Note: This trip took place Spring 2009.
From 2005 to 2010 I resided in the middle of the contact zone between Mexico and the United States – Tucson, Arizona. Mexican culture permeated the divide and provided a vibrant environment for those living north of the border. Unfortunately, during that same time span, border violence rose dramatically. Everyday there were new reports of beheadings, torched bodies, and drug seizures. Many times, this was happening less than 70 miles from my doorstep. Being who I am, I had to see for myself what was actually going on.
I planed to drive to El Paso, Texas and cross into Ciudad Juárez, the cradle of border violence. I carefully mapped out the trip and shopped it around to friends, all of whom refused to take any part in my endeavor. Shortly there after, the US Department of State issued a travel warning for American Citizens traveling within Mexico. To better illustrate the scale of violence, from 2007 to 2010 there were over 35,000 drug related homicides alone. With mounting trepidation, I decided to postpone my trip.
I was determined to see what was going on along the border but needed a new plan. I remembered an old acquaintance had told me about two towns, Ruby and Arivaca. Both towns are situated in Arizona, just north of the border, and are a hotbed for drug trafficking activity. Arivaca is the kind of town you go to if you want to disappear, intentionally or otherwise.
I had a friend visiting from the East Coast, so this was the perfect excuse to venture into the desert and see what I could uncover.
We left Tucson late morning and headed south on I-19. Forty-five minutes passed before we reached Arivaca Road, the road that would guide us deep into the Southern Arizona desert. A mile off the highway and we realized we were now foreigners. Bullet holes decorated everything. Barbed wire was woven into the landscape as though without it the land would actually unravel.
The further we traversed, the fewer signs of life we saw. The landscape opened up. The road skirted across the crests of hills, providing endless views. We pulled over on one of these crests and surveyed the outlying lands. I abruptly realized that given the kind of activity that took place in the area, I might not want to be looking too closely.
A twinkle caught the corner of my eye. The sun’s rays caught something on a distant hill. Against my better judgement, I raised my camera and used the zoom to investigate further. Staring back at me was the US Border Patrol. It was decided that we should make haste.
We rolled into Arivaca. A film of dust coated everything. There wasn’t a soul in sight. It looked as if the last resident evacuated a decade ago. Another hour and the noon sun might have turned the rest of the town to dust. I pulled the Jeep over and nervously got out. We were taking photographs of collapsed buildings when all of a sudden we spotted a bit of commotion at the other end of the main drag. Men had exited a building and were pointing in our direction. By the way they moved, they seemed to be on a mission. It was clear we were unwelcome and who knew what they would do to intruders. We scurried back to the Jeep and pressed on, our eyes glued to the rearview. As we made our escape from Arivaca, I began to understand why people warned me not to stop when passing through.
What was left of the pavement had long dissolved into the desert floor. The Jeep began to rattle as we entered some of the most unforgiving terrain in the United States. Dust floated into the cabin and deposited itself where ever it desired. The roads have no names. In fact, they aren’t even roads, just general trails between where you just were and where you are now. The landscape was harsh; the rocks jagged and the shrubbery intimidating. The fuel gauge dipped below half.
The Jeep’s suspension began to articulate as we crept over and around fallen trees and displaced boulders. Something about their placement seemed artificial. Manmade perhaps.
Finally, the road opened up and a signpost came into view. We had finally made it to our destination. I heard there was a caretaker of the property, so we slowly meandered through crumbling adobe homes in search of life. Secretly I was expecting to find him dead. I could not understand how such an environment could sustain life.
We found a home that wasn’t falling down and assumed it to be the right place. We got out of the car and began to head towards the door. We were both scared. Arizona is pretty liberal with guns. Suddenly, a short man with a long grey beard emerged. The man was shirtless. Even at a distance his skin looked like leather. Two legs extended down from his oddly short shorts. As he came closer he said, “You can call me Sundog.”
Not thirty seconds later did an old truck rumble up the drive, a wolf-like dog leading the way. It came to a halt and a Mexican man emerged wearing head to toe denim. His shirt neatly tucked into his pants. His cuffs buttoned. His bolo tie cinched tightly around his neck. Sundog asked us to stay where we were while he and the Proper Mexican disappeared into his house.
After a few minutes the two emerged. The Proper Mexican got back in his truck and disappeared back down the drive.
Sundog motioned us towards his house. I was sure that as soon as I crossed the threshold I would be killed and eaten. As soon as my boot plunked onto the floorboard Sundog turned around like a true host and asked, “What would you like? I have marijuana, peyote, pills…” I was caught off guard by his offering. He insisted that we have a seat before he disappeared into a back room. Again, I thought this was it, he’s going to come out with a necklace made of ears and kill us.
My eyes darted across the room and registered all the strange decor. Skulls on the desk, bones hanging on the wall. Knives and pills littered the table. A long gun standing by the door. The dialogue that ensued was odd but nothing beyond what you would expect from a recluse living in a ghost town. He mentioned the nightly occurrence of drug mules trekking through the area, bushels of marijuana anchored to their backs. He told us of one occasion where a mule got separated from the group and left 100 pounds of marijuana in Sundog’s care. Weeks passed without any sign of the gentleman, so Sundog began selling it himself to whoever came through.
He continued to weave tales of the wild. He told us about the time he was bitten by a rattle snake and lay dying for seven days before anyone came to his rescue.
After a half hour of chatter, Sundog reluctantly let us continue on our way. He was a strange character; a man content with having almost no access to the outside world and living in the middle of the war on drugs.
We began to explore what was left of the bustling mining town. The first building we entered put us toe to toe with a rattle snake. If we weren’t going to be killed by the Cartel or Sundog, it would surely be the wildlife that got us.
We found the ruins of the old general store, the site of numerous murders. In the early 1900s Mexican bandits came across the border and committed crimes before retreating south and avoiding capture. On two separate occasions the bandits held up the store and murdered the owners.
When the sun began to drop, we thought it best to make our escape before nightfall. Running into someone out here in the dark can only end one way. Despite this danger, instead of returning the way we came, we headed further south towards the border. The elevation climbed. As we peaked the crest of a ridge, the most spectacular view of Mexico was revealed to us. The particular area we were in was too treacherous for a physical line of demarcation. There was no telling where the US ended and Mexico started. The land looked uniform. Serene. Undisturbed. Virginal.
A gentle wind skimmed my face as Mother Nature exhaled her final breath of warm air. The fading rays of sun reached out from the horizon. With such a mesmerizing view before me it was hard to understand how death and destruction could plague such a landscape.
With that said, come January 2013 I will be leaving Manhattan and returning to the border. This time I will be reporting from Mexico about how pervasive border violence actually is. There is a chance that this segment will be done on film if it is safe enough to record.