Note: This article is one of several feature stories in a special issue about community media in the West.
DOUGLAS, Arizona — Keoki Skinner sits on a park bench under moonlight, talking quietly into his cell phone. There’s a rumor going around that a federal agent is involved with a drug trafficker, and Skinner wants to know more. It’s the kind of thing everybody knows, but nobody is going to talk to you about. The Mexicans have a saying for this: secretos al voz — whispered secrets.
Just another night at El Mitote, the wild yellow van that Skinner uses as a juice stand to support his wife and five kids. He moves back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border, selling fruit salads and pico de gallo — cups of diced papaya and melon sprinkled with chili pepper. The blond, blue-eyed güero (white guy) also collects secretos al voz, squirreling them away in a small notebook he keeps in his breast pocket, and passing them along to reporters, sources, people who need to know — or keeping them for his own understanding of how things work.
"I’m not ratting people out or anything, just putting information together. I still have the desire one day to write a book," he says.
It’s a risky proposition, this information gathering; organized crime is heavy on this stretch of the border, occasionally spilling over into violent shootouts and kidnappings that cross the border. Given the climate, it’s best not to talk too much or you’re sure to arouse suspicion.
Omar Noriega, publisher of the Agua Prieta weekly El Clarín, viewed Skinner with suspicion for years. "Here you have a gringo living and working in Mexico, and he knows about all sorts of things. He must have been working for some kind of organization," he says. He knows better now, he says.
An informant for local law enforcement, who asked not to be named, says he avoided Skinner for years: "I couldn’t figure out who he was working for. It took me years to trust him." "Finally, people accepted around here that I’m not anything but what I say I am," says Skinner. El Mitote, The Myth — an apt name for the vehicle of a mitotero, a gossiper.
Douglas, Ariz., is a small town with neat street grids and a port leading into Agua Prieta, Sonora. Families split their time between both sides of the border. Immigrant kids, some legal, some not, attend school in Douglas; men and women live in one town, work in the other.
Across the line in Agua Prieta, narco-castillos, the castles of the drug lords, dot the dirt streets. The town square is a disorganized flurry of modern clothing shops, junkyards and cheap restaurants that cater to the undocumented immigrant crowd. It can get ugly here. Last month, a prominent rancher was stopped on the lone highway south of Agua Prieta by a group of men with automatic weapons. His truck was found the next day; he’s never turned up. A month later, five drug traffickers were found shot dead four hours to the West. The week before, seven men were arrested with automatic weapons east of here.
Illegal immigration through the two cities has dropped off in the past couple years. Drug trafficking still flourishes, however; a Mexican central intelligence report names Sonora as one of the busiest sections of the border for narcotics smuggling. Earlier in September, U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza issued a travel warning for Americans visiting Mexico, citing an especially violent war between the drug cartels. It’s the third in three years.
This is the world Skinner lives in. The former newspaper reporter learned about Mexico 20 years ago, running household appliances and dental equipment south as a fayuquero, a goods smuggler. That’s when he hooked up with Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Paul Brinkley-Rogers, now a columnist for La Voz, a Spanish language newspaper in Phoenix.
Brinkley-Rogers says Skinner helped him understand this world. "There are reporters and then there are reporters. There’s your parachutist, especially TV people, blathering in front of the camera. But if you’re hanging out with somebody like Keoki, you’re going to get a pretty good reflection of what’s actually going on," he says.
Before Skinner had the van, El Mitote was a juice shop on Sixth Street in Agua Prieta. There were advantages to that location: In the mornings, judiciales, Judicial State Police, would come in for a glass of liquefied papaya, their AR-15 rifles slung over their shoulders. In the afternoons, the capos, the drug lords, came in for their milkshakes, in their gold jewelry and polished cowboy boots. The güero behind the counter just watched — and listened.
"It wasn’t the kind of thing you could put into a news story, but it led to more information, people talked to you," says Skinner.
In the fall of 1989, a man asked him about a tunnel into Douglas. More whisperings, more gossip; some said the tunnel was being used to hustle cocaine through. New wealth started moving into Agua Prieta.
By May 1990, national attention fell on Douglas: The most heavily used cocaine-smuggling tunnel in U.S. history was uncovered in a local warehouse, less than two blocks from the customs agency’s office. Then 14 bodies turned up in the well of El Tombstone, a drug trafficker’s ranch.
Dudley Althaus, the Mexico City bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle, turned to Skinner for help on that story. "Agua Prieta’s a very involved town, yet he’s been able to just kind of live there," Althaus says. "The guy’s plugged in."
Skinner is adamant that he has no ties to law enforcement — or to the drug underworld. He’s simply curious, and he has the communities’ best interest at heart. "I’m just keeping journalists from wandering off the real story," he says.
Back at Skinner’s park bench, the gossip still flows. He talks quietly into his cell phone, notebook in hand. A desert moth flies into his hair and out again.
He flips off the cell. "Just like I figured," he says. "It’s 100 percent true."
Another rumor waiting to turn into a story someday.
The author, a freelance reporter, runs the Web site www.BorderReporter.com.
The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story: