“Phoenix is in the eye of the storm.”
That is how Phoenix Police Chief Andy Anderson describes the metropolitan area’s struggle to combat the wave of drug cartel violence spilling over the Arizona-Mexico border, in a February 11 interview with the ABC news program Nightline.
According to that broadcast, the Arizona capital ranks 2nd worldwide in kidnappings, beat only by Mexico City. Last year alone, there were a stunning 370 kidnappings here, all believed to be tied to the ongoing drug war raging in Mexico’s Nogales and other border cities. .
As a resident of the Phoenix metro area for most of my 26 years, I’m accustomed to living in a more violent and criminal city than most. In separate incidences when I was eight years old, our home was broken into and our kitchen window was shot out. In a third unrelated incident, in our new subdivision, my grandmother’s vehicle was set on fire while it was parked in our driveway.
The city long held the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of vehicular theft in the nation, and gang violence was commonplace in the news. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, eco-terrorists launched an arson assault on upscale communities; in the mid-2000s, the metro area was paralyzed by a serial killer. Losing two governors to impeachment by the time I was in high school, it seemed there was no variety of crime that could not be committed in Phoenix.
In such a place, it can hardly be surprising that citizens ardently defend their Constitutional right to carry firearms, or that they consistently vote for “America’s Toughest Sheriff” Joe Arpaio - a man criticized by Amnesty International, among others, for his overzealous and inhumane approach. Their disapproval only reinforces his local popularity - and by reinstituting chain gangs, setting up a web “Jail Cam”, forcing maximum-security prisoners to wear pink underwear and eat green bologna, and establishing a permanent “Tent City” (read: outside jail where temperatures on upper bunks are recorded above 150 degrees Fahrenheit, or over 65 degrees Celsius), Arpaio has made himself into a larger-than-life, celebrity crime-fighting folk hero.
There are many people such as myself that roll their eyes in disgust and vote against Sheriff Joe. Particularly for his virulent and blatant racial profiling as well as his belief that he constitutes a law unto himself, I consider him not only to be a danger to the rights of all citizens but also an embarrassment to our state.
And yet, I know that his popularity will only be augmented by the kidnapping statistics. Fed up with a remote and aloof federal government and feeling increasingly under attack by a shadowy parallel society of drug smugglers and coyotes (people smugglers), anxious citizens turn to the one person who appears to not only care, but ACTS. For his fans, he is the lone voice in the wilderness, the only elected leader brave enough to cast political correctness aside and fight the deluge of crime tied to that lawless zone south of the border known as Mexico.
His assertions about the percentage of crime tied to Mexico and illegal immigration are likely overblown- given his proclivity for bombastic proclamations to rile up the angry voter base – and yet there is no denying the increasing presence that illegal immigration occupies in the daily lives of many Phoenicians.
Today, simply driving between home and work, it is not uncommon to find ourselves behind an unmarked delivery van with (illegally) tinted windows -through which we can just make out the shapes of twenty or more heads. Typically, the van is going a good ten miles below the speed limit; they cannot risk getting pulled over for fear of deportation. Yet, being unfamiliar with our urban grid and presumably full of anxiety, the vans are repeatedly caught in high-speed chases and spectacular crashes – in which, sadly, many of the passengers are flung to their deaths. Those who survive are often caught on news footage as they flee on foot across highways and into neighboring communities, climbing over backyard walls in a desperate attempt to escape “La Migra,” the immigration police. (You can see videos of such crashes here: and here.
We witnessed one such accident south of Tucson over the weekend – a generic white van was tipped over in the median between the north and southbound freeways, surrounded by scattered possessions. Traffic was halted in both directions as nearly twenty squad cars and at least five ambulances cordoned off the scene. Our suspicions were confirmed: lined up by the highway patrol was a group of under-nourished, twenty-something, Latino males.
Just minutes before, we had passed through an impromptu border patrol checkpoint, about thirty miles north of the border. While we immediately understood the logic: roving border patrols along the various highways in order to catch those who entered through the open desert or the American sister city of Nogales, it is very disconcerting as a citizen to have to declare your citizenship when you have not even left the country.
Horrific, fatal traffic accidents involving unlicensed and often intoxicated illegal immigrants continually make headlines – including several instances in which local police officers were killed in their attempt to pull over an offending car because the driver panicked.
The day that I was called to jury duty several years ago, one of the cases in the docket involved an illegal immigrant charged with multiple counts of manslaughter. He was driving a stolen vehicle at the time, had a repeated history of driving infractions, DUI and auto theft, and had no license. I did not serve on that jury, but the mood in the courtroom was palpable. Even if he was acquitted, it confirmed what many angry Arizonans already believed: the man embodied everything they hated about illegal immigration and everything that was wrong with “the system”. Undoubtedly, Sheriff Joe found a few more converts to his personal campaign that day among the scores of citizens who were forced to miss a day of work in order to decide his fate.
The emotional ante has been considerably augmented with the uptick in human trafficking. At regular intervals, local news stations beam in helicopter footage of SWAT teams bursting into “drop houses” in neighborhoods both destitute and upscale. These empty homes, abandoned in the foreclosure crisis and now being rented out or simply squatted by “coyotes” (human smugglers), serve as weigh-stations for illegal immigrants before they are trafficked to destinations across the country. (You can see news footage at here.
In a city whose rich (read: safe) and poor (read: gang and drug haven) areas are well-established, the presence of drop houses in wealthy Scottsdale resort neighborhoods has struck a knife of panic into the upper-class. For many, it is the final straw in a long line of intolerable injustices: not only must they spend their non-existent health care funds paying for illegal immigrants who arrive in our cities needing emergency care (where by federal law it must be provided regardless of ability to pay), not only are they forced to change their school curriculum to meet the needs of the children of illegal immigrants who do not speak English, not only are they forced to learn Spanish for their own job security in some fields, not only are they up against a crime and drug wave ignored by the federal government, but now their own private gated oasis has been violated.
In their eyes, law abiding citizens are held hostage to an impotent legal system that is incapable of dealing with the onslaught. While so far only those tied to the drug trade have been kidnapped, it doesn’t take an enormous leap of the imagination to project that innocent bystanders could easily be caught up in the gang war soon. After all, in Mexico, the warfare is brazenly no-holds-barred – resulting in an appallingly high civilian casualty rate.
And yet, at the moment, most people are angry on a matter of civic principle: their frustration centers around the continual siphoning of limited state and municipal resources to combat what many believe should be a national concern. In Arizonan eyes, one of the poorest states is left to defend the nation against an unstoppable tide.
Along with California Attorney General Jerry Brown, Chief Anderson expresses his concern that this wave of violence is overlooked by a Washington preoccupied with tracking down Al Qaida. “If it doesn’t stop here – if we aren’t able to fix it here and get it turned around, it will go across the nation.”
My concern is more finite and more immediate. Washington’s failure to act could spark off vigilantism by citizens who feel there is no other option. It will push the dialogue even farther to the militant right and encourage ever-more radical responses by the Sheriff and his followers, especially in light of the current fiscal crisis. It will turn this fight from a primarily economic one into an openly racial one, polarizing the state to the point where it is torn apart. Our former Governor Janet Napolitano was selected as the Secretary of Homeland Security. We await her leadership and influence in resolving this escalating crisis.