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Star investigation: Border hysteria misrepresents, hurts border towns

Star investigation: Border hysteria misrepresents, hurts border towns

From the Special project: Immigration manipulation series


In the opening scene of the TV show “Border Live,” a Cochise County sheriff’s deputy drives along the border fence near Douglas.

Host Bill Weir intones: “He has a tank full of gas, a weapon full of rounds and a radio full of chatter. That is Deputy Art Estrada in Cochise County, Arizona, driving right along the wall. As the sun sets, he has no idea what this night will bring.”

The Cochise County Sheriff’s Office promoted its participation in the “Cops”-style Discovery Channel show, saying in a press release in December 2018, “Sheriff Mark Dannels is excited to be part of this documentary to take Cochise County to the entire country for showing a factual account of what life on the border is truly like.”

As it turns out, the next 90 minutes brought nothing much from Estrada — the host did not return to him except to sign off the show for that night. And after three episodes, “Border Live” was dead, canceled early.

But that inaction was a “factual account” of life on the border as many residents of towns like Douglas live it.

There’s a lot of hype about the alleged danger, residents say, but the day-to-day reality is pretty tame.

That doesn’t mean that border fear, promoted constantly by President Trump and sometimes spread by local officials like Dannels, doesn’t have an impact. It does.

Communities like Douglas don’t have a lot going for them economically anymore. The industry Douglas was founded upon, copper, disappeared when the Phelps Dodge smelter closed in 1987, and the community’s population has been dropping, most recently below 16,000.

Now, Douglas’ only real advantage is the border and the commerce it attracts.

“We who live here on the border don’t think of this as a dangerous place to live — we think of it as home,” said Cochise County Supervisor Ann English, who represents the Douglas-Bisbee area and most of Cochise County’s southern border.

“Everywhere I travel, when I say I’m from near Douglas, Arizona, there’s almost a gasp. People say, ‘Aren’t you afraid to live there?’” she said.

“The media seems to have given us that reputation, and we can’t beat it down.”

Things do happen at the border that don’t happen in other places in America — drug tunnels, for example.

One between Douglas and Agua Prieta, Sonora, was discovered in 1990 and has colored the town’s reputation ever since, although it had little effect on residents’ daily lives.

Stereotypes afflict border towns

In 2000, I spent most of the spring in Douglas and documented an out-of-control migration dynamic, with people jumping the border into town nightly.

After an influx of Border Patrol agents and, yes, construction of border barriers, that chaos was brought under control, and over many years a degree of control spread outside of town.

But in the intervening decades, even as conditions improved in many places, the smoldering public suspicion of the border has grown into an out-of-control conflagration of fear. There have been many culprits, but in recent years it has been Donald Trump wildly fanning the flames.

Even as a candidate in 2015, Trump painted the U.S. side of the border as “dangerous.” He rushed through a campaign visit to Laredo, Texas, in July 2015 saying that despite the danger of being there, “I have to do it.”

In truth, Laredo is a pretty safe place, though that’s not the case in Nuevo Laredo, across the border in Mexico.

President paints an unflattering portrait

As president in 2018, Trump repeatedly referred to the U.S.-Mexico border as “very dangerous,” failing to distinguish between the towns and the rural areas, the U.S. side and the Mexican side, the eastern half of the border and the western half.

In 2019, Trump pointed to El Paso as a place where border walls had made life safer. He said, “The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime — one of the highest in the country, and considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities.”

It wasn’t true. El Paso’s rate of violent crime fell sharply from 1993 to 2006, and in 2008, the year before the current border barrier was built, it was ranked as one of the safest cities in America.

The Cochise County Sheriff’s Office, too, has reported sharply dropping violent crime since 2004, and Douglas itself has had a modest rate of violence in recent years.

In 2017, the last year for which both towns have Uniform Crime Reports, there were 2.5 reported violent crimes in Douglas per 1,000 people. The rate in Safford, 120 miles to the north, was 2.3.

The same stereotypes cast over El Paso afflict Arizona’s border cities. Douglas Mayor Roberto Uribe, who moved to the border as an adult, told me he was scared about even visiting Douglas in 2010, when he agreed to go there from Phoenix with his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Jenea.

Mayor says town is underappreciated

Uribe grew up in New York City, yet when visiting Douglas he worried about drug cartels. He told me he feared he would “probably witness an actual shooting while I was there.”

“My heart is pounding. I’m anxiously waiting to get there. And when I get there, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, it is just like any other ordinary community,’ ” he said.

Now Uribe, who lost the primary election in March and will leave office after the general election this month, sees the town as underappreciated.

“If a student graduates with their master’s degree on the border, that’s not typically projected. But if someone is apprehended at the border with, let’s say, 50 pounds of marijuana, of course that’s the headline,” he said.

“It’s one-sided, and typically the story about the border always gets told by a third party. It’s typically not told by a person that lives on the border.

“We’re always robbed of the success of the border.”

Sheriff calls it cartel “thoroughfare”

It’s not just national political figures, alien to the borderlands, who spread fear.

