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Tucson Weekly Southern Discomfort

Heightened Tension Along The Arizona-Sonora Line.

By Jeff Smith

JUNE 21, 1999:  THE BEGINNING OF this month another cowperson from my neck of the woods had to drag iron on a gang of desperadoes from the land of Pancho Villa. That makes five such dust-ups along the Mexican border in Santa Cruz and Cochise counties since New Year's Eve. Five that have made the papers. Six, if you count the Mexican burglar who stole a pistol, pointed it at a Border Patrol agent, and went "click."

Something's in the wind and it leaves a faint stench in the nostrils.

The most recent incident involves a couple with a horse ranch southeast of Sierra Vista. Jeff Wittaker was working in his barn when his wife noticed a group of four approaching their training arena. She called to Jeff, he appeared, and the group, who proved to be mojados, turned tail and ran. Wittaker hollered "Alto!" and fired a warning shot in the air. They kept hot-footing it. One more round in the air from his revolver and they decided to stop and catch their wind.

(Quick Spanish primer: mojado is border slang for "undocumented worker." Literally translated it means wet. "Alto" is textbook Spanish for "Stop!")

The four illegals, three men and a woman, told authorities ranging from Cochise County sheriff's deputies to the Mexican consular staff in Douglas that Wittaker never aimed his pistola at them and that they never felt threatened or intimidated. Apparently stopping for breath and waiting for La Migra to give them a free ride back across the line just seemed like a good idea at the time. La Migra, by the way, is Spanish for "the Immigration," i.e. the Border Patrol. Incidentally, there will be 47 more of La Migra assigned to the Douglas sector of the border by the time you read this.

Southern Arizona is taking on a look reminiscent of Berlin before Gorbachev.

I groused about this in a column not long ago, but, mirabile dictu (Latin this time, meaning essentially, "marvelous to relate...") my sweetly reasoned prose did not make the problem go away. The feds announced the reinforcements for the Border Patrol in Douglas, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee flew over the border, then landed in Douglas with a contingent of local politicos to deliver some bombast to the effect that U.S. citizens are not, by God, going to live in a no-man's land of drug-smugglers, burglars and illegal aliens, and that all it will take is money to solve the problem, which, by the way, is Bill Clinton's fault.

Yay, went the crowd; and Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican from Alaska, got back on his plane and got the hell out of there.

But not before expressing his disdain for the Mexican government for allowing Mexican people and products to enter the U.S. without the necessary paperwork. Clearly Sen. Stevens was getting his dudgeon over illegal drugs and illegal aliens muddled. The week before the incident with Wittaker and the party of four at his equine facility, federal drug enforcement agents had uncovered another in a string of transborder tunnels, apparently used to snake drugs from Mexico into the U.S. This one was right next to the border crossing in Naco, west of Douglas and south of Bisbee. Similar tunnels have been unearthed in Douglas and Nogales.

Drug-running, transborder burglary, and the flood of desperate illegal aliens seeking a better life and higher wages in the U.S. are separate issues, but politics has made bedfellows out of stranger trios. And bureaucracies love to let politicians run interference for them at budget time. Neither Bill Clinton nor his Republican tormentors want to appear soft on border crime, illicit drugs or illegal immigration. Our sieve of a southern border makes a perfect place to put on a great show, spend a lot of money, keep several bureaucracies happy by expanding their empires...and then blame the Mexican government when it all, inevitably, fails.

As a consequence, an atmosphere of palpably heightened tension has set in along the Arizona-Sonora line.

And being human, the locals are responding to it.

BEFORE JEFF Wittaker fired his shots in the air, Roger Barnett caught a group of 27 illegals cutting fence on his ranch east of Douglas. Barnett was armed, but according to authorities did not have to use his firearm to detain the 27 until the Border Patrol arrived to arrest and deport them. Two weeks later, Barnett's brother, Brent, had a similar run-in with 30 illegals. Same scenario; same outcome.

But the most notorious recent incident involved Patagonia-area resident Jerry Chap. One night in early January, Chap and his wife were alerted by alarms that someone was opening their front gate. Chap saw a group of men and fired at them, striking one in the forearm. Chap, who is in a wheelchair and lives in a remote area, has a colorful history of disagreements with county officialdom. Now his personal history is even more clouded.

He is charged with aggravated assault and criminal endangerment in connection with the incident. Civil lawsuit following Chap's criminal trial, scheduled for July, seems inevitable. This incident could prove costly in more ways than several.

I have lived near the border off and on for 15 years. I've had Mexicans show up at my house in the dark of night more than once. I've never had a bit of trouble, have fed, clothed and housed my illegal guests, and bid them adieu (French for adios) next morning. My friends and neighbors report similar experiences.

But lately the atmosphere has shifted, and I think the increased presence of armed, uniformed government agents, of ugly steel fences down the middle of Nogales, of high-intensity lights glaring into the night sky in border cities, of constantly-manned checkpoints along state highways, all have contributed to a feeling of unease on both sides of the border, both sides of the issue.

Roger Abbey, a ranch hand for Roger Barnett, who detained the 27 illegals on his ranch, has been working ranches and construction crews around here since 1953. He said he has noticed a difference in the attitude of the illegals in the decades since he first came here from the Midwest.

"They're more belligerent," he said. "They act like they've got a right to be here."

Familiarity is said to breed contempt, and a big percentage of illegal entrants are all too familiar with the revolving-door routine of crossing the line looking for day work, getting busted by the law or by the locals, riding a prison bus back to Mexico, and repeating the drill again. And again. These are your casual, cool, sometimes rude minority. Most locals living north of the line know most mojados as inoffensive, frightened, harmless and hard-working.

Santa Cruz County Attorney Martha Chase told me that despite a dramatic recent increase in illegal alien traffic, the stats for illegals committing crimes on this side of the border are down. What is on the rise, Chase says, is Mexican criminals preying on the huddled masses who come to the border yearning to breathe...smog. In L.A., Phoenix, Seattle, wherever there's work.

Roger Abbey customarily goes heeled when he goes about his daily ranch chores. So does his boss, and so do many who live in remote rural areas.

"We don't carry guns to shoot Mexicans," Abbey said. "But we'd be nuts not to have one handy. We use 'em on snakes."

For all of the illegal traffic in humanity through his boss' ranch, and for all the publicity it has generated, Abbey seems unruffled. He regards it as an annoyance, but an understandable one.

"Usually all they want is something to drink, maybe something to eat, and to get along and find work somewhere, I guess. I don't know exactly: I don't speak Mexican. My only trouble is they tear down my fences and that makes more work for me. I got 35 miles of fence and I don't need no more work."

Abbey said Roger Barnett is out of the country on vacation. Brother Brent works up in Morenci, he said. Abbey told me a pretty good story about Brent's arrest of the mob of 30.

"He was here helping his brother out and noticed the fence was down in this one spot," Abbey said. "So he drove on over there, and as soon as he stopped, them Mexicans come out of the weeds and piled in the back of his truck. They thought he was their ride north."

Abbey laughed. Once Brent figured out what was up, he told the Mexicans to sit tight, and went and phoned the law.

I guess if you're using the right bait, the fish just jump in your boat.

How come we don't read about stuff like this in the dailies?

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