Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and Sheriff Joe Arpaio lead what some believe is the whackiest state in the union. (illustration: DonkeyHotey)
Arizona Is a "Kookocracy"
06 February 13
From Governor Jan Brewer to Sheriff Joe Arpaio to a Tea Party–dominated state legislature, no state deserves the tag “Kookocracy” as much as Arizona, and in Arizona there’s no bigger issue than immigration and border security. As immigration reform takes center stage in Washington, one man in Arizona is caught in the middle.very few weeks Bob Heilig, a 67-year-old Arizona rancher, rounds up the Mexican cattle that have strayed over the border onto his land and herds them back to their rightful owners through the fence he calls "the taco curtain." We are about 50 feet north of the Mexican border at the edge of Heilig's Double Bar R Ranch, 70 miles south of Tucson. We are also at the point where the border fence, 18 feet of concrete-reinforced steel, simply stops for a while. "It's a real hilarity, isn't it?" Heilig says as he parks his Nissan Frontier atop a low, sandy knoll in the Sonoran Desert. To the west, looking like the Great Wall of China and about as successful at repelling invaders, the wall undulates over rolling hills at a cost of $5.4 million per mile toward the border town of Nogales. To the east, it becomes a single chest-high railroad rail and an Old West–style barbed-wire fence - not much of a change since John Wayne rode through these parts making Red River in the late 1940s.
Bob and his wife, Eileen Whalen, bought their ranch in 2004, near the height of the huge northward migration. The seller warned them, but couldn't hand it over fast enough. For Eileen and Bob, a fourth-generation Arizona rancher who joined the Army at 17 and was gone for 41 years, coming home was the fulfillment of a long-held wish. They built their dream house in 2008, a promise from Bob to Eileen, who commutes from Seattle, where she is the executive director of Harborview Medical Center.
Heilig shows us where he pries the barbed wire back to shoo the Mexican cattle through. "The fence is the biggest joke in the world," he says. "This huge, immense thing that cost millions, and then four-strand barbed-wire fence. You look at it and go, Huh?"
When you try to understand Arizona's dysfunction - and maybe, God forbid, America's - you have to start at The Fence and the grand self-delusion that the border could be fortified enough to keep out the invading brown horde. An ugly symbol of a frightened nation, it has fooled no one, except perhaps the politicians in far-off Washington who built it and made it their proxy for immigration reform. But it has barely slowed the Mexicans who've climbed over it, dug under it, cut through it, or, as on Heilig's ranch and elsewhere, simply walked around it. To be sure, the numbers of undocumented border crossers are down, from more than a million a year to a few hundred thousand. It took the Great Recession to stifle the northward migration. The flow of drugs, on the other hand, continues unabated; America's demand is insatiable and the fence has barely slowed the smugglers.
Now as Washington finally turns to immigration reform, Heilig has no illusion that President Obama's plan to overhaul the immigration system - or the slate of congressional alternatives - is going to make much difference for the ranchers who live along the border. The key component of the various proposals includes offering a way for some 11 million illegal immigrants to become citizens, which has been the sticking point that stalled reform for decades.
"The big debate will be about what to do with the people living in the United States today," he says. "But it doesn't really address the issue of people coming across. I don't understand why they don't deal with that."
Arizona accounts for 380 miles of the 2,000-mile Mexican border, and through three presidential administrations, it has been the primary route through which the lion's share of undocumented migrants and illegal drugs flow. As President Bill Clinton sought to cool the more politically vocal California in the early 1990s, it was a border crackdown there that inadvertently funneled migrants into the inhospitable deserts and mountains of Arizona. As the numbers of border crossers multiplied in the American economic boom, fencing out the Mexicans became the only politically palpable "solution." Border fortification snowballed in the wake of 9/11, when President George W. Bush doubled the size of the Border Patrol and signed on to erect 670 miles of fence in strategic stretches along the border. More than a billion dollars were spent on high-tech gadgetry and a "virtual" fence that was supposed to "see" border crossers in the desert. Among its many malfunctions, the virtual fence confused raindrops and cows with migrants and was eventually scrapped.
Meanwhile, in Phoenix, the obsession with border fortification fueled Arizona's drift to the distant right. The Tea Party parlayed the anti-immigrant mood into super-majorities in the 2010 election, then spent two years passing a far-right agenda that made Arizona a national laughingstock. Stephen Colbert took aim at the new anti-abortion law that starts the clock running two weeks before intercourse. Arizona is not only "pro-life," he cracked, "it's become "pre-life."
