NACO, ARIZONA — Helen Brady’s harsh words ring with the unruffled authority of a Border Patrol agent. “Turn away from the sound of my voice, and put your hands in the air!” she shouts. “Lock your elbows and spread your fingers!” Her target listens carefully, making jazz hands and cowering as more orders are barked.
“Bend at the waist, and put your hands behind your back. Knuckles touching, thumbs up! Now DO NOT MOVE!” Helen marks her steps, approaching slowly. The spectators are frozen as she whips out a pair of handcuffs and slaps them on.
Another day, and what sounds like another arrest on the Arizona border. Naco is a city where “The Border” is no abstraction. It is the painfully real corrugated-steel barrier — rusted in spots, barbed in others — that slices the town neatly in two. One half for the United States, one half for Mexico. In Naco, the border is where illegal immigrants and the Border Patrol come to perform their intricate ballet of catch-and-release.
But Helen is no ordinary agent, and her prey is no real fence hopper. Helen wears a close-enough-to-be-real Border Patrol uniform and a severe expression on her otherwise impish face. Her wispy brown eyes are timid and hard to catch. She enunciates her words almost too carefully, aware of their precocious power. She is just 14 years old. While many other girls her age are filling the chatmosphere with gabby text messages, Helen is practicing arresting illegal immigrants. (Or, in this case, her friend Courtney.)
Helen, along with 20 other teens, is an officially certified Border Patrol Explorer Scout. The 90-day training program, started last year by the Boy Scouts, exposes teens, ages 14 through 17, to a career with the Border Patrol. “It gives you a cool feeling, like you’re a real agent or something,” says Helen.
Border Patrol Captain Terrence Ford started off with the basics of statutory and criminal law. But the fare quickly became more challenging — if not controversial. The teens learn to raid buildings. They learn to pull cars off the road. They learn to shoot guns. They even learn to track “illegal immigrants” — or advisers dressed as illegal immigrants — on moonless nights with night-vision goggles.
This is definitely not your father’s scouting program, but it’s still a huge hit with parents. Enrollment is swelling. On “family day,” proud parents come to swill lemonade and shoot home movies of their teens performing mock felony vehicle stops. The idea of teens acting as de facto Border Patrol apprentices may raise eyebrows in some parts of America. But in Southern Arizona — with 370 miles of shared border with Mexico — it’s not just practical. It’s practically inevitable. Call it the internship of the 21st century.
For teens on the American side of Naco, the border is a means of security — and even a potential career opportunity. But below the line, in Naco, Mexico, the border is the subject of hatred. For Mexican teens developing an identity and a sense of their place in the world, it represents a constant slap in the face — and, in their eyes, the ultimate double standard. It keeps friends and family on opposite sides of the fence from visiting each other, while ensuring that the Mexican half of Naco is forever abloom with border crossers and drug smugglers.
“There shouldn’t be a fence at all, because we’re all the same,” says 15-year-old Michelle Rascon, who lives on the Mexican side of Naco. Her eyes flash like fireworks. “[The Border Patrol] discriminates against Mexicans, and they make us feel less by putting that up. They ask everyone going into America for a passport — but why not do it the other way too? Why not require Americans to show a passport to come over here?”
HELEN BRADY HAS NEVER VENTURED south of the border, despite being able to see Mexico from her back yard. She lives on the San Pedro River — an idyllic belt of green trees in the otherwise sun-bleached Sonoran Desert. On the southern horizon, the Huachuca Mountains slice across the yawning Mexican sky like the serrated edges of a bone saw. It is a beautiful but lonely place to live.
The roads leading to Helen’s house are empty except for small herds of oversize pickup trucks, roaming like ghosts of the buffalo they replaced. Flower-bucket memorials pepper the roadside, a quick but poignant reminder of death at 70 mph.
Along with her parents and seven siblings, Helen lives a couple of miles north of Naco in Palominas, Arizona — population 1,200. Her father is a state prison chaplain in nearby Douglas, while her mother focuses on homeschooling her children. The Brady home is like a campus itself: flush with study-hall tables, computers, textbooks and musical instruments. Upstairs, there is a pulpit and a grove of gray folding chairs for church meetings.
