March 12, 2010
by Jonathan Clark
New fencing east and west of town is helping to reduce illegal border activity in the local area, Nogales’ top Border Patrol agent said, but it’s also exposing an older stretch of barrier in the downtown area as a weak link in the agency’s line of defense.
In the wake of the construction of two-plus miles of new fencing to Nogales’ west and another nearly eight miles to the east, local Border Patrol agents have seen a 17-percent drop in narcotics seizures and a 15-percent decline in apprehensions during the current fiscal year, said Al White, patrol agent in charge at the Nogales Station, during a meeting of the Border Patrol Citizens’ Advisory Board on Tuesday.
“It’s showing that we’re starting to make a dent,” White said.
But anecdotal evidence suggests a rise in illegal activity along the two-and-three-quarters-mile border fence that runs through the center of town, White said, since wrongdoers have an easier time cutting through and tunneling under the sheets of aircraft landing mat that have separated Ambos Nogales since the late 1980s.
Agents have found more than 240 cuts in the fence since October, and the Nogales station has spent approximately $750,000 on fence repairs during the past year, White said.
“It’s just a constant battle,” he said.
The new sections of local border wall are comprised largely of a series of interconnected, 15-foot-high steel tubes filled with concrete and driven five feet into the ground. Known as bollard fencing, these barriers have only been penetrated twice, White said.
He’d like to replace the landing-mat barrier with bollard fencing, not only because the landing mats are easier to cut, but also because the solid slabs block water runoff and create impediments and hazards for agents.
“You can’t see someone with a torch, you can’t see someone with a rock,” he said.
Even so, a replacement fence for central Nogales is likely to remain on the Border Patrol’s wish list for the near future. White estimates that the project would cost up to $7 million, and the Nogales Station’s budget has already been reduced by 18.5 percent for the current fiscal year. He said he’s not willing to reduce personnel or cut other essential expenditures to fund the effort.
“We’re going to be living with (the landing-mat fence) a little bit longer,” he said.
Terry Shannon Jr. , who runs a customs brokerage firm one block from the landing-mat fence in downtown Nogales, said he hadn’t noticed any recent increase in illegal activity in the area. Shannon says he considers the downtown area to be one of the city’s safest spots, thanks to the large number of law-enforcement agents on duty there.
Still, he favored the idea of a replacement fence, largely for aesthetic reasons.
“As far as the landing-mat fence is concerned, anything would be better than that,” he said. “It looks like something out of the ‘MASH’ movie.”
A better-looking fence could help improve the image of Nogales and make the city more appealing to tourists, Shannon said.
But Sarah Roberts of the humanitarian group No More Deaths doubted the effectiveness of a new border wall and said a new, more impenetrable barrier in central Nogales would only serve to drive migrants further out into the dangerous surrounding areas.
“It’s another example of deterrence through death,” she said.