Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Showdown in Cochise County

Chief Cochise

 A high desert carved by washes and draws, by the canyons and gulches that descend from snow-covered crest of the Chiricahua Mountains.  Crimson-topped stalks of ocotillo rising above boundless mesquite, creosote bush, and alkali brush.  

This is Arizona’s southeastern corner, a vast swatch of borderland – larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined – that was settled by Anglo ranchers and miners in the late 1880s and now constitutes the heart of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords’ congressional district. 

The Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts reach north, mindless of borders, and merge in Western lands that are the spoils of war. Towns on either side of the line are twins, each with the same Spanish name. It’s where the continent divides and joins to accommodate men and nations – a territory won (and lost) by wars, and contested now by the new border-security wars.

Cochise County is a place a where death, conflict, and separation are celebrated.  It’s a borderland of our movie-history imagination that echoes with stories of outlaws and tin-starred lawmen of heroic proportions.  In the streets of old county seat of Tombstone, the famous gunfight at OK Corral between feuding gangs of deputized ruffians and rustlers are daily reenacted to fascinated crowds of tourists.

During the bitterly fought electoral campaign that pitted incumbent Giffords against Tea Party candidate and anti-immigrant ideologue Jesse Kelly, an anti-Giffords protester brought a gun to congresswomen’s one of the congresswomen’s “Congress on Your Corner” meetings in the border town of Douglas, during which police were alerted that he inadvertently dropped the concealed gun from his pants.

Candidate Kelly, who counted on the enthusiastic  support  of the state’s trifecta of radical sheriffs – Arpaio, Babeu, and Cochise County’s own Sheriff Larry Dever – charged that Giffords was soft on immigration (for not supporting SB1070)  and insufficiently committed to border security . Typical of the aggressive tone of campaign, Kelly sponsored an anti-Giffords event that rallied supporters with the promotion: “Get on Target for Victory. Help Remove Gabrielle Giffords from Office. Shoot a fully automatic M15 with Jesse Kelly.”

Commenting on the violent tone of the Kelly campaign, Giffords told the Arizona Republic:  "When you represent a district that includes the home of the O.K. Corral and Tombstone, 'the Town Too Tough to Die,' nothing's a surprise out in Cochise County."

But it’s not the county’s Wild West gun-slinging legends – lawless sheriffs like Wyatt Earp, Ft. Huahuca’s “Indian fighters,” General Pershing’s 1916-17 forays into Mexico, or the glory days of the Southern Pacific or Bisbee copper mine – that have the strongest hold on the collective imagination of Cochise County residents. Rather, the victims and the vanquished that are the most fondly recalled.

The legendary resistance of Chief Cochise (“Cheis”) is honored at Cochise Memorial Stronghold Park in the Dragoon Mountains near where he signed a peace treaty in 1872 after battling Mexican and U.S. troops since the 1840s. Cochise, who died on a military reservation, was a chief of the Chokonen-Chiricahua Apaches of northern Mexico and what is now southeastern Arizona.

After decades of eluding capture and bedeviling the U.S. Army, the Chiricahua Apache Geronimo finally surrendered in 1886 near Skeleton Canyon of the Chiricahua Mountains, where a monument commemorates his fortitude and endurance.  Geronimo died in an Oklahoma army prisoner-of-war camp in 1906, confessing to his nephew on his deathbed that he deeply regretted his decision surrender in Arizona and to lay down his weapons – all of which were of U.S. army issue.

Sharing 82 miles of border with Mexico, Cochise County has only recently become a leading front in the new border security offensive. As the Border Patrol has since the mid-1990s tightened controls along the traditional corridors of illegal border crossing and smuggling, illegal flows of people and goods have shifted to more inaccessible stretches of the border including Cochise County. 

Wyatt Earp statue in Tombstone/Tom Barry
But it’s not the large numbers of apprehensions of immigrants and drugs seizures that put Cochise County on the national map in the past several years. Rather, it’s been the coalition between local ranchers and anti-immigrant vigilantes, the new star power of Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever, and the as yet unsolved March killing of rancher Rob Krentz and his dog, allegedly by an illegal immigrant who was thought to have fled back into Mexico.

Cochise County sheriffs live in our imaginations thanks to a continuing stream of television series, movies, and detective novels, including the TV series “Sheriffs of Cochise County,” the film “Broken Arrow,” and the current series of detective novels by J.D. Jance.

Typically wearing blue jeans and a cowboy hat, Dever, 58, doesn’t situate himself in the unholy tradition of the quick-on-the-trigger Tombstone sheriffs of Tombstone. Rather, he appeals to moral imperatives of the U.S. Constitution and Winston Churchill’s courage of conviction. Serving as the county’s elected sheriff since 1996 (after 20 years as a deputy), Dever includes his favorite quote from “Sir Winston Churchill” as part of his department’s mission statement: "It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required."

I first met Dever at the May 2010 meeting of the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition and Southwestern Border Sheriff’s Coalition. Since then Dever has risen to new local, state, and national prominence in large part because of his outspoken support of SB 1070 and his role as cofounder with Sheriff Paul Babeu of, which is outspoken in criticism of the Obama’s administration’s immigration and border policies.

Dever, who serves as chairman of the Southwest Border Sheriffs Coalition,  insists that local law enforcement must be involved in border control – “at least until federal government decides to do its job.” “So, if not me, who?” asks Dever, echoing Churchill. “Don’t get me wrong,” he continues. “Border Patrol does a lot of good. But it is not serious about the security of the border – and neither is the Obama administration.”

“That’s why we have to take it into our hands,” he explained, “and we won’t be bullied by the federal government or the ACLU or the United Nations. We won’t stop demanding that the border be secured.”

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