By Curtis Prendergast
Naco, Ariz. / Sonora — Like many border towns in Arizona, Naco usually only gets news coverage when there is a drug bust or when Border Patrol agents catch immigrants jumping the border fence.
On a recent sunny afternoon in late October, two journalists from Tucson took a detour from covering a story in Bisbee, Ariz. to check out this part of the border.
From Bisbee to Naco, Ariz.
The road dips down from Bisbee and opens up onto a sloping plain that seems to buckle under the pressure of the international border. In the distance, mountains in Mexico loom up against the horizon.
Naco, Ariz. is a sprawl of houses that clings to the border. Rows of sleepy single-story houses guarded by massive prickly-pear cactus run up to the fence. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of business on this side of the fence. One house that is situated right next to the border fence has a sign for Jesse Kelly leaning against the wall.
The border fence
The fence is Naco’s most striking landmark. It runs right through Naco, as it does in Nogales and in many other border cities. One difference between Naco and Nogales is that out here it is a double-fence. The two countries are separated by a gravel road about twenty feet wide bounded on each side by a reddish metal fence that stands more than ten feet high.
The wind blows across the plain and runs down this international alleyway, making it sound like a NASCAR race. Portable lights are set up nearby and towers with cameras keep watch over the wall.
Outside of town, the fence stretches to the horizon in both directions. Although there was a Border Patrol truck parked close to the fence, it didn’t look like it would be too difficult to hop the fence out in the middle of nowhere.
Across the fence
Crossing through the Port of Entry in Naco is less intimidating than it is in Nogales, where armed federal agents wearing bullet-proof vests look you over. In the past few months, they have set up a station to check you on your way out, too.
In Naco, the Customs and Border Protection officers sat in folding chairs, shaded from the sun by an arch that covers the vehicle exit from the United States. They politely asked us what we were doing, checked our passports, and told us where we could buy cheap cigarettes. With a nod and a ‘thank you’ we crossed into Mexico.
The Port of Entry is confusing in Naco. We zigged when we should have zagged and end up in the cargo area of the complex. A smiling Mexican border officer pointed her hand at the line of metal tubes on the other side of the line of cars waiting to come into the U.S. “Ah, por ese, uh,…ese grillo?” I asked her. “Si, si, por alla,” she replied. We headed over to the metal grill that separated the walkway from the line of cars and soon enough we were in Mexico.
Walking around Naco
The first view of Naco, Sonora reveals a quiet town that seemed to belong in the Old West. A tumbleweed might have been appropriate. Both the cars and townspeople made their way slowly around the dozen or so blocks lined with shops.
There was movement in the streets, but it was the early afternoon and people were taking it easy. Even on such a tranquil afternoon, two white boys walking through the street attracted attention. We were the only gueros to be seen.
Among the beauty parlors, taquerias and ice cream shops was a pharmacy that sold cheap cigarettes, but only by the carton. The packs of ten came wrapped in clear cellophane; Marlboro, Camel, Benson & Hedges, most of the big brands were there. The rest of the pharmacy was full of pills for medical tourists from the U.S.
The pharmacy was empty so the man behind the counter chatted with us for a few minutes about people coming across the border to buy medications. His English was good and he seemed used to talking with people from the U.S. He told us that, outside of the border commercial district, the only big employers in Naco are a few maquiladoras on the eastern side of town.
We were still only about a block into Naco so we made our way down the street to see what we could see.
Immigration through Naco
A man with one eye who told us he was 70 years old but looked like he was 50, explained the Transporte Fronterizo written on the front of a store directly across the street. Underneath the words was a list of destinations in Mexico: Chiapas, Veracruz, Mexico. He told us that the business takes deported migrants back to their home towns, or at least to the closest major city.
A Red Cross station, housed in a white building set back from the main strip, offers “humanitarian aid to migrants” for those who have recently arrived back to Mexico.
As we chatted with the man with one eye, a guy walked by and asked us for a cigarette. The man with one eye let us give him a smoke before his friend halfheartedly shooed him away. After a few more minutes of chatting, during which he told us he was a Mexican citizen, but had lived in the U.S. for decades, we shook his hand, waved goodbye to his friends, and headed back to the Port of Entry.
“Where are you guys coming from?” asked the officer checking our passports as we crossed back into the U.S.
“We just came down to see Naco.”
“So you came down to see nothing?” he replied.
We chuckled politely, but it was obvious that although he works within a few yards of Mexico, he lives in a different world. Yet another indication that the wall that divides the two countries is made of much more than steel.