The hunters and the hunted

The Arizona-Mexico borderturns into the 21st century frontier

  • Arizona-Mexico border in Arizona

    Map by Diane Sylvain
  • Group waits to cross border marked only by barbed wire fence

    Terrence Moore photo
  • Don Barnett with machine gun on High Lonesome Road

    James D. Wright photo
  • Border Patrol rounds up crossers in Douglas

    Terrence Moore photo
  • Leni Vegali Gonzalez Perez with daughter Miriam

    Terrence Moore photo
  • Commissioner Doris Meissner

    Sergey Shayevich photo/The Arizona Star
  • Larry Dever, Cochise County sheriff

    Terrence Moore photo
  • Susan Zakin


The sign on the weatherbeaten green trailer says, "Never mind the dog. Beware of the owner."

The dog is a rottweiler. Outside. Barking.

I'm at Barnett's Towing Service on the outskirts of Bisbee, Ariz., a few miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. The owner of the trailer and the dog is Don Barnett. Over the past two years, Don and his older brother Roger, the owner of the towing company, have patrolled Roger's ranch armed with guns and night-vision scopes. They've rounded up several thousand Mexican migrants, both on the rangeland they lease from the state and on nearby public roads.

Border vigilantism, Time magazine calls it. Felony assault and kidnapping, say human-rights lawyers. But the Barnetts and a handful of other people living along the border's rural expanse say their actions are necessary because of a Border Patrol strategy that is funneling more than 1 million migrants through this sparsely populated county.

Crossing the border has always been a risky proposition. But these days, migrants aren't just young men looking to pick fruit or pack meat, make some cash and return to their pueblitos in time for Christmas. On May 29, after walking north for four days in the desert near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a 19-year-old woman from Oaxaca, Yolanda Gonzales Galindo, died after giving the last of her water to her 18-month-old daughter.

In August, 33-year-old Rosalia Bacan Miranda left the Mexico City colonia where she lived, accompanied by her two children, ages 11 and 5. She had talked with her family about the death of Yolanda Galindo, reassuring them that she was on her way to Agua Prieta, Sonora, the sister city of Douglas, Ariz., where conditions were more favorable, according to an article written by Ignacio Ibarra in the Arizona Daily Star.

She died Aug. 3 in a Bisbee hospital.

As illegal immigration increases, the U.S.-Mexico border is becoming a superhighway; the people, too often, roadkill. Fifty-six people have died this year in southern Arizona alone, most of them of exposure and dehydration, as they try to cross the dry, rugged desert that separates them from cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix. Since 1996, 704 have died trying to cross the Southwest border, according to INS estimates.

In late August, newly elected Mexican President Vicente Fox, in meetings with President Clinton and the two major-party U.S. presidential candidates, acknowledged the death toll. Fox reportedly talked about opening the border between the U.S. and Mexico, but was rebuffed by the American leaders, who insisted that the two countries must have economic parity before even considering an open-border policy.

People in the borderlands disagree vehemently on what to do about immigration, but most will agree on one thing: They're caught in the middle of forces much bigger than they, not the least of which is the always volatile economic and social relationship between the U.S. and Mexico. "Poor Mexico, so close to the United States, so far from God," Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz said in the 19th century. Now the rapid pace of globalization is increasing the nearly familial closeness, as well as the tension, between the countries.

Don Barnett agrees to talk to me only after I mention my work for the venerable hunting and fishing magazine, Field and Stream. Once inside the trailer, I find out why.

"I want to show you something," Barnett says, leading me to a back room filled with hunting trophies. Taking up most of the floor space is the hulking form of a stuffed grizzly bear and an equally huge mound covered with a blanket. When he whips the blanket off, I see that Barnett's newest trophy is a polar bear. "Don't touch it," he says, making me wonder if I have extended my hand in a reflexive Strangelovian jerk. I wouldn't be surprised. I felt that visceral hit we are hardwired to get when we see a big animal. Even a dead one.