As sheriff, Dannels has repeatedly hosted congressional delegations, has testified in Washington, D.C., and has traveled the country delivering a message that, indirectly and unintentionally, tells the world Cochise County is dangerous.

What Dannels actually says is that the border is insecure, which is true at some times and in certain places. It has been more true in the remote rural areas where ranchers near the border have complained of smugglers and other border crossers for years.

But the impression he reinforces is one that many residents say does not reflect their experiences: that it’s also unsafe in Douglas and other border towns.

Mark Adams, a Presbyterian minister who runs the migrant-oriented Frontera de Cristo group, decried the impression Dannels leaves of the border towns, Agua Prieta and Douglas, where he has lived since 1998.

“The narrative that drives him is that this is a scary place, and ‘We’re here to defend the people of the United States from these scary people,’ ” Adams said.

As a result, “The rest of the nation sees the border primarily as a place to defend. It hurts our community. Our lifeblood is our interconnectedness.”

Sheriff says he’s being misunderstood

Dannels told me last week that’s not the message he is trying to send: “You’ll never find I said this county is dangerous or unsafe. I said we have a border that provides us a lot of uncertainty, and we know the cartel is using that as a thoroughfare.”

In North Dakota for a conference in October, Dannels was the subject of news stories for a session he led about the Mexican border.

“Talking to your local sheriff, he said there’s a methamphetamine issue here,” Dannels told a local reporter in Bismarck. “Well, it starts in my backyard, and it’s coming to yours.”

This is a talking point Dannels has repeated.

In July 2019, I attended a public session with a Republican congressional delegation Dannels hosted. Among those attending was the most extreme anti-immigration congressman, Rep. Steve King of Iowa. Dannels told the group federal policies have hurt the county.

“The last 30 years, we have been impacted through crime, violence, murder, the economy.” He went on, “What’s happened right here in Cochise County is happening in every county in America. America is now a border country.”

But attributing America’s illegal drug problem to the border doesn’t make complete sense. We Americans provide the demand; domestic and foreign suppliers send the drugs.

In most cases, the shipments hop the U.S.-Mexico border, often through the ports of entry. But the border isn’t the source of America’s drugs or of its drug problems — it’s just a bump in the road.

When I spoke to Dannels last week, he acknowledged that our demand for drugs is a significant part of the equation, along with cross-border suppliers.

“We have a very addictive and deadly appetite for illicit drugs. And since we have the demand, the cartels provide the supply. And so we share that — Americans share that just as much,” Dannels said.

He considers it his sworn duty, he said, to stop drugs from crossing the border into his county.

“If I can stop a kid from touching dope in their schools or stop a family man or family mom from getting onto dope because I cut the supply down in my county, I’m doing really well,” he said.

Alarm over the border brings other dividends. Howard Buffett, a Cochise County landowner and the son of Warren Buffett, has showered Dannels’ department with gifts, many of them dealing with Buffett’s hobby: border security.

And Dannels has been feted around the country, named to the Department of Homeland Security Advisory Council, invited to the White House.

While fearful rhetoric about the border is the dominant narrative, some people are working to reverse that, or even suppress it.

Uribe has been trying to tell a different border story that downplays the negative.

Drugs catapulted across the border

In late 2017, Uribe learned from the head of the Border Patrol’s Douglas station that someone had been using an air-cannon-like implement to fire bundles of marijuana over the border fence from Agua Prieta.

“The Border Patrol agent in charge said, ‘Mayor, I know you’ve tried very hard to champion your community and economic development and demonstrate we’re a safe community, but if this continues, we’re going to have to contact the Tucson sector and get them involved,’” Uribe told me.

If the sector got involved, that probably meant publicity and “another black eye” for Douglas, Uribe said.

A catapult and a small air cannon used for the same purposes had been seized in Agua Prieta in 2016, prompting a flurry of amusing news stories that had put Douglas in a bad light.

“I got on the horn and I called the Mexican Consulate, the mayor from Agua Prieta, and the mayor from Agua Prieta contacted the (Mexican) federales. We had a roundtable discussion,” Uribe said.

“Within a few days it just stopped. The word got out.”

I asked Uribe, “The success was not just stopping the cannon — it was stopping the story, right?”

“Yes,” he said.

Of course, the story got out anyway.

On Nov. 16, 2017, the Star published a story headlined “Pot-shooting bazooka found near Arizona border.”

While Dannels has local critics, many residents appreciate his office’s efforts, especially in the rural areas outside towns that are his department’s responsibility.

Since 2015, his office has set up a network of hundreds of cameras in smuggling corridors that has helped shut down many of those passages.

Gary Thrasher, a veterinarian and rancher from Palominas, has been involved with community efforts to address border insecurity for years and considers the effort as successful as any he has seen.

“They’re identifying trails where people out there in the rural areas see activity. They put cameras along those trails. It’s connected to a cellphone device, where they get live pictures,” Thrasher said.

“They can respond to them a whole lot better than the Border Patrol with its millions of dollars can.

“They’ve made a huge difference as far as shutting those things down.”

But while Dannels has shown expertise in solving rural border problems, some question his expertise in what goes on in the urban corridors.

