Arizona Daily Star
June 30, 2011
by Daniel Gonzalez
The rusting metal wall that has divided the twin cities of Nogales for over a decade and ushered in a new era of tougher border security will soon come down.
In the next few days, the federal government will finish tearing out the old sheet-metal wall that separates Nogales, Ariz., from Nogales, Sonora, and complete the installation of a new, higher, see-through fence that officials say is safer, harder to breach and less of an eyesore. The new fence is made of closely spaced steel beams set in concrete several feet deep. The beams are connected by horizontal steel rods.
"The other fence was easier to compromise. You could get under it, over it and through it," said Agent Eric Cantu, a spokesman for the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector. The sector includes Nogales.
But, like the old fence, the new structure has drawn mixed reactions in Nogales, Ariz. Some welcome the added security during a time of escalating drug-cartel violence in Mexico, while others view it as a scar on the landscape that further divides two cities that once functioned as one.
Tucson Mayor Arturo Garino said the new fence is a vast improvement in both security and appearance. He recalls when the two cities were separated by just five strands of barbed wire or a chain-link fence. But, with drug-cartel violence out of control in Mexico, he welcomes the new fencing.
"Of course a lot of people (in Nogales) would not like to have a fence at all, but times have changed after 9/11," Garino said. "It's 100 times better than what was there."
Olivia Ainza, president and CEO of the Nogales-Santa Cruz County Chamber of Commerce, does not like the new fence. Although not as "ugly" as the old fence, the new one has a "jail-like" appearance that sends a negative message to Mexicans living in Nogales on the Sonora side of the border, she said. She fears anger about the fence will discourage Mexican shoppers from coming to the Arizona side and will hurt businesses that already have seen sales drop because of tighter border security.
"I agree we have to keep our country safe," she said. "But I know we could have done better than the fence they are putting up there that is very intimidating."
Arizona's border with Mexico is 372.5 miles long. The federal government has installed 123 miles of pedestrian fencing and 183 miles of vehicle fencing at a cost of $6.5 million per mile for the pedestrian fencing and $1.8 million per mile for the vehicle fencing, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In May, Arizona lawmakers passed a bill authorizing the state to begin raising money and securing permission from public and private landowners to build a fence along areas of the border still unprotected. The new law takes effect July 20.
The old fence in downtown Nogales was cobbled together in the mid-1990s from sheets of interlocking steel that were left over from what the military used to build temporary runways for aircraft. The fence was part of a strategy to stem illegal immigration in urban areas in El Paso, San Diego and Tucson. The strategy was launched in response to a wave of illegal immigration following the collapse of the peso in Mexico. In addition to deploying agents directly to the border, the federal government erected walls and fencing.
But the old fence was easy to cut through with a cutting torch. Agents spent much of their time repairing holes. Because it was solid, the wall also shielded from view the activities of illegal immigrants on the Mexican side, giving them time to climb over and dash into downtown Nogales undetected, Cantu said.
In April, the federal government began installing new fencing in Nogales, part of more than 650 miles of new barriers mandated by Congress to tighten border security.
The new fence will stretch 2.8 miles from one end of Nogales to the other. Composed of perpendicular beams constructed from a triple layer of rebar, concrete and steel, the fence will average 18 to 20 feet in height and soar as high as 30 feet in some places - three times as high as the old 10- to 12-foot wall, Cantu said.
The fence will have an extra barrier on top to make it harder to climb over, Cantu said.
Although the Border Patrol has billed the new fence as harder to scale, a video posted on YouTube in January showed two women climbing to the top in less than 18 seconds.
Officials said the fence also should better protect border agents. Because agents can see through it, they are less likely to be struck by rock-throwers on the other side, officials said.
As border security has increased, agents patrolling the wall had become frequent targets from rock-throwing assailants on the Mexican side. From Oct. 1, 2010, through May 31, agents working in the Tucson Sector have been assaulted 188 times, Cantu said. The majority of those assaults involved rocks thrown at agents in the Nogales area, he said.
"We are not talking about little pebbles but brick-size rocks that can cause serious injuries and even death," he said.
In March 2009, an agent investigating a hole in the fence was struck by a large piece of cinder block dropped from above by an assailant on the Mexican side. The agent suffered cuts on his forehead, nose and chest.
"They do that because of frustration," Cantu said. "As we become more effective in preventing illegal crossings and drugs, they are going to get more frustrated. And one of the ways they are going to vent their frustration is by throwing rocks."