Trump’s Mexican wall: what the locals think
Weekend Read: Donald Trump wants a wall between the US and Mexico. In Arizona, locals say it won’t stop people-smuggling, drug mules or death in the desert
The border fence between Mexico and the US at Sasabe. Photograph: Ruadhán Mac Cormaic
Members of the Arizona Border Recon group, with self-described “extremist” Tim “Nailer” Foley kneeling in centre
It’s not yet 10am, but already the sun is beating down on the Sonoran desert in southern Arizona. On the rocky trail that winds unevenly through an endless expanse of mesquite and barrel cacti – an environment so unvarying that it takes just a few minutes to lose all sense of orientation – there’s no respite from the brutal heat.
Occasionally a border patrol jeep passes in the distance, but otherwise the only signs of life in the Altar Valley, just north of the Mexican border, are the hawks and vultures that fly soundlessly overhead.
We have been walking for just half an hour, but already we’re soaked in sweat and our arms are cut to pieces from pushing through the prickly briars. My guide, a friendly Californian named Gail Kocourek, has been walking this trail for years. She carries a heavy-duty GPS beacon and an alarm that summons an emergency helicopter at the push of a button, but these are just precautions; she knows every twist in the path.
Kocourek is first to spot the bag, an abandoned khaki-coloured backpack containing some clothes and a few snacks. It had been left there recently, she says, presumably by a migrant who was picked up nearby. A few feet away are small pieces of scrap carpet. Migrants who cross from the Mexican border tie them to the soles of their shoes so they don’t leave footprints behind.
We’re on our way to what Kocourek and her colleagues at Tucson Samaritans call “528”, one of the hundreds of remote spots where every week the Samaritans leave bottles of water to help keep passing migrants alive on the gruelling hike from the border.
We are on a section of the 2,000 miles of migrant trails mapped by the organisation in this part of Arizona, an hour south of Tucson. But as we walk we come across a water drop-point belonging to another humanitarian group: placed under a tree are three large bottles and some tins of beans, with rosary beads hanging from a branch to mark the spot.
Kocourek senses we’re not the first to have found them. When she picks up the bottles, water leaks from holes in each one.
“Vigilantes,” she says with a sigh. “They’ve slashed the bottles.”
The cans have also been sabotaged; the rings used to pull them open are broken off.
Nothing much survives in the desert, or at least not for long. So far this year, 144 bodies have been found in this area, and the remains of many more are presumed to have been scattered or washed away in the monsoon. Most deaths are caused by dehydration or hypothermia, and small wooden crosses dotted across the desert mark the thousands of spots where bodies have been found.
One carries the name of Josseline Jamileth Hernández Quinteros, a 14-year-old Salvadoran girl who died while hiking north in wintry conditions in January 2008. Josseline, who, with her 10-year-old brother, was hoping to be reunited with her mother in Los Angeles, had been on the move for weeks when, three days after crossing the border, she fell ill, lost her energy and started to lag.
Impatient to keep moving, the “coyote” – a smuggler paid to spirit the group into the US – decided that they would have to leave her behind. He reassured Josseline; if she stayed put, she would soon be found by the border patrol. Her body was discovered three weeks later and had to be identified using her DNA.
This election season, thanks to the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, whose nativist rhetoric reached its apogee with a proposal to build a “big, beautiful, powerful” wall to keep migrants out, the border debate has gone national.
Four out of 10 Americans support Trump’s signature idea, according to a poll by the Pew Research Centre in August, and the sight of thousands of people chanting “Build that Wall”, a common refrain at the property magnate’s rallies, has become one of the defining images of the campaign.
In the communities that live closest to the border, however, the idea is even less popular than in the rest of the country. Someone living in Arizona is more likely than the average American to call the plan a waste of money, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll last week.
“When we poll the state, it’s not an issue that moves anybody,” says Andy Barr, a Democratic strategist in Arizona. “The people who find it compelling are already in the bag for Trump.”
With its old-style general store and near-deserted main street, the sleepy village of Sasabe looks more like a ghost town than an international border crossing. Halfway between the towns of Nogales and Lukeville, the crossing connects two towns: El Sasabe, with a population of 2,500 on the Mexican side, and Sasabe, with a population of 11, in the US.
MIgrant deaths in Arizona 2011-2015
Each dot on the map represents a death. Click or hover on points to see details. You can also pinch or zoom.Source: humaneborders.info
The checkpoint is so quiet that, in 2011, local press reported that the border guards once set up a barbecue on the front deck to relieve the boredom.
Sasabe, like several other communities along the border, already has a wall. The 18-foot metal grille, officially a fence, stretches into the distance on either side of the town until, a few miles away, it ends abruptly and gives way to some barbed-wire mesh.
Fences such as this initially developed in a haphazard way in the late 1990s, when border guards who knew how to weld took it upon themselves to erect physical barriers, says John Lawson, a border patrol agent based in Tucson. These days, the fences are built by contractors at a cost of $4-$6 million (€3.7-€5.5 million) a mile. Tucson sector, which covers 422km (262 miles) of border, now has 114km (71 miles) of fencing, mostly in urban areas.