It didn't help Arizona's slide into "Kookocracy" that the most recognizable photo of Governor Jan Brewer has her waggling her finger under Obama's nose on his airport arrival in her parboiled state or that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio took it on himself to send an Arizona posse to Hawaii and declare Obama's birth certificate to be a fake.
Still a youngster, Arizona became the 48th and the last continental state only 101 years ago, fulfilling that era's dream of Manifest Destiny. Arizona appealed, like all frontier turf, to dreamers, schemers, scalawags, and adventurers, not necessarily in that order. But it also cleaves to its roots. Settled largely by Southerners, Arizona Territory had joined the Confederacy. Later came the transplants - Northerners seeking the sun and overflow Californians looking to re-create life as it once was before the huge wave of immigrants.
To be sure, Arizona-as-Kookocracy evolved out of a stew of its Wild West heritage and pure solipsism vis-à-vis Mexico. As Arizona, like neighboring California, moves inevitably toward a demographic tipping point - almost half of the children enrolled in public schools are Latino - the struggle to hold on to a vanishing way of life underlies much of the turmoil.
In his 1,000-square-foot cottage once used by date harvesters in old Phoenix, Barry Goldwater Jr., son of the conservative icon of a different era, told us his late father would have been appalled by the anti-immigration binge.
"They came across to work. That's the only reason," Goldwater, now 74 and a former seven-term Republican congressman, said. "And it worked pretty well until some politicians seized on the issue and blew it up. You can credit Joe Arpaio as one."
Another was former state senator Russell Pearce, since recalled, who rose to national prominence as the author of Arizona's harsh "show-me-your-papers" law that the Supreme Court mostly dismantled last June.
"Pearce rode the issue as hard as he could with vitriolic and vindictive speeches," Goldwater continued. "He castigated Mexicans as being evil people and demagogued them to no end. Arpaio fanned the flames into a fire, heaping more and more wood on it, and it became a bonfire. It became a Republican litmus test, and then it spread nationwide from here."
Arpaio feasted on immigration for years. First elected in 1992, he rose to international fame, or infamy, by rounding up undocumented workers like cattle, them humiliating them by dressing them in pink underwear, shackling them in Old South chain gangs, and housing them in tent-city jails in the blistering Phoenix heat. More than once, he has been called a throwback to Bull Connor's fire hoses and attack dogs in Birmingham, Alabama. Whether he is a racist or a malevolent opportunist, his critics contend, is open only to minor debate.
The Democrats regained some strength in the fall elections, but the G.O.P. retained majorities in both houses of the legislature. Arpaio, under siege for his antics, survived. He squeaked through with 50.7 percent of the vote, his poorest showing in six elections. Now 80, he says he'll run again in 2016. And, ever the deft pol, the Newtown, Connecticut, school massacre prompted him to swiftly move his citizens' posse around almost 60 Phoenix-area schools. The posse has grown to 3,000 volunteers and includes Hollywood's Steven Seagal, the B-movie adventure star. That makes it equal in size to the Phoenix Police Department.
Washington's renewed effort on immigration will likely be tied to border security, although some influential voices on the subject are raising doubts about the value added by further investment after more than two decades of buildup. Obama set a new mark for border enforcement: last year, his administration spent nearly $18 billion on - more than the F.B.I. and all other major federal law-enforcement agencies combined, according to a new study released in January by the Migration Policy Institute. Doris Meissner, Clinton's chief of the old Immigration and Naturalization Service and one of the report's authors, told us: "These are huge numbers, enormous numbers, and I think they do raise the question: how much is enough?"
Meissner said there was never any evidence that the U.S. was vulnerable to a terrorist threat across the Mexican border. "It was all justified in the name of national security when, in fact, what was going on was a more heightened concern about illegal immigration," she said. "We really went into high octane. When you go back and look at the creation of Homeland Security and the budgets that the Bush administration took to the Hill, Washington often gave them more than they asked for. More for employer enforcement, more for electronic systems. They would get 100 more border-patrol agents than the 800 they asked for. Take the Secure Fence Act, which in retrospect you really have to scratch your head at."