Spread across the shaggy brown carpet is a half-finished game of Monopoly. The Brady children play by “Christian rules” — meaning no cheating, and no persuading younger siblings to trade their Boardwalk for your Baltic Avenue.
Like most teens, Helen has a list of household chores she must endure. Unlike most teens, however, her chores include picking up garbage strewn about her yard by illegal immigrants after their exodus past the Great Wall of Mexico. “Around our house, we’ll find water bottles,” she says briskly, walking back to the forested river behind her home. “And you can find a few backpacks. But up in the mountains, they leave a continuous trail of junk.
“It’s kind of nasty,” she grimaces. “They leave bras, pads, underwear.”
The good news is that with a bevy of brothers and sisters to help, it doesn’t take long to clean. “We’ll usually knock it out in about a half-hour,” she brags.
The human traffic that trickles through her yard at night frightens Helen. Frightens, and annoys: She recently lost a favorite tie-dyed T-shirt off the clothesline in her back yard — swiped by illegal immigrants passing through. “We have sensor lights all around our house,” she says, and they’re set off by more than prowling animals. “My bedroom is right outside the place we hang our clothes. They go off almost every night, and you just think: Not again.”
Indeed, Arizona bears the largest amount of illegal traffic of any state along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border. Last year alone, the Border Patrol made 1.2 million arrests, yet it is estimated that for every one arrest made, two or three border crossers managed to avoid detection.
Helen, who spends her spare time sewing a gown for a “Jane Austen ball” she is planning with her friends, says that on a normal day, she sees at least 10 Border Patrol vehicles on her way to town. It’s like living in a state of martial law. Yet despite being acclimated to their ubiquitous presence, Helen can’t help it: She still gawks when she sees the Border Patrol arresting someone by the side of the road.
“I’m like, is that someone I know?” she says, craning her neck. Oftentimes it is. (The border agent, of course.)
Helen did not join the Explorers because of an odd love for hunting illegal immigrants, or an unsettling fascination with tactical law enforcement. Rather, it was for pedagogical purposes. As part of their children’s homeschooling, her parents insist that each of them spend one semester learning about law.
Many other local teens join the Border Patrol Scouts looking for something to do. Courtney Roberts, a 17-year-old graduate of the program, complains that there are “not a whole lot” of activities for teens around Naco. For her part, Courtney is ecstatic about starting a waitress job at the local Chili’s in the near future.
“We have our mall, but it’s not too big. And we have miniature golf, but it’s really hot outside.” She cocks her head woefully. “It’s so small — everyone knows everyone else.”
Captain Ford says the program is about more than killing time amid the doldrums of desert life; it is also a great way to get a foot in the door with the Border Patrol or the military, two of the region’s largest employers. “It’s a really good thing to put on your résumé,” he says. Plus, “I think the idea of chasing people is fun, arresting the bad guy,” he adds, his neon sunglasses reflecting the florid desert.
In his 30s, Ford looks like a cop sent by Central Casting. Despite the terrible heat and cornea-clawing dust eddies indigenous to the border, he is well-dressed and well-pressed. Later, Ford says he never sits down in his uniform while in public. (“It makes me look lazy,” he explains.)
Cory Roddey, 17, another recent graduate of the Explorer program, says forget the fun. For him, the program is a career steppingstone. “I’m going to try to get into the Border Patrol with their accelerated program,” he says. He has the stocky frame and buzzed head of an officer-already-in-training.
“Ten years from now, when I’m 27, I’ll probably be in the Border Patrol stationed somewhere around here. And if I could pick a post, it would be right here,” he says, glancing at Captain Ford for reassurance. “Naco station.”
Like many Arizona border teens, Cory realizes that the Border Patrol is one of the best career options available to him. The median annual household income around Naco, Arizona, is $26,143 — that’s 30 percent lower than the Arizona average. A third of Naco’s residents live below the poverty line. Meanwhile, entry-level agents make a starting salary of around $35,000, with ample opportunity to bring home overtime pay. And President Bush has called for the training and hiring of 6,000 more Border Patrol agents by 2008.