Nobody believes the fence stops people crossing. Its purpose is to slow them down, particularly in urban areas, so that border patrol agents can reach them before they disappear.
“If we didn’t have that fence, it would be difficult to patrol downtown and not lose people at a much higher rate,” says Lawson.
On the idea of a wall stretching all the way from California to Texas, however, Lawson makes little effort to conceal his misgivings. For one, he believes, it just wouldn’t work.
“We already have quite a bit of fencing where it makes sense,” he says. “It just doesn’t make any sense in some places, like in the mountains. Anyone who is willing to cross a giant mountain range is probably willing to get over a fence.”
Lawson also points to the environmental damage a wall would cause and the effect it would have on migrating animals.
“Mother Nature is ultimately going to win, so you’ve got to work with a solution that’s going to allow for the flows of water and the flow of animals,” he says.
Building a fence, or a wall, is only the first step, Lawson points out. For it to work, it has to be accompanied by cameras, sensors and an all-weather road so that border guards can move quickly when they detect a crossing.
“You can’t just put a fence out there and expect it to work,” he says. “That fence has to be monitored and managed. Otherwise it’s going to end up being scrap metal in Mexico somewhere. They’ll cut it down, they’ll climb over it, they’ll build ladders over it. You have to be there all the time.”
So he finds Trump’s idea simplistic?
“I think that’s the consensus that everybody down here shares,” Lawson replies.
Gail Kocourek is more forthright.
“It’s just silly,” she says. “People have been migrating since the beginning of time.”
Illegal immigration across the US-Mexico border has been in decline in recent years. In 2015, 337,000 people were caught trying to make the crossing. Fifteen years ago, in 2000, the figure for Tucson sector alone – a relatively small sliver of border – was 600,000 (today it’s 60,000).
Officials attribute the decline, which has accelerated sharply since 2011, to a strengthening of the Mexican economy and a slow recovery north of the border, as well as to stronger security measures on the American side, including greater use of ground sensors, drones and other aircraft.
In the Tucson sector, drug smuggling has become a much bigger preoccupation for border control than migration. In 2015, guards in this area seized about 340,000kg (750,000lb) of marijuana, about half of the total intercepted along the entire border that year.
That shift has been reflected in the activities of one of the biggest vigilante groups in the region. Arizona Border Recon, a collective of mostly ex-soldiers who patrol the area in search of migrants and drug mules, was set up eight years ago by Tim “Nailer” Foley, a former construction worker who lost his job in the downturn and decided to move to the desert to join the “war” against the cartels who control illicit cross-border trade.
“When I came down here and saw that the cartels control pretty much everything and anything that comes across the border, we shifted from illegals to straight-up cartel activity, going after their scouts in the mountains, going after their dope, anything to hurt their pocketbook,” he says.
Foley rejects the term “vigilante” and prefers to describe himself as an “extremist”.
“If getting off the couch and doing something for your country is extreme, then by all means call us extremists,” he says.
With a core team of six people, he runs the operation from his house in Sasabe and regularly goes out on patrol with his dog, Rocco, or some of the volunteers who come from across the US every few months for lengthy trips in the desert. As we speak, he has about a dozen video cameras in place on different trails. When he and his group find migrants or drug mules – they have caught “thousands” in the past eight years, he says – they turn them over to the border patrols. He denies that his group is responsible for destroying water bottles left in the desert by humanitarian groups, however.
“In summer, when it gets to 50 celsius out there, my dog drinks a lot of water, so I resupply my water with theirs . . . But I don’t destroy ’em,” he adds.
Foley, a gruff military veteran who carries a gun on patrol but says he has never used it, argues that he is serving his country by fighting an “invasion” from the south, and cites the European Union as a cautionary tale of what happens when borders are opened and “you lose your culture, your identity, your sovereignty”. He dismisses humanitarians who “have these rainbow-and-unicorn thoughts” and fall for the “government narrative” of “poor undocumented migrants searching for a better life”.
Yet even Foley has doubts about Trump’s wall.
“Ain’t nothing happens ’til it happens. But a wall is not an end-all, save-all thing. You can build a 10-metre-high wall and all they need is a 12-metre-high ladder. It’ll slow it down, it’ll do it a little bit, but boots on the ground is what they need,” he says.
Filling his pick-up with food for the days ahead, Buck Wickham, a tall, moustachioed man with a cowboy hat and a deep voice, guffaws loudly at the mere mention of Trump’s wall.
“It doesn’t give the people who are trying to get into our country very much credit. They’ll climb over the damn wall!” he says.
Wickham, who is from Flagstaff in northern Arizona, thinks Trump’s biggest problem is that he fails to grasp what the US is all about.
“A lot of these families that are coming across the border, they’re very religious, they’re very family-oriented and they’re very hard-working,” he says. “They’re just trying to better themselves. That’s what has made America strong.”
Wickham is about to get into the pick-up, but he pauses when a final thought occurs to him. “You know, Trump needs to come out here and walk around a little bit and see what he’s talking about.”