Don Barnett, who is 56, and his brother Roger, 58, grew up right here in Bisbee. Don worked as a deputy sheriff in the 1970s and 1980s. Like many border natives, he remembers when citizens of both countries casually crossed la lÆnea, to drink or shop or work. The Mexicans were different in those days, Barnett says. "They acted like human beings. I guess they had respect then," he tells me. "Now they're trespassing. They're animals."

Migrants have been vandalizing his brother's ranch outside Douglas, 25 miles east of Bisbee, Barnett says. They have left gates open, allowing cattle to stray onto neighbors' lands. On several occasions, an 8,000-gallon water tank has been emptied, he says. Cattle have eaten disposable diapers and taken sick.

Barnett says he and his brother have never drawn their guns when they've rounded up border crossers on their land. But they do wear patches that look exactly like those worn by Border Patrol agents, the only difference being that the Barnetts' patches say "Patriot Patrol." Understandably, the migrants often believe the brothers are U.S. federales. On one occasion, Roger reportedly threw one of the migrants to the ground and threatened him. More than once, the brothers have taken their activities beyond the confines of the ranch to capture migrants traveling on a nearby public road.

Tucson human-rights attorneys Jesus Romo and Isabel Garcia, who heads the Pima County Legal Defender's Office, believe the Barnetts should face kidnapping and assault charges. Federal and state officials say they don't have the evidence to prosecute.

Clashes between ranchers and Mexican migrants are not new in Cochise County, where people still remember when the Hanigan case attracted national attention. In 1976, three Mexican men who had crossed the border fence were brutally tortured by prominent Douglas cattle rancher George Hanigan and his two sons. It took three separate court cases, acres of bad publicity, and a shift of venue to a courtroom outside Cochise County, before the Hanigans were finally declared guilty. The Barnetts' activities are making some people wonder if anything has changed.

Although few in Cochise County are willing to criticize the Barnetts openly, some, like Jerry Bohmfalk, who is part-owner of a small ranch not far from Douglas, sympathize with the border crossers (see story page 11). Others just feel like pawns.

"We're pieces on the board," said Richard Puzzi, who was living with his wife, Renee, just a mile from the border, west of Douglas, when I interviewed him in May. "We're moved around on the dice roll."

The Puzzis' classic, square ranchhouse, surrounded by porches, lies dead center of a broad valley. To the south are blue-shadowed mountains. To the north, jobs. At night, the valley is alive with people.

Helicopters roam overhead like Apocalypse Now. Richard Puzzi says that migrants have killed all of the couple's dogs, even hanging their German shepherd and beating him to death. One morning, alarmed by the clatter of migrants outside their house, Richard Puzzi grabbed a shotgun and ran out. He was already on the porch when he realized that he was wearing nothing but a bathrobe.

"This is an actual war. It's not a situation where you have some people crossing your yard and you feel sorry for "em," he says.

As angry as they get, the Puzzis also seem haunted by the people they've seen. Richard, a firefighter, was out hunting north of town when he saw drug smugglers using female migrants and their children to distract the Border Patrol. On another night, he used his emergency medical-technician training to help another border crosser, a woman who went into labor on a nearby highway.

It is the women with children who seem to defuse the anger and bring out the couple's compassion. "I've seen women outside the house with babies. I want to help them, but I'm afraid," says Renee, finally, as if asking what to do.

I ask the Puzzis what they think should be done. "If they're gonna continue this, just open the border," Renee says, wearily.

The Puzzis' ambivalence may reflect how the majority of people living on the border feel, but it hasn't captured the media's attention like the Barnetts' cowboy posturing. Last winter, the brothers received national attention when network television showed videotape of them rounding up migrants. Time magazine ran a story with a photo of Roger's craggy, Tommy Lee Jones visage. European reporters began showing up to see America's self-styled vigilantes. In Europe, journalists aren't proscribed from paying sources. Now Roger Barnett charges reporters $1,000 to ride shotgun on his ranch.

But media attention also comes at a price. On May 13, tempers rose in the borderlands when members of out-of-town anti-immigration groups showed up at a rally in Sierra Vista, where Roger's towing and propane businesses are located. One of the people who attended was Barbara Coe, a prominent figure in the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, which backed Proposition 187; the 1994 measure outlawed benefits to immigrants but has since been overturned.

