Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Dueling Border Personalities in Arizona

Agua Prieta on the other side/Tom Barry

(Second in series on Agua Prieta and Cochise County, Arizona. First in series: "Loca, Loca, Loca" Border Security.)
Cochise County in southeastern Arizona has dueling personalities.
It’s a stark divide, and the dominant personality exudes fear, hate, and a macho individualism that leave the less assertive personality in the shadows.
Bill Wendt boils over when he talks about border insecurity and the failure of the federal government to protect the ranchers and others who are making their stand in the highland desert and rugged mountains of Cochise County – named for the Apache warrior who fought U.S. and Confederate armies for more than three decades, finally signing a peace treaty in 1872 and then dying later on a military reservation.
Guns, Ammo, and Hallmark
It’s not the guns and ammo that stand out as you enter Wendt’s gun shop in downtown Douglas. It’s the messaging. 
In the middle of the window display on 11th street, in the shadow of the famous Gadsden Hotel (named for the Gadsen Purchase of 1853 that made this part of Mexico part of America’s expanding Manifest Destiny) is a poster that proclaims, with great effect: “Homeland Security Since 1492,” with an accompanying black-and-white photo of armed Apaches – who haven’t been seen in this region since the late 1800s.
Inside, by the counter, is another poster you can’t miss. It’s a head shot of Obama, with the counterintuitive caption: “America’s No. 1 Arms Salesman.”
Wendt wasn’t in.  A prominent member of gun rights group and the Arizona Citizens Defense League, Wendt, a lifetime NRA member, was found behind the counter across town at the empty Wendy’s Hallmark (Cards & Gifts), which his mother owns.
Border Patrol truck on other side in Douglas/Tom Barry
The dark, steel gray of his Allsafe Security gave way to the light and pastels of the Hallmark store.
Guns, ammo, and Americana kitsch – along with Tea Party messaging – combine to create a personality profile of the border-security hardliners have come to define the politics of Cochise County.
The rising national and state prominence of County Sheriff Larry Dever, cofounder of, is another indicator of how the politics of fear, law-and-order crackdown, and secure-the-border populism now marginalize the area’s recessive but enduring trait – its biculturalism, binationalism, and transborder economic life. (See related Border Lines post: Last, Best Chance” to Defend Arizona.) 
“Why all the emphasis on citizen action?” I ask Wentz. “The Border Patrol is everywhere, Washington is spending billions of border security, and crime rates have been down for several years.”

“The federal government has no mandate to protect us,” asserts Wentz. “We need to protect ourselves.”

For that reason, Douglas-native Wendt says he hasn’t’ stepped foot in Mexico for ten years.  So committed is he to his gun-rights principles, he explained that he recently told his wife he wouldn’t accompany her on an expenses-paid trip she had won to a Mexican resort.

“I can’t protect myself there, like I can here,” asserts Wentz, indicating that he has the will and means to terminate any threat to his person or business.

A steel wall now separates the formerly twin cities of Agua Prieta, Sonora and Douglas, with more barriers and fortifications constantly being erected.  “What we need to extend that wall from Brownsville to San Diego,” contends Wendt.

The gunshop-gift store businessman acknowledges that the killing of Cochise County rancher Robert Krentz may have been an isolated incident. “Or it may be the first of more to come,” he observes, explaining why more security and an all-border wall are urgently needed.

“The illegals come through the ranches, wearing a path, and they scare the cows, damage the ranchers’ fences, and empty their water tanks.”  And now they come bearing drugs, he says. “It’s a threat to the nation.  They may have TB, and are sweating on the dope they back-pack in, creating a public health risk.”  (Now, that’s something I hadn’t thought to fear yet.)

Other Side of Cochise County Brain

There’s another side of Cochise County that isn’t as quick to increase the divide between Mexico and the United States.  It’s actually more pervasive and persistent than the Wentz-Dever brand of borderland politics. 

Entry to Agua Prieta/Tom Barry
At first, it’s the border-security buildup at the Douglas-Agua Prieta Port of Entry that impresses.  So cluttered is the POE with all variety of surveillance equipment , license plate readers, and radiation detectors, etc. – now including full-body scanners for pedestrians – that it seems like a border–security trade show.  

The proliferation of ICE and CBP agents, along with their leashed K-9’s, working within the newly fortified POE exude the politics of fear and nationalism – at all costs.

But then you notice that all these people, enduring long wait/inspection times, want or need to be on the other side.  Heading to or from work, visiting families, going shopping, on their way to a dentist appointment in Mexico or a medical specialist in the U.S, these folks live in a crossover, transboundary world. 

While not making the news or shaping electoral victories, these are the borderlanders who still live the longer tradition of border integration, rather than the newer border divides.

(Next in Douglas-Agua Prieta travelogue:  “The Other Side of Border Security.”)

(Note to Readers:  More articles on border security outsourcing in Texas coming up.)

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