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Border town's boom is cut off by fence

High-security measures deter immigrants at a once-popular crossing.

July 20, 2007|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

NACO, MEXICO — In this small town of faded nightclubs and abandoned rooming houses in the Sonoran Desert, the old border and the new border exist side by side.

Drive to the edge of Naco and the border is an imaginary line rising into the nearby hills. Only the occasional old stone monument announces that you have reached the "Boundary of the United States."

But in the middle of town, a 10-foot-high fence rises from the sandy soil. Bright sodium lamps click on at nightfall on the U.S. side, in the town of Naco, Ariz., where a vacant lot is filled with stacks of steel sheets destined to extend the new fence farther into the desert.

"The people who try to cross here don't know what they're up against," said Jose Lorenzo Villegas, mayor of the Mexican town of Naco, who has toured the U.S. Border Patrol's surveillance facilities. "They have powerful cameras everywhere. They see people crossing right away."

The Americans, Villegas concludes, "have an extraordinary vigilance" over the border here.

It was not always that way in Naco, home to 5,000 people. The border crackdown brought an end to a brief boom during which the town was a popular way station for crossers. Only a few luckless stragglers seem to find their way to Naco now.

The Mexican settlement became a popular crossing point in the late 1990s, when U.S. authorities launched a crackdown to stop the flow from Tijuana and other major cities along the border, pushing immigrants into the relatively unguarded sections of the Sonoran Desert.

"It was a big business, and a lot of people here were making a lot of money," Villegas said. Migrants stocked up on food and water here for the long trek into the United States.

But the transients' presence strained town services. The sewage system was overwhelmed, and the plaza and park filled with loiterers. On cold winter nights, Naco was forced to open its municipal auditorium and theater to house people.

At the height of the surge, an estimated 2,000 migrants from Mexico and Central America filled Naco on an average day, the mayor says. New hotels popped up, many on the unpaved streets of the town's fringes. At one point, Naco had more than 80 rooming houses to meet demand. Mexican officials detected 18 gangs in the area dedicated to robbing the migrants.

Then a few years ago, the Minutemen came.

The army of anti-immigrant activists patrolled the U.S. side and even detained some illegal immigrants. The U.S. government quickly followed with the new fence and lighting and camera systems. The new obstacles have forced would-be border crossers, and the smugglers they pay, to move even deeper into the desert.

Thousands of crossers now gather 120 miles to the southwest, in the town of Altar, and cross near the border town of Sasabe. "The mayor of Altar was even inviting the migrants to come and stay there before they crossed," Villegas says.

That has left most of the rooming houses in Naco empty. Many of their cinderblock buildings are being slowly reclaimed by the desert: About 60 rooming houses have shut down.

The few migrants seen on the streets here are usually people who have been deported by the U.S. Border Patrol. The U.S. agents routinely return illegal immigrants to Mexico via Naco's small Mexican customs station.

"They'll drop them off at any hour of the day or night," said Rene Siqueiros, a city employee. "Some of them are in bad shape."

Many of the deported migrants walk a few blocks through the quiet town to the bus station, where they wait for transportation that will take them away from Naco's border limbo. Some begin the long journey home, while others take the short trip to Altar or the border cities of Nogales or Agua Prieta, where they will meet up with smugglers and try again.

One 34-year-old man from Oaxaca, who had tried to cross with his 14-year-old daughter, said he was ready to give up after being detained and returned to Mexico by the U.S. Border Patrol three times.

"We were going to Indiana, because we have friends there," said the man, who asked not to be named. "We walked 12 hours.... And then they caught us. My daughter hurt her knee on a rock. We won't try again. It's too hard."

His daughter's despondent, sunburned face was testimony to the difficulty of even a failed crossing.

"They told us if we tried again it would be a crime and they would throw us in jail," the man said of the U.S. officials he encountered on his last attempt.

A 27-year-old man from Jalisco who crossed deep in the desert said he and his fellow migrants had been walking for nearly two days when a Border Patrol helicopter landed in front of them. "Good luck on the next try," the agents told him in Spanish.

A few people still try to cross in the center of Naco, residents say. Mayor Villegas looked out the window of his home near the central plaza the other day and saw a group of men throwing garden hoses over the fence, apparently to pull each other over the top with help from people on the other side.

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