May 8, 2010
What We Lost on the BorderBy Shields Fair
An entire way of life has died on the Arizona border. T.J. Woodard has described for AT readers the dire state of affairs in Cochise County today. But to really understand the magnitude of the change, you need to understand the situation as it was before the floodgates opened.
I grew up in Douglas, Cochise County, Arizona in the '50s and '60s, and it was a wonderful place to live. Douglas is right on the Mexican border, in the southeast corner of the state, just fifty miles west of the Arizona-New Mexico border.
My parents owned a sporting goods store in Douglas for 35 years. We had many friends who were ranchers and business people from both sides of the border. My father and I would go hunting and fishing all over the county and in many parts of Mexico...yes, I said hunting. In the '50s and '60s one could carry guns and ammo into Mexico and go hunting. Very little was required in the way of paperwork.
As I recall, Douglas had just one border patrolman, Ray Borane, Sr. Later, his son Joe became Chief of Police, and later a judge in Douglas, and his other son Ray Jr. became school superintendent and mayor of Douglas.
There was no crime that I was ever aware of, no drugs, very few illegals.
Our home was on 9th Street, which was nine blocks from the Mexican border. We never locked our doors at home, and nothing ever got stolen. As kids, we could ride our bicycles anywhere in town, kick down the kickstands, and come back later to get back on and ride off. We did not have to lock our bicycles.
We were the last home on the east side of town. Out our back door was the desert to the east, all the way to the mountains, about five miles away, and to the south was nothing but desert all the way to Mexico and beyond. As a kid, my friends and I would wander the desert, chase rabbits with our BB guns, and crawl under the two strands of barbed wire that looked like any other fence -- and find ourselves in Mexico. We would stop and look at these curious concrete monuments that declared that the U.S. was on the north side and Mexico was on the south side. No one ever stopped us.
The area of town just east of our home all the way (fifteen blocks) to the Douglas Municipal Airport had in about 1914-1918 been an Army encampment known as "Camp Harry Jones." For us kids, this was a "treasure trove" of long-discarded badges, belt buckles, brass buttons, bottles, and such left behind when the camp was finally disbanded in about 1919.
Douglas Municipal Airport has the distinction of being the "first international airport in all of the Americas," which of course includes Latin and South America. General Pershing used to fly Jenny aircraft out of this field chasing Pancho Villa and his troops, who regularly raided border towns such as Douglas/Agua Prieta and Columbus, New Mexico.
During the '20s, '30s, '40s and early '50s, the Sunset Limited train ran between New York and Los Angeles. Four to six passenger trains a day would stop in Douglas, going east or west. Many passengers would get off and stay at the luxurious Gadsden Hotel for a day or more before going on their way. From the '20s through the '40s, there were casinos in Agua Prieta, the town immediately across from Douglas across the border, and they were a big draw for the train travelers.
There also were quite a number of great night clubs, restaurants, liquor stores, and curio shops in Agua Prieta. The night clubs had great bands and wonderful food. Crossing the border was like crossing the street. Douglas and Agua Prieta were "like one city with a fence down the middle." In the early days, a number of famous "Big Bands" would pass through, usually on the train, and stop and play for a few days in Douglas and Agua Prieta.
During the '40s, ten miles north of Douglas was the Douglas Air Base, a bomber training base which at one time boasted over 20,000 airmen. After the war, a number of them stayed or moved back to Douglas.
Like most towns and cities in Mexico, Agua Prieta had its red light district ("La Zona Rosa"), where prostitution was legal. Many a young man from the U.S., including the Army Base at Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista and Davis Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson (and of course the airmen during the '40s), lost their virginity in the "Linda Vista," the "White House," the "Flamingo," or one of a half-dozen other establishments on the "Hill" in Agua Prieta. Rumor has it that Percy Boden, the chief of Police of Douglas for more than forty years, was a major owner of a number of these establishments in Agua Prieta.