Former Arizona State Attorney General Terry Goddard decries the false promise of border security in Arizona as an effective barrier against a drug-trafficking enterprise that runs 24/7. In two terms as Arizona's top law-enforcement official, he targeted smugglers by following the money. He dismisses the entire "secure border" concept as "nonsense," and urges Washington to face reality.
"The wall is about symbolism; it's not about protecting the border," he said. "If you really cared about shutting down the cartels, you would start with the money. You would keep them from having the resources to beat us every time. I expect the cartels to use drones next. They have unlimited funds."
For now, the transit system set up by the cartels to move their product north is primitive but nimble and efficient. We made a foray into the desert, riding along with Eric Balliet, a rugged, 36-year-old special agent in charge of Homeland Security's investigations in Nogales. On our tour, he was supervising a multi-agency task force working one of the main drug corridors. Most seizures occur within 26 miles of the border, Balliet told us. We were 80 miles north of it, in a stretch of desert that includes several choke points where trafficking routes merge onto main roads running into Phoenix, 40 miles away, where couriers' minivans and S.U.V.'s more easily blend in on congested city streets.
Our first stop was a thicket of mesquite next to an east-west interstate that serves as a transfer point for loads of dope. It was littered with discarded water bottles, food wrappers, and remnants of burlap bags heavily scented with marijuana. Any lingering drug mules had long since cleared out.
Farther north, we climbed to a scout camp atop a rocky, treeless hill that rises 800 feet and provides a clear view of traffic on the desert floor below. Drug smuggling runs in six- to eight-week cycles, Balliet said. Pairs of scouts arrive a week ahead and take up positions all along the route, guiding their merchandise from the border on into Phoenix.
This camp was typically low-tech. Hidden in the rocks were caches of food, plates, a worn deck of playing cards, and black plastic garbage bags - used as cover during aerial searches. The front seat of a car had been hauled up, the only camp comfort. As Balliet busted up the caches looking for the car battery every scout camp has to recharge cell phones, we were keenly aware that we were being watched from the surrounding hills.
"The fact that we're standing here is causing a traffic jam farther down the route south of us," he said. "Everything is backed up now until we leave. They don't want loads untended."
Every week or so, new headlines are written about busts and seizures, offered up in all the usual statistical measures of success. But the drugs keep moving through.
"This is one of the frustrating things for us," said Ed Rheinheimer, the Republican Cochise County attorney in Arizona's southeast corner. "The federal government counts people and pounds. If we got 50,000 pounds of marijuana last year and 75,000 pounds of marijuana this year, everybody looks at that as increased enforcement. But you can't tell if you don't know how much came in that you didn't get."
In downtown Nogales, Bruce Bracker, who runs his family-owned department store, Bracker's, strolls with us along International Street, reminiscing about old Nogales. Time was when you could walk in the front door of a bar on the Arizona side and out the back door into Mexico - and his grandfather sold U.S. Army surplus to Mexican generals. He remembers the two border towns, Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora, used to celebrate Cinco de Mayo together, starting the parade in Mexico and ending in Arizona.
Bracker doesn't expect to see anything like that again. Nor does he expect to see a return of the 34 percent in lost business when border fortification made travel between the two cities more difficult. He stops near an old parking meter where a rectangular piece of pavement has been carved out and now re-sealed. Mexican smugglers dug a tunnel under the wall, came up here, lifted up the rectangle inside a hollowed-out car, and moved marijuana to their heart's content. In the Fall of 2011 the Border Patrol found 16 tunnels leading to the parking-meter hub.
That was the most audacious but hardly the last of the infamous Nogales tunnels, which have become so prolific. President Obama signed the Border Tunnel Prevention Act of 2012 last June. They number in the scores and have come up in churches, garages, empty buildings, and just about every conceivable hiding place. Bracker and his buddies joke that Armageddon in Nogales will arrive with the two towns disappearing into a giant sinkhole created by the crisscross void beneath.
The sun had just set and a huge full moon rose quickly out of the crags of the Patagonia Mountains on Bob Heilig's ranch, sending the first slings of silver across the high desert. In the first years after Heilig and his wife bought the ranch the migrants trekked across their land by the thousands, banging on their windows for the water and granola bars they kept for them. Some had wandered in circles for days only a mile into the U.S. At least three died on their land near the corrals. Heilig and his 27-year-old son, Alex, found two dehydrated women too weak to walk, eating prickly pear cactus and drinking their own urine, and they once rescued a seven-month-pregnant woman who was air-lifted to a Tucson hospital. The migrants arrived thin, dirty, and woebegone, often ready to turn back; the smugglers peered in their doorway with crude, black teardrop tattoos beneath their eyes, each tattoo representing a murder, like notches on a gun handle in the Old West.
