Border Town Tires of Its Corrupt Aura

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Responding to a federal prosecutor's recent characterization of this dusty outpost as "seriously corrupt," angry U.S. border guards and civic leaders have issued a demand: Indict or vindicate.

The comment by Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel Knauss comes at a time when government agents at the Douglas border crossing are under investigation for alleged ties to drug traffickers operating just over the border in Agua Prieta, Mexico.

In the past, aspersions of widespread black-market activities in this town of 15,000 were met with a shrug of the shoulders. After all, Douglas has been regarded as a staging ground for smugglers since the Arizona Rangers tried to rid the place of horse thieves and gunrunners at the turn of the century.

Now, however, with unemployment hovering at 20% and retail sales dwindling amid the continuing peso crisis, local leaders are taking a stand against Douglas' reputation as the most corrupt town on the 1,900-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

In a scalding letter, Mayor Ray Borane charged that Knauss had done "untold damage to our efforts in attracting new industry and tourism."

"Most of the federal employees at the port are conscientious, hard-working, ethical and professional citizens of Douglas," Borane wrote. "To have painted them all with the same brush is unconscionable and unprincipled. Not only have you embarrassed and humiliated . . . the people at the port of entry, you have done the city of Douglas a great injustice."

The border agents' anger verges on revolt. Broad allegations of corruption, they say, have led to open distrust and a hostile working environment at a time when drug trafficking is on the rise and illegal crossings have hit record levels.

As the only major border town without a wall protecting the international line, Douglas has become a magnet for illegal traffic of every stripe.

"I went into a barbershop recently and heard wisecracks about the port of entry, which hurt because I lay my life on the line every day for my job," recalled U.S. Customs inspector Al Acuna.

In a separate letter to Knauss, Acuna joined dozens of employees from the Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Border Patrol in demanding "an apology . . . for the egregious and irresponsible accusations with which you have slandered the entire federal law enforcement work force in Douglas."

Knauss has declined to comment. However, the U.S. attorney's office in Phoenix said meetings have been scheduled between disgruntled border guardians and federal prosecutors to "clear the air."

In the meantime, local leaders are trying to emphasize the positive. And Douglas has done a remarkable job of feathering its nest with the spoils of the drug wars.

A warehouse at the terminus of a 270-foot cocaine traffickers' tunnel unearthed beneath the border here in 1990 is being turned into a shelter for battered women. A villa at the tunnel's Mexican end is now a job training center.

This year, the town used $1.5 million in drug money seized at the port of entry to refurbish an old railroad depot that now houses the Douglas Police Department.

"Sadly," said Police Chief Charles Austin, "all that gets overlooked in light of those activities that seem to get all the publicity."

"All this corruption talk makes me so mad I could spit," grumbled Gerry Bohmfalk, who operates a Western clothing store downtown. "We do positive things in our community, and nobody listens.

"What's more newsworthy? Our annual Christmas parade, which is the prettiest in the Southwest, or a drug bust?"

Yet the reality is that Douglas has a penchant for generating negative headlines.

"Douglas is a rough little sucker," said Ed Posada, whose 23-year-old son was one of two young men shot in the head on Aug. 8, 1994, after a beer party in the desert a few miles east of Douglas.

Witnesses claim that a Border Patrol officer and the victims were the only ones left in the area when the party ended. Despite community pressure to take action, Cochise County prosecutors refused to bring charges against the officer on grounds that neither the murder weapon--a 9-millimeter handgun--nor a witness to the shootings has been found.

"We need the whole nation involved in cleaning this town up," Posada said.

Douglas has had more than its share of scandals over the past 20 years.

In a case that enraged Latino groups nationwide, two well-known Cochise County brothers were cleared by an all-white jury in 1977 of multiple state charges involving the kidnap, robbery and torture of three undocumented Mexicans who crossed their ranch on foot. One of the brothers was later convicted in federal court of interfering with interstate commerce stemming from the same incident.

In 1990, the discovery of the tunnel under the border triggered an extensive federal investigation amid speculation that only collaboration on the American side could explain the drug smugglers' success.

Over the past five years, five border agents here have been convicted on charges of helping dealers bring cocaine into the United States. Now, port-of-entry authorities are again under federal investigation amid similar allegations.

"Unfortunately, anything that happens in this little town is spectacular," Borane said with a sigh. "It's a stigma we have to overcome."

Then, looking up to acknowledge the salutation of a passerby, he added: "See that guy waving to me over there? He's supposed to be a Mafioso."

Many residents say the Douglas economy is inextricably bound to black-market networks. Protected for generations by families with ties on both sides of the border, these channels for funneling drugs, guns and undocumented workers into the United States have been all but invulnerable to undercover law enforcement efforts.

"If it wasn't for drug trafficking, Douglas would be in shambles," mused Keoki Skinner, owner of a fruit juice stand in Agua Prieta only a stone's throw from the port of entry. "This is an illegal universe. And my juice bar is a good barometer of that.

"Whenever there's a big drug load coming through town, I know about it because customers start paying for juice in $20 bills.

"When the drug tunnel was operating, there was money flying everywhere. My counter girls were making three times their usual tips. The guy next door couldn't keep enough cellular phones in stock. The whole block was lined with new four-wheel drives."

Miguel "Tamal" Moreno, a former drug dealer who specialized in arson for revenge and profit, would not argue with that. To hear him tell it, "things are never going to change."

In his heyday, Moreno, 47, recorded a song about corrupt border authorities--"The Ballad of Joe Cocaine"--that is now a collector's item in these parts.

These days, Moreno, who was released from prison in July after serving a 10-year sentence, is trying to start a new life in a small house fronting a downtown alleyway. It hasn't been easy. Moreno has severe kidney disorders and lost a leg while in prison because of complications related to diabetes.

"Smuggling is part of our life, our culture," Moreno said. "It's permanent."

"But not everyone here has played a role in that side of our history," argued Austin. "This community is tired of its negative image. There are lots of positive things going on, and we want recognition for that."

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