YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Feeling forgotten on the border

Slow progress on an agent's death upsets an Arizona community

January 21, 2011|Kim Murphy

NOGALES, ARIZ. — It was shortly after 11 p.m. one night in December when an elite unit of the U.S. Border Patrol, making its way through the inky darkness of Peck Canyon, ran into a pack of heavily armed men.

A gunfight broke out, and when it was over, Agent Brian Terry, a three-year veteran of the force, was dead. Four Mexicans were taken into custody, one of them shot in the abdomen and back. By daybreak, a massive sweep was underway in search of a fifth suspect who had disappeared into the night.

The agent's death happened after a wave of robberies, rapes and assaults -- most unreported, police say, because they are directed at illegal migrants and drug runners.

Yet more than a month after Terry's death, prosecutors still have filed no homicide charges against the unidentified men in custody, nor have they caught the fifth suspect, who may have been the triggerman.

After the massive law enforcement response to the Jan. 8 shootings of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 others, there is frustration here that Terry's death has not taken the same priority.

"Obviously, Congresswoman Giffords, we like her a lot, but all of this investigation of a guy who's deranged and he's in custody -- what are they doing about Agent Terry's death?" said Susan Clarke Morales, who said she has regular, often frightening, encounters with strangers who traverse Calabasas Canyon outside of Nogales.

Here in the desolate hills stretching from the Mexican border, the battle between the law-abiding and the lawless, the vulnerable and the predatory, continues unabated.

While they mourn the deaths in the Tucson shooting, many feel their plight is easily overlooked, and rarely attracts much attention.

A memorial service for Terry, 40, is scheduled for Friday in Tucson, and his mother, Josephine Terry, said she hopes agents will be able to tell her what happened to her son, and who was responsible.

"He told me that nobody knows how bad it is out there. Nobody has a clue," she said.

A former U.S. Marine and police department veteran in Michigan, Terry, his mother said, dreamed of serving with the special tactical unit that authorities say was on the track of a "rip crew" preying on migrants and drug runners in the hills west of Nogales.

That he was keenly aware of the peril became apparent after his death. On his desk was a message he wrote to himself titled: "If Today Be the Day." Josephine said her son read it regularly before he set off for work.

"If you seek to do battle with me this day, you will receive the best that I am capable of giving. It may not be enough, but it will be everything I have to give, and it will be impressive," it said.

"I have kept myself in peak physical condition, schooled myself in martial arts, and have become proficient in the application of combat tactics. You may defeat me, but you would be lucky to escape with your life. You may kill me, but I am willing to die if necessary. I have been close enough to it on enough occasions that it no longer concerns me. But I do fear the loss of my honor, and would rather die fighting than to have it said that I was without courage."

Josephine Terry began crying softly as she read it.

Terry's death was only the latest in a series of attacks aimed at border agents here. Most frequently, they face large, baseball-size stones hurled across the border. But on Sept. 5, border agents were shot at in Bellota Canyon, not far from where Agent Alexander Kirpnick was shot to death while attempting to arrest some drug smugglers in 1998.

Lawlessness has increased in the remote canyon country as federal authorities have successfully sealed off much of the area inside Arizona's border towns.

Nogales, a bustling produce-shipping town of about 20,000, had only one homicide last year, while across the border in Nogales, Mexico, with a population of more than 160,000, there were seven murders and three kidnappings in a single three-day period. Two heads were found stuffed between the bars of a cemetery fence.

The relative security in the border towns has forced migrants and drug smugglers into the remote canyons, where the unarmed are victimized and backcountry residents find themselves increasingly fearful of going outside unarmed.

Morales, who manages a movie theater in Nogales, said she never left her front porch without a .357 Magnum tucked in her purse. Several months ago, she was driving out toward the highway from her remote ranch house in the canyons northwest of here when a man carrying a large water jug leaped into her car as she slowed to avoid hitting him.

Not long before, two "scary-looking" men covered in tattoos came to her front porch looking for water, and then simply sat staring at her, ignoring her repeated requests to go away. "You have to go to the bathroom and hide, and hope they don't know you're calling the Border Patrol," she said.

Los Angeles Times Articles