TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – When Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada became a Nogales, Arizona, police patrolman in 1966, about 80% of the people in the county jail on any given day were Mexican.
Most had simply walked through gaps in the border fence from Nogales, Mexico, a city 10 times the size of its U.S. namesake to shoplift from stores or burglarize homes. Then in the 1990s, the U.S. government blocked the border in the town with metal – surplus helicopter landing pad sections from Vietnam, Estrada said.
The barrier dramatically cut down cross-border traffic.
After that, the Mexican population in the jail plummeted to maybe 1%, where it stands now. Contrary to rhetoric from the Trump administration, Estrada says there is no invasion of criminals along the border in Arizona.
“All of those things – the rape, the home invasion, the robberies – that you say, ‘Well, you must be going through that all the time?’ Those things are rare,” said the seven-term sheriff, who was first elected in 1993 after retiring from the Nogales Police Department.
Estrada, 76, has lived and worked in the small Arizona border town his entire life. He came with his mother and three brothers from Nogales, Mexico, when he was a toddler. He became a U.S. citizen at age 21 and a law enforcement officer shortly thereafter. Nogales, Arizona, is a safe place to live, he said.
In 2018 there were three homicides in the county of 45,000 people – a Nogales police officer killed while responding to a carjacking, a man who stabbed his brother, and an unsolved killing of a man in his rural home. Americans were arrested in the first two slayings, said Estrada.
Before that the last homicide occurred in 2012.
Estrada, the only Hispanic sheriff among 15 Arizona counties, doesn’t think a taller or more extensive border wall will stop people or drugs. Most of both come through ports of entry, where Border Patrol agents are overwhelmed by hundreds of cars and trucks daily, he said.
More agents at the ports and more technology, such as cameras and motion sensors, are the answer, he said – not a wall and demonization of immigrants. Estrada called the Trump administration’s policy of separating families criminal.
“That’s child abuse,” he said.
Keoki Skinner first went to Agua Prieta, Mexico, in 1986, when the Arizona Republic sent him to cover unrest that erupted as the conservative political party Partido Acción Nacional (PAN) was rising to power. Protesters torched City Hall during his first week there, forcing Skinner to file one story from a telephone in the burning building.
One day he went looking for a juice bar, and discovered the city of about 80,000 across the border wall from Douglas, Arizona, didn’t have one. He told a friend he had met there.
“He said, ‘If you want a juice bar, why don’t you open one? I’ve got the perfect building,’” said Skinner, 69, who has lived south of the border ever since.
He married a Mexican woman and settled down, running the now-closed juice bar and reporting for the Republic and The New York Times on drug smuggling, politics and anything else that came up.
Skinner declined a drive past the site of an Agua Prieta shootout that left upward of a dozen people dead in June. He generally stays out of the neighborhoods near cartel activity, because they have cameras, and he would rather not be on them. The cartels make their presence known with algones, hawks, posted near the port of entry, watching who comes and goes, he said.
“These guys aren’t subtle,” Skinner said. But he isn’t afraid.
“I raised five kids here,” he said, which he said he wouldn’t have done if he thought they were in danger.
He now runs small group tours out of Douglas, showing people the sights of the Mexican town dotted with maquiladoras, factories that make goods almost exclusively for U.S. corporations. One factory he pointed out makes wiring harnesses for U.S. vehicles, he said.
He knows that the drug trade is active in Agua Preita, but mainly he blames Americans.
“As long as Americans keep putting things up their noses, this town will flourish,” Skinner said.
Gretchen Baer is an artist who works out of a studio in Bisbee, Arizona, about five miles from Mexico.
Baer, 56, has been crossing the border to work with Mexican kids for a decade, first on a six-year project called Border Bedazzlers – painting murals on both sides of a mile of border fence bisecting the tiny towns of Naco, Arizona, and Naco, Mexico – and now at Studio Mariposa, an art studio she maintains just a few hundred yards south of the border.
She doesn’t feel like she is living in a war zone, especially on the Mexican side, where she thinks people are generally kinder than in the U.S.
“The fear comes from our side of the wall,” Baer said. “We built the wall. The violence is on our side.”
Eric Kruske, 56, an artist and music instructor, came to Bisbee two years ago from Seattle. He crosses the border often to volunteer with Baer and considers the people he has met in Mexico at least as friendly as people on this side of the border.
“Even nicer, really,” he said.
The only crime Baer has encountered in Mexico occurred she first opened her studio in 2016. Someone broke in and stole everything – art supplies, musical instruments, even glitter, some of which trailed down the road outside the studio. Everything was gone, and there was little hope of replacing it easily.
But the Mexican moms banded together, Baer said.
“They marched down to the police station and demanded that they arrest the guy – they knew the guy. He spent some time in jail, and we got our stuff back,” she said.
Retiree Mary Ann Germond, 72, has lived within five miles of the border for 30 years. A widow, she traveled extensively in Mexico when her husband was alive. She has driven deep into Mexico numerous times and crosses into Naco frequently. She speaks little Spanish, but still encounters kindness south of the border – more than she sees in the U.S., she said.
“I’ve never really felt unsafe in either country, actually, and I’ve traveled a lot in Mexico. Having that wall and razor wire adds an unpleasantness to it, sort of a wakeup call about what’s happening on our side of the border, really,” Germond said.
Although she doesn’t travel much in Mexico now because she is alone, she isn’t afraid. She places much of the blame for the misperception that the border is a war zone at Trump’s feet.
“It’s just terrible what he is doing with his rhetoric,” Germond said.
Estrada says he is often accused of supporting illegal immigration simply because he feels deep compassion and empathy for people he believes are refugees who face a perilous journey of months to come to the U.S. to work and live in safety – not criminals coming to take advantage of America.
“They demonize these people, but they’re good people, religious, hardworking people,” Estrada said. “They’re in danger. That’s why they’re fleeing. They’re not bad parents; they’re good parents.”
Estrada called the Trump administration’s immigration rhetoric “distorted,” and noted the farther you get from the border, into the American heartland, the more people believe it. There is no question that some bad players are coming across the border, he said, but there is no invasion and most of the people coming now only want to contribute to our society as law-abiding residents.
“They might be coming over, but they’re not coming with assault rifles and killing dozens of people at shopping centers and schools and churches. That’s us. That’s on this side of the border.”