Coe told the crowd that government inaction had forced the Barnetts and others to "defend themselves from the illegal alien savages who kill their livestock and slit their watchdogs' throats."

Though Coe's speech was cheered, two members of the Ku Klux Klan who had shown up were asked to leave. Don Barnett tells me that he and his brother aren't racists. He points out that they grew up in a town where half the population is Mexican. Yet Barnett thinks the U.S. should invade Mexico. He says this is justified because Mexico is already, in effect, invading the U.S. Or it could be that he just sees a way to turn a profit.

"Think about if the U.S. owned Mexico, all the natural resources, all the oil," he says. "Then maybe the U.S. corporations could take over instead of the president of Mexico stealing all that money."

As we discuss the puzzling logistical questions surrounding such a venture, a phone call comes in. The interview is over. I thank Don for his time and down the rest of the Coke he'd offered me, thinking of Vicente Fox, the 6-foot-6-inch former Coca Cola executive whose presidential victory this summer marked the end of the 70-year rule of the Provisional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. For a period longer than the entire lifespan of the Soviet Union, the PRI had ruled Mexico like a combination of the Vatican, the Mafia, and Tammany Hall.

Even if Fox didn't succeed in making an immediate change to U.S. border policy during his recent visit, he might be capable of changing conditions in Mexico. That would mean changes on the border, too.

Wouldn't it?

"The U.S. already owns Mexico," laughs Jose Matus, when I tell him of Don Barnett's version of 21st century Manifest Destiny. Matus is executive director of Derechos Humanos, a human-rights group based in Tucson. "It's going on right now, as we speak. So Barnett is way off on that, because it's been happening for years. For centuries."

The United States may not actually hold title to Mexico, but since the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, U.S. corporations have doubled their investment to $34 billion in 1999, a little less than 10 percent of Mexico's gross national product. U.S. corporations made about $5 billion in profits from Mexican investments in 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The industrialization of Mexico is having effects on both sides of the border. Free-trade foes say that NAFTA has turbocharged the shift in the United States from a manufacturing to a service economy. They cite dramatic statistics: The U.S. had a $1.7 billion trade surplus with Mexico in 1993, but last year, the U.S. ran a trade deficit with Mexico of more than $22.81 billion.

Hard times in the U.S. border states are nothing new. But since NAFTA, unemployment in these areas has risen. In Douglas, right across the line from Agua Prieta, Sonora, the unemployment rate is 17 percent, up from 13 percent in 1990. Ironically, the Douglas economy depends on shoppers from Agua Prieta crossing the line to patronize American stores. Most popular is a newly constructed Wal-Mart.

In Mexico, the changes are more dramatic. The percent of Mexican workers living below the poverty line has jumped from an average of 34 percent in the decade preceding NAFTA to about 60 percent at the end of 1997, the year of the disastrous peso crisis, according to Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. Eight million members of the Mexican middle class had fallen into poverty.

Though U.S. investment has spurred industrialization in Mexico's northern border states, pay in the U.S.-owned factories - the maquiladoras - is lower than salaries in Mexican-owned factories, according to Global Trade Watch. And many Mexican-owned businesses continue to close because they can't compete with transnational corporations.

As recently as a decade ago, Mexico was a country of campesinos, with 80 percent of the population in rural areas. Now subsistence farmers leave their land, because the corn produced by their small farms cannot compete with U.S. agribusiness. They move to colonias, or shantytowns, on the outskirts of Mexico City or Monterrey or Ciudad Juarez, on the border.

Or they cross.

According to Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., industrialization invariably brings with it the pressure to emigrate. "People from poor, isolated rural areas don't leave because they don't have the means. Immigration comes from areas that are developing and becoming connected to the world economy."

Mexico's Industrial Revolution is just beginning. So is mass migration across the border.

Seventeen-year-old Leni Vegali Gonzalez Perez looks like any teenager you'd see at the mall or outside a movie theater, giggling with her girlfriends. But in her serious moments, she has a gravitas that belies her years. She's already made some big decisions in her life. One was that she wasn't going to risk dying in the desert when she was pregnant.

