happened to Ezequiel Hernandez. I just wanted an excuse to protest all these vigilantes. So I said it's a perfect time."

Mario told the RW that on the Mexican side, "They had this big old banner that had this guy throwing a Nazi sign through a trash can. They did it really good. They had a sign that said 'Sin fronteras y sin banderas' and 'Alto la cacería de indocumentados.'" ("Without borders or flags" and "Stop hunting the undocumented.") "We marched in Nogales, Arizona," recalled Bob Carney. "We got about half-way there. So we kept on, and we got to a side-street where Grupo Kaos was on the other side on the fence. So we were able to meet there back and forth. It got pretty loud. It was great. Then somebody said, 'Let's go over.' So we went around, with our signs and our chanting, and walked right on through, right into Mexico. We walked straight up to the placita there, and we had a rally with Grupo Kaos." Protesters burned a Border Patrol uniform.


It is brutally hot in the desert around Nogales. On May 20, the temperature was over 100 degrees. People who cross in this area usually try to do it in town. The neighborhoods of the two Nogales are right next to each other. At night you can stand on a hill at the end of the road on the Arizona side and hear people slamming their doors in Mexico. But el muro is a formidable barrier. The brush has been cut back 20 yards or more from the wall, and there are SUVs every few hundred yards. The wall is lit up with stadium lights and spied on by "sky towers" with cameras and other surveillance equipment.

In the late afternoon by the main road, young men with their small daypacks stand 30 feet from the U.S. immigration station, watching the movements of the SUVs up on the hillside, on the other side of the wall. Or they wait in a small park another 20 yards back from the line. On the side across from the shopping district are the bars and night clubs. Here is where the entrance to the tunnels is.

When el muro went up it cut off cities that had existed as a single community for over a century. The two Nogales had a common drainage system. Now the old tunnels have become a desperate passage under the wall. They are dirty and smelly, covered with mud. On the U.S. side, Migra agents on mountain bikes are posted at one of the exits. But it is still possible to get through.

One man who was waiting by the tunnel had gone through two nights before, and made it. But he was picked up in Casa Grande, 70 miles to the west. He couldn't make it through the "second border" of checkpoints. He had been working in the U.S. for years, mainly in construction-- putting up walls, fixing roofs, applying stucco. Another man who was standing near the tunnel had lived in Placentia in the L.A. area for years. He used to install carpets.

Mario calls it "the tunnel that built America." In the central plaza, a 30-year-old man sat on a bench. He wasn't waiting to cross. He had been caught the day before by La Migra, and he could not keep trying. He had to find some way to get back home, just to check in with his family and tell them he's still alive. Maybe he could find work in Nogales. He was from Guadalajara--no, not Guadalajara itself, but a pueblito "3 hours" away, which meant on foot. He had a wife and one daughter, but he also had to provide for his elderly parents. His brother had an accident 12 years ago, and can't walk without a walker. On the rancho they grew beans and corn, the staples of the Mexican diet. But since NAFTA allowed the U.S. to dump cheap grains in Mexico, it was no longer profitable. Because of policies created thousands of miles from his home, because of the crimes of U.S. imperialism, he now sat homeless and destitute while his family anxiously waited.

As someone put it, the cruel U.S. policy on Mexican immigrants is like setting someone's house on fire and hunting down anyone who tries to escape.

A huge triangle of land in southern Arizona and New Mexico, from Yuma to El Paso, was taken from Mexico in 1854 as the "Gadsden Purchase." Mexicans called it "La Mesilla." In 1853, five years after the U.S. stole half of Mexico in a predatory war, James Gadsden was sent to make the Mexican government "an offer they couldn't refuse." Gadsden was a slaveowner who also fought with another slaveowner, Andrew Jackson (who later became President of the U.S.), in his genocidal campaigns against Native Americans. He was president of the South Carolina Railroad, which was looking for a southern route to the Pacific. La Mesilla was the best such route, and was also rich in minerals. Antonio López de Santa Anna, the Mexican president who sold La Mesilla for $15 million, was forced into exile in 1855. Today, he is reviled as a traitor. Neither government consulted the Yaqui and Tohono O'odham nations who had lived in the area since 300 B.C.

Activists in Douglas point out the hypocrisy of racist groups like Voices of Citizens Together (VCT) and reactionary ranchers like Roger and Don Barnett, who openly talk about how they like to "hunt" immigrants. Bob Carney said, "They never speak about the laborers that they themselves had during those five generations that helped them build whatever they have now. They're still 'wetbacks.' 'You don't come to my home. I live in the big house. You stay out there in the fields.' There's people out there living under trees, but working on a piece of property that someone makes a lot of money on."

