The myth trafficker

  • Keoki Skinner sells pico de gallo — and trades information — out of his bright yellow van parked on the border in Douglas, Arizona

    Michael Marizco
 

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:

- Waterblogged

- The wet Net

- Sleepers

High Country News Classifieds
  • CROWN OF THE CONTINENT COMMUNITY CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY is seeking a Community Conservation Specialist, for the Crown of the Continent DEPARTMENT: Conservation CLASSIFICATION: Grade 6 Specialist/Representative (Low of $54K) REPORTS...
  • ASSISTANT FARM DIRECTOR
    About The Organization Building community through fresh vegetables is at the heart of the Sisters-based non-profit, Seed to Table Oregon. Based on a four-acre diversified...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • DYNAMIC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    VARD is seeking an Executive Director to lead a small legal & planning staff dedicated to the health and sustainability of Teton Valley Idaho and...
  • WATER PROJECT MANAGER, UPPER SAN PEDRO (ARIZONA)
    Based in Tucson or Sierra Vista, AZ., the Upper San Pedro Project Manager develops, manages, and advances freshwater conservation programs, plans, and methods focusing on...
  • CAMPAIGNS DIRECTOR
    Southeast Alaska Conservation is hiring. Visit https://www.seacc.org/about/hiring for info. 907-586-6942 [email protected]
  • FINANCE & GRANTS MANAGER
    The Blackfoot Challenge, located in Ovando, MT, seeks a self-motivated, detail-oriented individual to conduct bookkeeping, financial analysis and reporting, and grant oversight and management. Competitive...
  • WADE LAKE CABINS, CAMERON MT
    A once in a lifetime opportunity to live and run a business on the shore of one of the most beautiful lakes in SW Montana....
  • CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, BOOKS, CULTURE AND COMMENTARY (PART-TIME, CONTRACT)
    High Country News is seeking a Contributing Editor for Books, Culture and Commentary to assign and edit inquisitive, inspiring, and thought-provoking content for HCN in...
  • STATEWIDE COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    ABOUT US Better Wyoming is a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy organization that educates, organizes, and mobilizes Wyoming residents on behalf of statewide change. Learn more at...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    TwispWorks is a 501(c)3 that promotes economic and cultural vitality in the mountainous Methow Valley, the eastern gateway to North Cascades National Park in Washington...
  • CLEAN ENERGY ADVOCATE OR DIRECTOR
    Location: Helena, Montana Type: Permanent, full time after 1-year probationary period. Reports to: Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs. Travel: Some overnight travel, both in-state...
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Restore Hetch Hetchy, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization, seeks experienced development professional to identify and engage individuals and institutions who are inspired to help underwrite...
  • PUBLIC LANDS COUNSEL
    The successful candidate will be the organization's lead counsel on public lands issues, including reviewing federal administrative actions and proposed policy and helping to shape...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES DIRECTOR
    Solar Energy International (SEI) is a 501(c)3 non-profit education organization with a mission to provide industry-leading technical training and expertise in renewable energy to empower...
  • TRAINING MANAGER
    This is a full-time position based out of our Paonia office. This position is responsible for organizing all of Solar Energy International's renewable energy trainings....
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!