Under Siege

Leo W. Banks, Tucson Weekly, Mar. 10

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But this is Southern Arizona under siege, so there really is only one subject on the agenda, one issue that dominates all others here: the border with Mexico and the invasion of illegals who, every day and every night, rush to fill this yawning vacuum.

They are hungry campesinos; unemployed Colombian dishwashers; Brazilian professors on the lam; Syrian women running from abusive men; felons and child molesters; young Mexican women who’ve been tricked into believing that Chicago is right up the road from Bisbee, so sure those Manolo Blahnik knockoffs will be perfect for walking there; strong-shouldered teenage boys who can lift everything you own for $7 an hour; dark-eyed men who love pornography and use breaks in their treks to ogle skin mags, then toss them on the ground before moving north again; drug addicts who litter pull-up sites with used needles; children who play with Barney dolls; terrified mothers who nurse their infants while hoping to reunite with their stone mason husbands; coyote guides who carry 9 mm automatics, long knives to slash the throats of barking dogs and epinephrine to squirt up their noses for fast energy; and pregnant girls desperate to birth their babies in the great United States.

You can’t name a category of human being—good-hearted or crooked, kind or mean—or a nation, religion or ethnic group that isn’t using this border to sneak into America illegally. The numbers boggle the mind. In January alone, the Border Patrol in the Tucson sector impounded 557 smuggling vehicles, confiscated 34,864 pounds of marijuana and arrested 35,704 illegals, according to agency spokesman Jose Garza.

The important number is one they can’t pinpoint with certainty: how many got through. But figure it this way, using the common belief that, conservatively, for every arrest the Border Patrol makes, another two illegals make it through: With almost 500,000 arrests in the Tucson sector last year, that means somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 million illegals broke into the country successfully last year—an average of almost 3,000 every 24 hours. And arrests for 2005 are up 10 percent, according to Garza.

Because of the sheer number of illegals—as well as their desperation, their willingness to destroy property and intimidate, and the always-simmering fear—Cowan and husband, Bob Giles, have sold most of their cattle and are significantly scaling back their ranching operation.

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Close to dark, the cabs move out. From the right hilltop vantage point on the Arizona side, you can set up a lawn chair, fire up a cheap cigar and watch the invasion. You see the headlights streaming north, virtual convoys of Ford Crown Vics and beat-up old Mercurys filled to the windows with soon-to-be illegals. From Cananea—where a legal taxi permit now costs an astonishing $15,000—they follow a dirt road that splits about 10 miles south of the border, one fork leading to the San Rafael Valley, in the mountains above Patagonia; the other to the San Pedro River Valley. In some cases, their feet don’t hit the ground until they’re literally a quarter-mile from the international fence.

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She fits the role well—welcoming, confident, polite. Think of June Cleaver with close-cropped silver hair. But Cowan is no shrinking violet; a few years ago, she organized the first concealed-carry gun class for women of Cochise County, drawing a crowd of 28 to the Benson firehouse. And at most public meetings she attends, Cowan stands to give a rousing recital of a poem she wrote called “Ode to the Vigilante”:

If I haul them to town, I’m trafficking.

If I take them in, I’m harboring.

If I feed them all, I go broke.

If I deny them, they steal.

If I’m vulnerable, they take advantage.

If my dog bites them, I have to pay their medical bills.

If I haul off a known trafficking vehicle, I face auto theft.

If I carry a gun because I’m afraid, I’m a vigilante.

“The media always twist everything we say, making us out to be these terrible vigilantes,” says Cowan. “But we’re just vigilant Americans.”

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She points to a pasture out the driver’s window. “See, over there, I have a water line they keep cutting. So I rigged a faucet to it so they could drink without letting thousands of gallons drain out. But now they don’t turn off the faucet, so the water runs out anyway.”

A little farther along, she recalls another disaster: A gate the illegals left open allowed a nurse cow to wander onto the road. It was killed when a passing motorist smashed into it, demolishing the car. Then the motorist, who’d suffered a broken arm, threatened to sue Cowan.

On and on it goes. She and Bob have had one truck stolen and another vandalized, jacking up her insurance rates. One of her prized bulls ate a plastic bag, the kind illegals discard everywhere, blocking its intestines and creating such agony that she had to kill the animal. Cost: $2,400.

Three north-south smuggling trails cross Cowan’s land, and so many illegals walk them that they spooked her cattle, making them wild. Wild cattle don’t gain as much weight, and when ranchers go to market, they sell quality and weight. She also followed a specific breeding program, but with her gates constantly left open and fences cut, her herds were becoming mongrelized and more susceptible to disease from neighboring cattle.

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Another time, Davis’ daughter Marlo, then 23, was home alone when a man rapped at the kitchen window. He wanted to come inside and use the phone. She said no. He persisted, telling her that the man with him had hurt his leg, and she had to take them someplace in her car. But she kept saying no.

To back him off, Marlo told the invader that her father was in the back room. The man at the window said, “Your father isn’t home, and I know your neighbor isn’t home either. I’ve been watching the house from the barn all day.”

Now terrified, Marlo noticed that he held his right hand in a strange way, the knuckles forward, his fingers curled up as if concealing something in his palm. She was about to get the family shotgun when the mysterious man finally gave up and left.

Later, on the ground outside the kitchen window, the Davises found a knife from a rack the family keeps in a workshop near their barn. They surmised that the man at the window had been holding that knife.

This happened in August 2001—domestic terrorism a month before Sept. 11.

Every rancher has a similar story. Sue and Rob Krentz, who live north of Douglas, lost a baby calf when two illegals beat it to death with a metal fence post, then barbecued it on the spot. The animal, barely 12 hours old, still had afterbirth on it. The two were arrested, spent 52 days in jail, and were ordered to pay the Krentzes $100 each. But they fled back into Mexico without paying.

What has changed since Sept. 11? Not much, except the invaders have become more aggressive. They’re a scarier breed now, with an attitude of entitlement about what they’re doing and a willingness to threaten anyone who interferes.

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It’s not at all rare now to hear a rancher tell of coming across heavily armed men escorting drug shipments across their land. It only has to happen once—you look out your kitchen window and see guys carrying AK-47s—to make you realize there’s a new force in your life, a controlling force, and it’s not American law.

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