Leni's daughter, Miriam, was born three months ago. One month after Miriam was born, 16-year-old Antonia Mendez, from Oaxaca, died trying to cross the border into Arizona.

Leni left her home more than a year ago, convincing her parents that she would be safe traveling with friends. In Agua Prieta, she lived with people from her church. She worked for a few months, then decided she wanted to cross the line. She contracted with a smuggler who also came from Chiapas. He would take her to Florida, where she could work in the fields picking tomatoes.

The official Border Patrol line these days is that smugglers - called coyotes or polleros - are the real criminals on the border. They mistreat their "human cargo" and sometimes kill them.

The border crossers tell a different story. Sure, they say, if you hire a coyote who's standing by the border soliciting strangers, you'll probably get a bad one. But if you use word of mouth, you'll do better.

Leni says her coyote was good to her. But the desert was frightening, peligroso, and full of ramos, cactus spines. Leni set out to cross the border in May. In this high edge of the Chihuahuan desert, May is not the green, moist springtime month you see in Kansas or Connecticut. May is summer. Not as bad as June, but hot and dry and dangerous.

The band of migrants left at five in the afternoon, passing by the mountain called La Virgen that stands alone, rising abruptly from the flat desert, a beacon for illicit travelers leaving Agua Prieta. Leni was the only woman with a dozen men. They walked all night. During the day, they hid under trees and slept. This went on for six days. "Caminemos mucho, mucho, mucho." We walked and walked and walked, Leni says.

They ran out of water around 2 o'clock in the afternoon on the sixth day. Four hours later they reached San Simon, a small community near Interstate 10. They had walked nearly 80 miles. Two of the men went to ask for water "from a gringo... o, it was a rancher," Leni says. They thought the man wouldn't turn them in, but soon motorcycles and Border Patrol trucks came. Everyone ran, but the Border Patrol caught them.

After asking for everyone's name and hometown, the Border Patrol dropped the group off in Agua Prieta.

A week later, Leni tried again. This time, she traveled with the young man who is now her husband. They were led by the same coyote. The Border Patrol caught them after only three days. La Migra dropped them off in Ciudad Juarez, across the line from El Paso, Texas.

"We came back and tried again after a week," Leni says. "We were like hard-headed dogs."

Once again, they got caught. Neither of them had paid the coyote a cent, because the deal was that he got paid only when they reached their destination.

Now Leni stays home and nurses the baby while her 22-year-old husband works in a sushi restaurant. They plan to go back to Chiapas in January. She says it is not worth it to cross the border, especially with a child.

"Death seeks you out," she says.

"Commissioner, a lot of people are saying that the INS is responsible for these deaths in the desert. Do you believe the INS has any responsibility for people dying in these remote areas?"

Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner was in Tucson recently, to give a press conference on a new Border Patrol strategy. She is a typical Clinton appointee, well-educated, thoughtful, compassionate. But Meissner has critics on all sides. Border Patrol officers say she doesn't like enforcement. Human-rights activists say she's shirked the task of restructuring a national immigration policy that predates the global economy.

But Meissner's biggest problem is internal enforcement, cracking down on U.S. employers who use illegal labor. When she orders enforcement actions, employers band together and pressure their representatives in Congress, forcing her to retreat. Without crackdowns on employers, the migrants keep coming. They won't stop until there are no jobs.

Meissner gives a long, thoughtful answer to the question about the deaths in the desert. She acknowledges that stepped-up enforcement by the Immigration and Naturalization Service in California and Texas, has created "a funnel effect," squeezing migrants through Arizona. For two years, the Border Patrol's Tucson sector has had the highest rate of apprehensions in the Southwest (HCN, 9/27/99: Battered Borderlands).

Meissner affirms that this year's crackdown in Arizona's borderland has pushed more migrants into the desert and resulted in a record death toll. But she stops short of taking responsibility for the deaths.

The Washington bureaucrat seems genuinely surprised that migrants haven't been dissuaded by the Border Patrol presence in cities. She says that INS officials didn't think people would so willingly brave the harsh, arid land.

