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Post #5 — That Wall Wasn't There When I Was a Kid

12/19/2018 01:04:03 PM


Nogales, Sonora is culturally similar to Nogales, Arizona.  Both towns are almost exclusively Latino, you hear Spanish spoken in both towns, the Mexican food is delicious in both cities.  But it’s the Sonora version, at least ten times the size of its Arizona twin, that has a bustling little downtown.

Walking the streets as a white man on your own in that downtown, I was the constant target of hawkers and shop owners.  “Come look at my shop!”  “Right here, sir!”

One particularly clever entrepreneur shouts at me, “you dropped something!”  Looking down, I see his hand pantomime retrieving a lost object.  “You almost missed this bargain I have!  Come with me!” 


I’m used to this type of interaction from travels to Jerusalem, where you hear a similar jokey-desperate hustle from similar tchotchke-filled stalls.  In Nogales, however, I’m approached not just to buy trinkets but also to buy drugs.

But not that kind of drugs.

“Cialis??  Hydrocodone?? Retin-A??”

A key part of the economy in the Mexican town is pharmaceuticals.  Prescription drugs in Mexico cost a fraction of what they do in the US.  Some American tourists come specifically for their pharmaceutical needs.

No prescription?  No problem.  Numerous farmacias keep a supply of pre-signed prescriptions on hand. 

Pills are not the only things that flow across the border.  In the NAFTA era, the maquiladora system allows corporations from the US to produce products extremely cheaply by paying Mexican laborers lower wages — Mexicans work for approximately one-sixth of the U.S. hourly rate.  In the early 2000s, I drove a Ford Focus, built 175 miles from here, in Hermisillo.  Dozens of Mexican semis idle at the border in designated lanes, waiting to bring in tons of produce from the Mexican agribelt.

Pills and pomegranates come across the border largely unmolested, but people are a different story.  The wall that the president would like to see across our southern border already bisects the two Nogaleses.  Built in the nineties, it was once made of 10-foot corrugated steel panels reclaimed from American helipads from the Vietnam War.  Today, it is comprised of towering rusted steel columns, with four-inch gaps between them.

“What do you need?  You need Christmas gifts?”  A man asks me in a kindly but insistent voice on a Nogales streetcorner in Sonora.  After I explain that I don’t celebrate Christmas, I ask if he’s from here.

“All my life,” he tells me, as late model American cars pass by.  He points to the border.  “That wall wasn’t there when I was a kid.  You could walk back and forth and nobody would bother you.”  The wall, he tells me, changed everything.

“I was a businessman with my own business.  Now I get things for Americans in the hotels here.  It’s easier.  Fewer headaches.” 

On the Mexican side of the border are various pieces of art, including white crosses that memorialize migrants who have died trying to make the journey to the US.  As you leave the busiest part of the downtown area, a giant painting of a young boy looms over International Street.  Back in 2012, José Antonio Elena Rodriguez was a 16-year-old Mexican boy, whom the Americans accused of throwing rocks to distract Customs and Border Patrol agents as two men tried to jump the fence with bundles of marijuana.  A US Border Patrol guard shot through the fence and killed the boy, here on the Mexican side of the wall.

The guard, Lonnie Swartz, said he was following his training in using deadly force to defending himself from the rocks.  In two separate trials this year, he was acquitted of all charges against him.

In the Obama years, an internal review carried out by the Customs and Border Patrol indicated that, in less than three years, there had been 67 shooting incidents that resulted in 19 deaths.  Three agents connected to those incidents had been found guilty of criminal behavior.  Two were given verbal reprimands.

Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, US government officials descended on Nogales.  To the top of the existing border wall, they added coiled razor wire.

Sun, May 29 2022 28 Iyyar 5782