April 15, 2011
by Jonathan Clark
The dilapidated landing-mat border fence running through central Nogales is slowly coming down.
For the past two weeks, construction crews have been building a taller, stronger and more firmly embedded barrier that by July will cover the entire 2.8 miles of terrain now fronted by the landing-mat fence.
Speaking at a media event Wednesday near the Mariposa Port of Entry, Sabri Dikman, acting patrol agent in charge at the Nogales Border Patrol Station, called the change a “great moment for the Border Patrol.”
“It’s significant for the Border Patrol and the safety level of our agents, as well as the ability for us to do our job and secure the border in Nogales,” he said.
The old barrier, which stands 8-12 feet with no below-ground footer, was the best solution available when it was constructed in 1994, Dikman said. But it’s also relatively easy to climb over and burrow under, and its solid-panel design has proven dangerous for agents who can’t see what’s on the other side.
Agents at the Nogales Station suffered 300 assaults during the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30 – most of them rock-throwings that happened in the vicinity of the old fence, Dikman said. And Border Patrol spokesman Andy Adame said the local station has recorded at least 100 more assaults since Oct. 1, with all but one occurring in the 2.8-mile stretch through central Nogales.
The new, bollard-style fencing is higher – 18-30 feet, depending on the terrain – and is anchored in place by a concrete footer that extends up to 8 feet into the ground to thwart burrowing. And because its design involves a series of interconnected tubes, agents can now see through it to identify any dangers lurking to the south.
“You can look through and see that no one is over there, or what’s going to come at you in the next few seconds,” said Agent Eric Cantu as he pointed to a section of bollard fencing. “So it’s pretty obvious why we’re doing this.”
The concrete-filled steel tubes that comprise the fence would take at least 15 minutes to cut through, said Mike Tatusko, projective executive for Granite Construction, the Watsonville, Calif.-based contractor building the barrier. That time frame, along with the noise and sparks that a cut-through effort would create, gives the Border Patrol a good opportunity to respond.
As for climbers, a 5-foot high, south-facing metal sheet attached to the top of the fence should serve as a deterrent, Tatusko said. “Even if you shimmy up to the top 5 feet, there’s nothing to grab hold of,” he said.
The poles themselves will be topped with pyramid-shaped caps to discourage perching, he said.
Once the $11.6-million project is completed, the new fencing will connect to similar barriers built in recent years to the east and west of town to create a solid 12.5-mile fortification, Dikman said. And with better security in the central area, the Nogales Station will be able to take agents out of the downtown area and deploy them to outlying trouble spots.
“Once we have the bollard fencing up and we can actually see the south side and what’s approaching the fence, we should be able to move some of our personnel and our technology to the further, more remote areas to the east and west,” Dikman said.
The project also has its skeptics and critics. Jesus Quintanar, an engineer representing the Mexican section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, could think of little positive to say about the new fence as he observed its construction at the Mariposa site on Wednesday. “The old one was ugly, and this one isn’t pretty, either,” he said.
At least, Quintanar said, he could certify that the barrier is being built on U.S. soil, thus averting an embarrassment like one in 2007 when the U.S. accidentally constructed 1.5 miles of new border fencing in Mexican territory south of New Mexico, and then spent $3 million to fix the problem.
From an engineering perspective, Quintanar said his biggest concern is the concrete footer and the possibility that it could cause flooding during monsoon season by blocking runoff.
“We have our doubts,” he said. “According to what they’ve shown us, it complies with the specifications for the crossing of water flows. But once leaves and other things start to accumulate, that’s when the problems could start – and problems not just for Mexico, but for the United States as well.”
Tatusko said the design takes runoff into account by adding channels to the footer in areas where the fence crosses an arroyo. The channels will be covered by gates that allow normal drainage, but that can be opened in case of debris buildup and blockage.
The new fence is also troubling to Gustavo Lozano of the Nogales-based Fronteras Desiguales, a group that advocates for the rights of border residents. The project, he said, is another example of the increasingly costly, militaristic approach to border security that has done little to thwart drug trafficking or drug-related violence in Mexico. Lozano said more attention should be paid to the economic causes of border-related problems, and his group would like to see the U.S. and Mexican governments abandon their top-down approach and instead involve community organizations in creating solutions.
As for the bigger, more permanent border barrier making its way through the center of Nogales, Lozano said it would send an unfriendly message to our neighbors to the south who regularly cross legally into the U.S. for social visits or to pump much-needed revenue into the local economy.
“I think it has a clear, negative impact on people,” he said. “You know, ‘I’m building a fence between me and my neighbor and I don’t want to see his face anymore.’ That’s the message that it’s sending to regular people across the line.
“It’s a very hostile message, especially here in what we call ‘Ambos Nogales,’” he said. “We think of the two Nogaleses as very unified, as one community separated by a border. But when our government comes up with crazy and stupid ideas like a bigger fence, it’s clearly sending a message to regular people.”
Two Granite Construction crews are working simultaneously on the fence: one starting at the far eastern end of town, the other on the west. As new sections go up, the old fence is taken down and the sheet metal is salvaged for scrap. In the Mariposa area, the new fence is being built approximately 50 feet south of the old one, and the landing mats aren’t dismantled until the new barrier is firmly in place in front of it.
The Border Patrol is providing security for the workers on the north side of the fence, while Mexican authorities are chipping in on the south, Dikman said.
In addition to the fence, the crews are also building a 25-foot-wide, all-weather road to give the Border Patrol better access, Tatusko said. During the height of the construction, Tatusko said he expects to have 80 workers on his team – almost all of them from the Tucson and Santa Cruz County areas.
Eventually, the east and west work crews will meet in the middle – the downtown commercial area – where construction efforts will likely become trickier, Tatusko said.
The challenges of the urban environment, he said, include working in confined areas; dealing with overhead and underground utilities; and managing vehicle and pedestrian traffic.
When the crews reach the downtown, they’ll replace both the gate at the railroad crossing and the landing-mat fence. And while messages at Wednesday’s media event were mixed as to whether the barrier between the DeConcini and Morley border crossings – the peach-toned concrete wall with see-through metal screens – would be replaced as well, Adame, the Border Patrol spokesman, said Thursday that it would be left alone.
Once the new bollard fencing replaces the landing-mat barrier elsewhere in the downtown, Dikman said, local residents may notice it has benefits in addition to improved security.
He pointed to a Cronkite News Service story in the April 8 edition of the Nogales International, in which West International Street resident Edward Holler lamented the changes that had come after the landing-mat fence went up in front of his house in the 1990s. “I couldn’t see Mexico anymore,” Holler told reporter Channing Turner. “I couldn’t hear the music as well, and I couldn’t see the parades.”
The new fence should help restore such fond sights and sounds at the same time that it’s improving visibility and safety for Border Patrol agents, Dikman said.
“It kind of adds a little transparency to the border,” he said.