The commissioner says the Border Patrol will keep up the pressure in the desert. She announces a new strategy to crack down on airports and safe houses in Phoenix and Las Vegas.

It is called "Operation Denial."

The sheriff of Cochise County may have the best perspective on the whole strange trip. Along with Cochise County Attorney Chris Roll, Larry Dever has been criticized for the government's failure to prosecute the Barnetts. At times, the sheriff sounds like he views the Barnetts as unofficial deputies. But Dever, like other officials, also says that nobody wants to move against the Barnetts unless the case is bulletproof. The Barnetts have been careful so far about not stepping too far over the line - or at least careful not to leave evidence when they do, he says.

With his cowboy hat and boots, Dever looks like the Old West fantasy of a sheriff, which amuses him, especially when European reporters swoon over his John Wayne attire. Like many people on the border, he has an international sophistication that belies his rural roots.

"This is a result of a failed policy of the INS," Dever says. "I have been very vocal about it. I've gone to Washington. I've even gone to Mexico City. They don't have a control strategy that does anything but move this problem from one place to another. Anybody who thinks these people are going to pack up and go home doesn't understand that they have no home to go back to.

"What's really unconscionable to me," he says, "is that anybody at that level would sit down and plan to push this problem into a rural area that has the least capacity to deal with it. But California and Texas have much larger congressional delegations than Arizona does."

Dever says his trip to Mexico City gave him the big picture. "These enormous shifts of cultures and people are happening all over the world," he says.

In the desert, the Border Patrol is everywhere. At night they hunt for migrants just north of the line, their high-end SUVs padding through the deep arroyos like panthers. To us obviously Anglo drivers, they are polite. They give us candy when they stop us on the highways, they politely say "Thank you, ma'am." Gone are the days of thumping wetbacks with black Maglite flashlights. Or nearly so. Now that President Clinton has laid down the law on racial profiling, the Border Patrol stops everyone, not just Hispanic-looking people. The public-relations game has become more sophisticated. The cat-and-mouse game is eternal, it is surreal, because the people keep coming. They just keep coming.

The policy of the United States is this: The border will not be opened until there is economic parity between the U.S. and Mexico. When will that happen?

The administration estimates that this will happen in 20 to 30 years. But an administration official, who asks not to be named, agrees with people on the border, many of whom think that it will take 50, or maybe 100 years for the two countries to become equals.

Or maybe forever.

What do we do in the meantime? I ask. Status quo, the official told me. Anything else would be too dislocating. "For one thing, the gardens in California would go to heck," he says, with a little laugh.

Another federal official, also highly placed, but one who works on the border rather than inside the Beltway, says the answer to the immediate problem is obvious: We need the unskilled workers Mexico provides to manicure our golf courses, cut our meat, pick our vegetables; let's make them legal and put them to work.

Early this year, the AFL-CIO took the revolutionary step of saying the same thing. The people who cross the border aren't the enemy; they're the next generation of union members.

If that's the answer, most people aren't even asking the right questions. Until they do, Leni and her daughter, the Border Patrol officers who ride shotgun through this pocked and pitted desert country, and even the Barnetts, whose passion for hunting has taken them into this, the most dangerous game, all of these people will be buffeted by forces so far beyond their control that they themselves might well be invisible.

Driving home through the smoke-colored valley that hangs between Elfrida and Tombstone, I run over a snake, another traveler trying to get to somewhere better. The snake's sinuous movement stays in my vision, caught in stop-time, swaying at the moment before I hit it. I think about pulling over to identify it, admire its colors before they fade. But I am tired, in a hurry as usual. I'm rushing home, but it could be anywhere I'm rushing to, anywhere at all.

Susan Zakin is a Tucson, Arizona-based freelance writer and author of Coyotes and Town Dogs: Earth First! and the Environmental Movement.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Border lures the young

- A sympathetic landowner

- Sanctuary movement revives

- Migrants leave trail of trash

Editor's note: Richard Puzzi of Douglas, Ariz., died in a motorcycle accident shortly after being interviewed for this story.

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