One day, out riding, Bob and Eileen stumbled into a drug exchange. The smugglers rose silently out of their mesquite cover with AK-47s trained on them. Bob had been in tough spots before, "but you don't take a knife to a machine-gun fight," he says. The pair backed their horses away slowly. Very slowly. Eileen has yet to spend a night alone in their home. Regrets? "Depends on what day you ask me," Heilig says. "Suddenly, you've got one hand and both feet in a tar baby." But he's not leaving. "It's livable."
Because of the gap the fence has created, Heilig's ranch has become a target not only for smugglers, but also for the many federal agencies with conflicting agendas.
In the past year, he has had "covert" visits by at least three federal agencies, "trying to recruit me to snitch for them," Heilig says. "It became a joke." The Border Patrol, U.S. Marshals Service, and Drug Enforcement Agency showed up in big black S.U.V.'s, disgorging agents in black suits. For an old soldier who feels a thousand eyes on him every time he steps outside, the "secret" visits were ludicrous. "You'd look obvious in Washington, D.C.," he says. "What do you think you look like in Nogales, Arizona?"
"There has been payback from the visits," says Heilig. Someone rode onto his ranch and pulled down an electrical power pole that fed his water pumps. Then someone poured water into his truck's gas tank. Repair bill: $6,000. "This clearly was retribution," says Heilig. "No other reason why an electric pole would be pulled down. It took me over a month to get the permits to rebuild it."
Heilig still was willing to help, especially to block the drugs. But the more he talked with the federal officials, the more he felt he was playing with the Katzenjammer Kids. The Border Patrol wanted to stop them at the border. The D.E.A. wanted to let them through and follow them to the big distributors in Phoenix - or Chicago.
"It's absolutely dysfunctional. The staffs can't even reveal information to each other. I finally said no [to the D.E.A.]," Heilig says. "Not only no, but hell, no. My purpose is to keep it off my ranch. I'm not going to snitch on someone who will come back and haunt us."
After 10 days in Arizona, the Double Bar R seems the sanest place to end our trip. All we have to put up with here are armed smugglers. And the food is good. Heilig once trained as a professional chef and the result tonight is rack of lamb. It is served in a modern dining room just off a beautiful kitchen. Eileen is in Seattle, their son is away, and Bob is on the ranch alone except for his hired hand.
A shotgun is propped out of view behind the door, the granola bars are stashed in a cupboard - both available if needed.
Fixing a broken immigration system, he says, has to take into account Economics 101 - supply and demand. Laborers have to have a legal way to travel to jobs in the U.S. instead of hiking through the desert and his ranch. Would a modernized variation of the old Bracero farmworkers program that operated from the 1940s to the mid-1960s work today? It might help.
"Fight it as you may and say they're taking jobs from Americans, but apples still get plowed under in Yakima, Washington, every year because they can't get people to come pick them," he says. "Until you solve that very basic problem, you'll not solve any of the problems."
As for the drug smugglers? That's more complicated. Heilig looks off in the distance and shrugs.
After dinner, the Gigondas, a red from the Rhone Valley, accompanies the three us to the moonlight on the patio. Heilig turns up the stereo, playing the soundtrack of the 2000 Matt Damon movie All the Pretty Horses, about a 1950s cowboy who crosses south into Mexico to look for work in simpler times than these. The soundtrack is one of Heilig's favorites.
Even with the full moon, higher in the sky now, the desert is dark. Only one other light shines, where miners are core drilling in an old copper holding two-and-a-half miles away on Mount Washington. For the past several nights Heilig has been spotting drug trains on the trail. They reveal themselves as a brief flashlight flicker checking their footing where a landslide has littered the path.
Last night Heilig saw three flickers minutes apart.
Flicker. A million dollars in marijuana. Flicker. Another million. Flicker. Another.
Tonight we are blanked - just the moon, southwestern melodies, Gigondas, and good conversation.
Ranchers get up early. It's time to leave - time to leave the ranch, the taco curtain, and sheriffs who imprison men in pink underwear. Time to leave Arizona.