Captain Ford says teens who have committed themselves to the Explorer program have a distinct advantage when applying for plum jobs. “If it comes down to one [job opening] and two individuals, and they have the same qualifications except one was an Explorer for three years — sure, the tendency is to lean towards him,” he says.
But Ford says the benefits of the Explorer program cut both ways, since he also gets a look at some of the most promising young talent — a sort of farm league for border enforcement. “It’s a big recruiting tool,” he says.
It would seem only natural for teens living so close to the border to develop a curiosity about all things Mexican. Yet ironically, for many American border teens it is quite the opposite: They develop an aversion. Many speak little or no Spanish, and have no intention of picking it up. Helen Brady says she would like to learn French, although she admits, “Spanish would be more practical.”
For his part, Cory Roddey has never crossed the border — despite his goal of pursuing a career with the Border Patrol. “Truth is, I have no desire to go to Mexico at all,” he says dismissively. “I just don’t find it very interesting. I like it here, and I can’t find any reason to go over there.
“Most of my friends have the same views as me,” he continues. “And if they don’t, they’re not really my friends.”
Even for Explorers who are still unsure about their career direction, the Border Patrol — stadium lights, camera-festooned blimps and all — is a reassuring presence. “They’re doing their job,” says Courtney Roberts, her lips drawn taut. “They know what their job is, and they’re doing it well.”
JUST A FEW MILES SOUTH — in Naco, Mexico — Dulce Medina feels a bit differently about the Mexican law-enforcement officials entrusted with protecting her. “They’re paid off,” hisses the 15-year-old in her machine-gun Spanish. “I don’t use any drugs at all, and yet I know where to find it all. And we’re supposed to believe that the police — whose job it is to fight this — don’t know where this is going on?”
Dulce lives on the bedraggled outskirts of “South” Naco — a town with the unfortunate meaning of “tacky” in Mexican slang. There is one main street, which runs due north through town until it slams into the border inspection station, where it stops.
In Naco, Mexico, the border is where everything stops.
The windswept main street is punctuated by anything-goes farmacias, where Americans come to get prescriptions filled on the cheap. A dog sleeps on the steps of a dangerous-looking nightclub, while caloric waves waft off the near-boiling asphalt.
Each day, Dulce has to pass over a bridge on her way to junior high. Below the bridge, as she points out, the river is dry as Mars — lined with crumpled Tecate cans, tar-stained Marlboro filters and discarded car parts. “Under the bridge used to be a safe place for illegal immigrants to spend the night before they crossed into America,” Dulce says, her face illuminated by her million-watt smile.
“The immigrants were never harmful — they just rested here,” she remembers. “There used to be lots of clothes on the riverbed left over from them. But now it’s different.” Her smile disappears. “Now it’s a haven for drug dealers and addicts.”
Bielcka Ramirez, valedictorian of her ninth-grade class, is blunt about the unjust and broken border. “There needs to be another system,” she says. At 15, Bielcka knows more about immigration policy than most people twice her age. “We have to find a way to avoid so many deaths, kids being raped, families left behind without a father or mother.”
She shakes her head regretfully. “It shouldn’t be this way.”
Bielcka and Dulce are both honor students at Technical Junior High No. 29, just three blocks south of the border, where Gerardo Moreno has been a teacher and administrator for more than 20 years. “This town is like a trampoline for immigrants looking to get to the other side,” Moreno says, flashing a silver tooth and eyeing the schoolyard full of pupils. The girls chatter conspiratorially, sucking at sweaty soda cans. The boys play basketball under the cerulean sky, faint brush strokes of mustaches on their upper lips.
Naco, Mexico, has long been a staging ground for border hoppers. Because of the Huachuca Mountains encircling the city, immigrants believe it’s easier to avoid the blimps and security cameras used by the U.S. Border Patrol and slip into America de alambre — or through the wires.