Gunfire, but on the other side of border

One incident that really stuck in the craw of some Douglas-Agua Prieta residents was Dannels taking the public lead in announcing drug-world shootings in Agua Prieta and Naco, Sonora, in June 2019.

The office’s initial press release said, “The Cochise County Sheriff’s Office has been advised of significant violence occurring in Mexico in the towns of Agua Prieta; Naco, Sonora; and Nogales, Sonora. The fighting is reportedly being waged between two cartel factions, and the death toll has unofficially been reported at 10 as of this time.”

There was one key error in the release — violence was not occurring in Nogales.

In interviews, Dannels also referred to the shootings as being near the border when in fact they were dozens of blocks inside Agua Prieta.

For Arizona news outlets, Dannels became the primary source of information on the shootings. But it was clear to people who live there, people like Mark Adams, that Dannels’ familiarity with the facts on the ground was incomplete.

“The information he put out was wrong,” Adams said, and it led to the impression that violence could “spill over” into the United States.

“Anything that feeds into the narrative that we need to be more afraid is harmful to our community,” Adams said.

Mayor Uribe was flying from Cabo San Lucas back to Arizona when the shootings happened. He and the mayor of Agua Prieta had met Mexico’s president there and had been upheld as an example of cross-border cooperation.

“So we’re there on stage telling our story about how well we work together and how things are fine, how we haven’t had any issues on the border for some time,” Uribe said. “As we were landing, I got a call that there is shooting in Mexico in Agua Prieta, and that it’s not good.”

“When we take three steps forward, and a story comes out like the one from Agua Prieta, that set us back eight steps.”

It was scary for residents to hear gunfire on the other side of the border, but that violence had no other impact in Douglas, Uribe said.

“These things happen everywhere. It’s not just at the border,” Uribe said. “Why are we the subject of this thriller every single day?”

Trying to attract tourists

Anel Lopez has noticed the misperception of Douglas and the border, and she’s one of the people trying to do something about it.

Lopez is from San Diego but moved to Douglas with her husband, Florencio, a native of the town, 13 years ago.

She worked as a bank manager in two Douglas banks but eventually took a job in Tucson that had her staying in the Old Pueblo during the week and going home for weekends.

The Tucsonans she got to know were scared for her to return to Douglas, Lopez said, but she marveled at their misunderstanding. She found Tucson much scarier.

“What people perceive Douglas to be is not what it is,” she said.

We were talking at a table in the 333 Cafe, the restaurant in Douglas’ Hotel Gadsden. Anel and Florencio Lopez bought the hotel in 2016 and are working constantly to make sure tourists from Tucson and beyond are comfortable visiting.

The 1907 hotel is famous for its opulent lobby, and when visitors step in to take a look, Lopez engages with them.

One by one, she said, she’s been able to turn many people who stop by to look at the lobby into visitors who eat at the restaurant, drink in the bar or may even come back and stay a couple of nights.

Her hope is that she can snag more and more of the tourists who visit Bisbee and convince them the Hotel Gadsden and Douglas are worth a look.

“Bisbee went through the same thing Douglas did when the mines closed,” she said. Bisbee adapted, but “Douglas stayed the same.”

The view of the border as a dangerous place also has positive economic effects on Douglas — largely coming in the form of federal spending. The Border Patrol station there is the home base for hundreds of agents who spend money around town and also contribute to the atmosphere of relative safety.

“There’s such a difference between the populated areas and the remote rural areas,” veterinarian Thrasher said.

Federal money comes, but investors don’t

“The populated areas — towns like Naco, Douglas and Nogales, places where there’s quite a bit of activity with Border Patrol and Customs agents — they’re probably safer than anywhere else in the world.”

The repeated building of border infrastructure also brings in piles of federal money. This year, it’s the workers building the border barrier east of Douglas in the San Bernardino Valley. They have filled lots of rooms at the Gadsden, Lopez said, and spread money around.

But where the city really fills its coffers is from Mexican shoppers crossing the border and spending at Douglas stores and restaurants. About 70% of the city’s retail and restaurant sales taxes come from people who live across the border, said Luis Pedroza, the city’s finance manager.

This year, things were going great until the pandemic hit, shutting down many of the border-crossing trips that produce sales tax revenue in town.

Another problem is also looming: Some of the big maquiladora assembly plants in Agua Prieta are closing due to increased costs from the raised minimum wage in Mexico.

But in the more distant future, there is hope that a new, commercial port of entry will be funded and built, raising the crossing’s attractiveness.

Fears of area are called “overblown”

The city would love to attract new investors to Douglas, but they have found that prospect difficult.

The border, the town’s main advantage, can become a disadvantage when viewed through the eyes of an outsider who is afraid.

Robert Carreira, who directed economic research at Cochise College until 2019, said he has seen the effect of fear.

“It’s a tough thing to measure — to find out how many people don’t come,” he said. “Back in the day, when I used to do focus groups with folks down there, (fear) was a big concern. It was overblown.”

Ann English, the county supervisor, has been struggling with the issue for years.

“I don’t know why people don’t come here,” she said. “We’ve tried to look at the border as being positive for us.”


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