Arizona border town 'like a war zone all the time,' protesting residents say

Arizona border residents stage protests complaining that federal agents have militarized their hometowns

Demonstrations unfolded Wednesday at six Arizona border checkpoints, where protesters complained that the Border Patrol has turned their hometowns into intimidating militarized zones, among other border control issues that threaten the quality of their lives.

At the Arivaca checkpoint, about 20 miles outside the town, dozens of protesters stopped traffic for less than a minute in an attempt to shut down the facility, but federal agents quickly herded the group to the roadside.

“It seems like a war zone all the time,” said Patty Miller, who has lived in the area for 31 years and took up a megaphone to shout out her opinion.

Other protests, organized by independent border town community groups, focused on a variety of concerns. In Bisbee, residents voiced concern about the environmental effect of a border fence. Native Americas of the Tohono O’odham Nation complained the Border Patrol was intruding on tribal land. In Tucson, protesters focused on the shooting death of a 16-year-old Mexican boy by a Border Patrol agent in October 2012.

At the Arivaca checkpoint, protesters said the town draws two types of residents: people who want to live a secluded lifestyle, far from big cities; and residents who want to move away but can’t.

That mix of aging hippies, back-to-the-landers and migrants makes Arivaca particularly antipathetic to arguments that the show of force among Border Patrol agents is making the area safer.

“We're here to listen for the true issues,” Border Patrol Tucson Sector Chief Patrol Agent Manuel Padilla Jr. said as he watched a 12-foot papier-mache effigy of himself stalk toward the checkpoint.

The effigy had red, mangled fingers and a sign that read “Border Patrol has blood on its hands.”

“We stop everything here: drugs, smuggling,” Padilla said, adding that the protests were the result of a misunderstanding of the Border Patrol's role in maintaining safety in the area.

Padilla said the agency has shown a willingness to listen the concerns of residents, many who raise cattle and horses.

When a speed strip was installed at the checkpoint, it was high enough to make livestock trailers take a hard bounce when they crossed.

In response, the agency lowered the strip, Padilla said, which he believes is a sign of progress.

Protesters said that they felt threatened at the checkpoint, that they had to put on fake smiles every morning and hide their fear at dealing with men and women with guns.

“This checkpoint serves as a deterrent to living in Arivaca,” said Maggie Milinovitech.

In town, opinions were more nuanced.

Virginia Engle recalled dangerous days before the Border Patrol that were “very bad." The Mexican drug cartels, she said, "left lots of bodies in the desert.”

Engle runs Virginia's, the cafe on Arivaca's tiny, rutted main street -- one of about eight businesses, including a bar, antique stores and an art co-op.

The Border Patrol agents tend to shop in Three Points, Ariz., where there is a coffee shop near a firing range, Engle said. But she's happy they're here now because she feels safer.

“I serve everybody, everybody,” Engle said. “It's better since they came.”

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