The problem would be less acute if immigrants simply came to Naco and stayed a day or two while arranging for a coyote to sneak them across the border. But because of a 72-hour special visa granted to permanent residents, many would-be immigrants stay much longer.
Mexicans who have lived in Naco for three years are granted the visa, allowing them to visit America for 72 hours at a time with relative ease. Most local teens use their visa to shop in U.S. stores like Safeway and Wal-Mart, where basic goods are often cheaper than in Mexico.
Moreno says the visa causes a “floating population” — a caste of people with no intention of planting roots or joining the community, who are simply waiting for their paperwork to go through. He estimates that 20 percent of the city falls into such a category.
Once they get their visa, “then that’s it — they go,” he says. Kids come to school one day, and the next they vanish.
Border teens — on both sides — grow up understanding the risk involved in crossing illegally. Bielcka, however, says most immigrants who come from other parts of Mexico are completely clueless about just how dangerous it can be.
“In reality, it’s not that easy to get to the other side when you’re undocumented,” she says. “These immigrants get here completely ignorant about the human smugglers who intend to take advantage of them, steal from them. They end up going home worse off than when they got here.”
She shrugs. “And in many cases, they die in the Arizona desert.”
Yet illegal immigrants are only a minor part of the problem. Despite the headaches they create for the Mexican side of Naco — including Border Patrol escalation and political chafing with their neighbor to the north — illegal immigrants are usually peaceful and keep to themselves.
Drug dealers, on the other hand, are the true cancer, constantly on the lookout for new recruits — and new users. Dulce says the drug trade affects nearly every aspect of her life, and defines Naco’s economy. “You can pretty much say that drug trafficking is king here. Everyone here works in it.”
In a tone that is brave yet desperate, she describes seeing numerous friends sucked into the lucrative world of drug smuggling. Many others have become addicts themselves. Violence often spills onto the streets, she says, making her scared to go outside after dark.
“It’s like two different cities. There is Naco during the day, and there is Naco at night. I don’t leave my house after I get home at 6 o’clock.”
Despite the teens’ resentment, narco-trafficking remains a seductive option for teens in a town awash in poverty and stagnation. There is no public high school. Once they graduate from middle school, the Mexican teens must pay to attend a private high school, or else discontinue their education. More than a third of their class has already dropped out. (“One of my friends is pregnant, another already got married, and the rest are just bums,” Dulce explains.)
Yet surprisingly, very few of the Mexican teens express any desire to live in the United States.
Maciel Anaya, 15, says national pride keeps her where she is.
“Being Mexican, how can I let my country down by moving to the States?” she asks. “This is my country.”
Bielcka mentions her distaste for the Iraq War and the fact that female soldiers are sent to fight. She also says she’s often treated badly when she visits America because her English is not good. “My mom runs a school-supply store here, and whenever Americans come in, I always try to understand them and be nice about [the language gap]. It would be nice if they could do the same when I go into their country,” she says.
But she acknowledges that ultimately she will have to leave Naco to follow her dream of becoming an architect. “There are other cities [in Mexico] — I’ll end up somewhere else,” she says sadly. “You have to get out in order to succeed, because in Naco there aren’t many opportunities to get ahead. If you want to be someone, you have to get out of here.”
THERE IS NOTHING SIMPLE about life on the Arizona border. The border keeps people out, and it keeps people in — defining not just the boundaries of two nations, but the boundaries of countless lives.
The Sonoran Desert is a place of strong sun, strong wind and strong opinion.
In a strictly physical sense, the border seems heinously out of place. It flouts the open-skies, open-frontier ethos of the desert. It is a scar on the haunting, O’Keeffian landscape; a reminder of violence gone by, and violence yet to come.
Helen Brady is curious when she looks at the majestic purple mountains south of her home, and curious when she sees Mexican city lights bouncing off low-hanging clouds. “It’s cool,” she says, after a long spell of thought. “They’re lights from another town, and you think: ‘Wow, half that mountain is in a whole other country.’ ” A country she has never visited.
Being a teenager — on the edge of adulthood — is difficult anywhere. Being a teenager on the edge of such a seemingly forbidden nation is downright bewildering.