The Barnett brothers also receive corporate welfare, grazing cattle on state land on which they pay about 1/3 the going rate. They also have a government contract to tow the cars seized by the Border Patrol, which impounds and auctions hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of cars a year.

The Barnetts have been given sympathetic coverage in the mainstream media, like USA Today and Time magazine--making it seem like they represent the sentiment of many others. But the truth is, only a minority of U.S. ranchers are hostile to immigrants trying crossing the border.

In late June, a delegation of citizens from Douglas and Tucson went to Washington, DC. The delegates, including Bob Carney, representatives from the Yaqui Indians, Arizona border Rights Project and the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) had been promised a voice at Senate hearings on the border. When they got there, they were told the hearings had been canceled because of "scheduling problems." But the senators did have time to take "testimony" from the Barnett brothers.

Douglas, Arizona is a town of just over 15,000. Until the huge mining conglomerate Phelps-Dodge pulled out in the early '70s, Douglas was a company town. When the wall went up in Tijuana, El Paso and Nogales, Douglas became the busiest border-crossing area in the U.S. Every day, thousands of migrants gathered across the border in Agua Prieta, Sonora. Then the clampdown began.

Bob Carney told the RW how it began. "This happened to us, in a very subtle and very devious way. Pretty soon, there's more trucks here. Then the whole thing about the fence came up. Then you wake up one morning and every third car is a Border Patrol, down the street. So it happens to you. No one ever contacted us to inform this community that this was going to happen. I've been in coups in Guatemala, and that's what happens. You go out the door and all of a sudden there's soldiers everywhere."

When the wall came to Douglas, it disrupted a way of life that had existed since the early 19th century. Bob Carney said, "We consider Agua Prieta part of our community because we have extended families. We share in many of the celebrations of life: birth, baptism, quinceañeras [15th birthday celebrations], death, weddings, all those things. And that hasn't been severed. But it is extremely difficult for people from Mexico to come over here." The Tohono O'odham reservation straddles the border for 75 miles. The native people never divided themselves into citizens of the U.S. and Mexico. They have been there much longer than either country. But now those living south of the line can no longer go to the hospital north of the line. They have difficulty attending religious ceremonies and family celebrations.

Everywhere in the area, people complained about racial profiling. "They profile brown people," Bob said. "There's a man who lives here, and he's got some Indian blood somewhere down the line, and he's very dark, and he drove a van. Every time he went out--and this man has lived here for three generations, maybe--he would be pulled over. So finally he sold the van."

We walked down Douglas's wide main street on a quiet Sunday afternoon. A young Mexican guy from the D.F., Mexico City, talked about his experiences. He said, if you have papers, there's no problem, as long as you don't have a lot of dust or mud on your clothes. He got stopped one day after working in the yard. There are certain areas of town you have to avoid. Downtown is OK, but you get hassled at the K-Mart. He keeps his hair short because the Border Patrol stops Latinos with long hair. He and his wife get around on bicycles, but if you have a car you have to think about the windows. People with vans or pick-ups with tinted windows get stopped a lot.

The Douglas Border Patrol station had 58 agents in 1994. That increased to 200 in 1998, and more than doubled to about 450 in 2000, according to the mayor, who added, "It's an occupied town. It's like a military zone." Some activists recently found a man surveying the land near the wall in Douglas who identified himself as a U.S. Marine. They think that JTF6, which was disbanded after the murder of Ezekiel Hernandez, may be active again. One of the U.S. senators from Arizona is lobbying to have the National Guard deployed as they were at the beginning of Operation Gatekeeper. The Border Patrol say they make 1,200 to 1,500 "apprehensions" a day. The death toll is also rising.

In Douglas, you can walk as few as five miles from la linea, the border, to get to a road where someone can pick you up. But since October of 1999, the INS says that 58 people have died in that five miles, most of them from exposure and dehydration. Since the clampdown began, 23 people have died within the city limits of Douglas.

In the late '90s, eight people died in one incident. They were hiding in the steep-sided drainage ditch that runs along the U.S. side in Douglas, and they were washed away by a flash flood coming down from the nearby mountains. Bob Carney told of a more recent death. "Somebody died right out here on the edge of town. The day she died was her daughter's 15th birthday and her daughter stayed there with her mother for hours before they could get any help. And then the girl was deported." He went on, "Doris Meisner [head of the INS] made the statement that this was the unforeseen or unexpected thing that came with this plan that they had. Well that's B.S.. They knew people were going to die. They called it in Washington a 'low intensity conflict.'"


This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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