DOUGLAS - It was a massive celebration of the kinship that sister cities Douglas and Agua Prieta enjoyed for decades.

On Cinco de Mayo 2001, a couple miles of the barbed-wire U.S.-Mexico border fence were taken down and replaced by skinny white plastic pipes that marked the centerline for horse races.

Nearly 20,000 people lined the track on both sides of the border west of Douglas. Mariachi music resounded from large red Tecate tents in Mexico as men and women in cowboy hats drank cold beer and soda.

Spectators waved dollar bills, shouting across the international line to place bets on the races.

Bystanders leaned against the chain-link fences, sat in small grandstands set up on both sides of the border or huddled in the beds of pickup trucks backed up to the track. They cheered wildly as horses named "El Bobito," "El Rayito" and "El Sapo" reached speeds of 45 to 50 mph in races that lasted 13 to 20 seconds.

Before the 2001 horse races were the volleyball games in Naco, which used the border fence as the net, and food was passed through the fence for picnics. Kids happily threw rocks back and forth across the border, their laughter heard throughout the neighborhood, said Angie Tippy, 91, who has lived a few feet from the border in Douglas for 75 years.

Between races in 2001, a woman dressed as a charro entertained the crowds on a classically trained horse that performed dressage, often referred to as horse ballet.

As the sun's glare heated up the desert floor, beer became a hot commodity. When the coolers emptied on the U.S. side, people began shuttling money south into Mexico to get Tecates from beer vendors. After awhile, the Mexican vendors couldn't keep up and came across the line with coolers to make sales more quickly.

Border Patrol agents monitored it all, but didn't interfere.

"It was fun because it was so chaotic," said Sharon Denham of Douglas.

Ray Borane, the mayor of Douglas at the time, spoke before the 2001 races.

"They say enemies build walls and friends build fences," he said. "Well, today we take down the fence to show that we are more than neighbors - we are friends and family."

When the sister cities held the races again in 2002, the charm was gone. The Border Patrol policed how far the track could go. Betting was monitored by federal officials.

Illegal immigration and drug smuggling had spiked, and locals knew the border wouldn't be open much longer.

"It was like our last hurrah," said Denham.

It was. That spot west of Douglas where thousands gathered to watch horses race is now an immovable, steel fence.

"They say enemies build walls and friends build fences. Well, today we take down the fence to show that we are more than neighbors - we are friends and family."

Ray Borane

mayor of Douglas in 2001, speaking before the horse races

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or