Ben Williams, Sr., a prominent businessman, rancher, and entrepreneur, and a close friend of my father, owned lots of property in Cochise County, including the "John Slaughter Ranch," ranches in Sonora Mexico, the Power Company, and the Telephone Company in Agua Prieta, Sonora.
The Mexicans from both sides of the border were all our friends. We all drank, ate, laughed, cried, fished, and hunted together. We went to each other's families' funerals, weddings, and parties.
In the '50s it was legal to bring a gallon of liquor back per adult. People would drive down from Tucson and Phoenix with a carload of adults and haul back lots of liquor purchased at very low prices. The exchange rate was 12.5 pesos to the dollar, or 8 cents each!
My father and I frequently went hunting on ranches owned by our rancher friends on both sides of the border. These included the Glenns, Koontzes, the Williams, Bosses, the Moraleses, and the Krentzes.
Like all of the ranchers listed above, the Krentz family had owned their ranch before Arizona became a state. It has been passed down over four generations. Bob Krentz, who was ten years behind me in high school, was shot and killed in cold blood on March 28, 2010, by what is believed to be a scout for the drug runners. All indications are that this was retaliation for the fact that he and his brother found a large stash of marijuana on their property several days earlier and turned it over to Border Patrol.
Later, in 1970, I moved back to Douglas and managed and later owned manufacturing plants with over four hundred employees in Agua Prieta. I also started MEXSAT, S.A. de C.V., which was the first company to hold the licenses to design, manufacture, distribute, and install satellite television equipment in Mexico. From 1981 through 1986, I had offices in all the major cities in Mexico.
I can state without any reservation that in more than forty years of traveling to all corners in Mexico (1948-1995) that I never had one problem with any individual or any agency in Mexico. Sadly, times have changed, and I have no intention to return to Mexico today, nor in the future. My Mexican friends come and visit me, but I do not reciprocate.
I recently returned to Douglas for our 50th High School Reunion. Douglas looked extremely run-down. A number of the stores on the main street in town, which formerly included names like Kress, Woolworth, JCPenny, Sears, Levy's, and Phelps Dodge Mercantile, among other name stores, are now rundown "bodegas" owned by Koreans. The town looked old, tired, and decrepit. Everything needs a good scrubbing and a paint job. Many boarded-up buildings. There were Border Patrol vehicles all over town. Douglas is now the location of two Arizona state prisons. I am told that there are over five hundred Border Patrol agents stationed in Douglas, and the second-largest employer after the federal employees (the border and customs agents) is the prison guards.
Douglas was previously a thriving hub of commerce, with high-paying jobs for the workers of Phelps Dodge Corporation and other industries. People from many miles around on both sides of the border came to Douglas to shop.
In the last several years I lived in Douglas in the early '80s, I witnessed several hospitals in Cochise County go bankrupt. This has become the pattern along the border. Why? Because hospitals gave service to birthing babies of illegal women who did not have the capacity to pay the hospital bills. As we all know, these are referred to as "anchor babies" because they are immediately eligible for a variety of our social services, including but not limited to food stamps, aid to dependent children, welfare, and many more. I do not blame these women; they found a loophole in our system. The fact that after forty years the loophole still remains open is the scandal. You and I as wage-earners are paying for this with our taxes. If the situation were reversed and a female American citizen gave birth in Mexico, no such benefits would be forthcoming.
Where we used to be able to look across the border and see homes not unlike our own, now all you see is a very ugly, graffiti-covered, rusting, ten-foot-high iron wall with trash piled up against it on both sides. Sort of reminds one of the Berlin wall.
When my family moved to Douglas in 1948, the population was about 14,000. Agua Prieta across the border was slightly smaller. Today, Douglas is about 18,000, and AP is over 150,000. It has sadly become one of the major staging areas along the border for drugs and illegals looking for any kind of opening or opportunity to slip across.
By 1986 I could see that the border situation was deteriorating rapidly, so I sold my businesses and moved away from Douglas.