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A wall being built in Naco’s backyard stirs up emotions

One of the shuttered businesses on Towner Avenue in Naco, Arizona. Photo by: Erik Kolsrud/Arizona Sonora News

NACO, Arizona — Sonia Urcadez woke up one October morning to the sound of cement trucks lining the street in front of her house, kicking up clouds of dust that obscured the sunrise and her view of the San José Mountains. 

It was 6 a.m., and 100 feet from her door, construction on a new border fence had just begun.

The U.S. Border Patrol announced in January that the section of border fence in Naco will be replaced with a more modern barrier by June. That announcement was months overdue for the residents of Naco, who had been living with the disruptive construction since last October. Cement trucks and construction workers had been coming and going seven days a week as they prepared the work site for the removal of the old fence and the replacement of the new.

Nobody living near the construction — or  in the community itself — had been asked or even told that the new fence was going to happen. The construction recently began on property owned by Gerry Eberwein, a local police officer.

Construction on the Naco border fence, yards away from a residential street. Photo by: Erik Kolsrud/Arizona Sonora News

“The only time I was told anything about it was the day after they had already built the cement factory,” Urcadez said. “[Eberwein] told me that if anything bothered me, to let him know. And I kind of just really rolled my eyes. Are you going to mute the machines? Are you going to come dust my house? I mean really, what can he do?”

In Naco, the border currently has a system of two fences with a road in between — a remnant of an older system of fencing that recycled runway siding from the Vietnam War as a barrier against crossing. There have been barriers on the border for decades, but the last 10 years have seen an increase in the buildup of the border.

“The wall makes everyone look guilty,” lifelong Naco resident Ramon Tapia said. “We aren’t used to walls. We don’t like walls. It didn’t used to be like this.”

Tapia, Urcadez and other Naco residents remember a time when there wasn’t a fence, when the Border Patrol had less of a presence here. Crossers could come and go more or less as they pleased. That changed after 9/11, as it did in many border towns in Arizona and beyond.

Nogales is one of those towns only a couple dozen miles away and serves as an example for the types of problems faced by Naco now — as well as unforeseen consequences. Nogales also had the older style of fencing, which was replaced years ago with the new model of 20-foot steel fence.

Nogales, like Naco, is a port of entry for commerce flowing in and out of the United States. Nogales is one of the largest in the country and the preferred entry point for most of the U.S. produce imports that arrive by truck. This has transformed the city into a packing and distribution center with a massive multilane port of entry.

The vehicle crossing at the Naco port of entry is often empty, devoid of crossers and Border Patrol agents alike. Photo by: Erik Kolsrud/Arizona Sonora News

On the other hand, Naco isn’t so lucky. The port there is desolate, more akin to an abandoned military checkpoint than a commercial land port. There is barely a trickle of travelers walking over. This traffic drought has had devastating effects on the businesses and residents of the small border town. The main street that ran through the center of town all the way to the border, Towner Avenue, once was lined with an auto shop, restaurant, coffee shop, grocery store and clothing store that catered to crossers and residents.

That was before the port of entry was moved about one hundred yards east of the end of Towner — where it had been for decades.

“It killed Naco,” former auto shop owner Ernest Rogers said. “There used to be four or five businesses and it was a straight shot across the border. Now there aren’t any. I would know, I was one of them.”

Rogers claims the movement came as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement, as the port would be easier for trucks to enter and exit from a point farther away from Towner Avenue. Those trucks — and the international commerce they represent — never materialized in Naco, preferring to go through nearby Douglas and the expanded port of entry there.

The former crossing point on the Naco border. Border Patrol moved it farther east, away from the spot it had been at for decades. Photo by: Erik Kolsrud/Arizona Sonora News

Now, the only trucks coming through Naco are full of cement and construction supplies for the replacement of the wall section. This construction comes on the heels of President Trump’s decision to build a new border wall between the two countries.

“You know it’s kind of sad that they’re wasting all this money trying to build another wall, we already have two up here,” Urcadez said. “But the wall is just a waste of money. They’ve already knocked one down to replace another one. And they’re going to put this one up, and then they’re going to knock it down again to put up the Trump wall or whatever it is. And then they say they can’t help the poor people down here. It’s just so weird.”

The president had urged the building of a border wall as a rallying cry during his campaign, promising that he would “get Mexico to pay for it.” Campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, the U.S. already has a system of steel fences that line much of the Southern Arizona border.

“It’s a big open world out there, you know,” Larry Slaughter, a mechanic and Naco resident, said. “People that want to get across will get across, I don’t know how they could ever really clamp it down. We got the Berlin Wall torn down. Why build another one?”

Click here for a Word version of the story and high-resolution photos.

Erik Kolsrud is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at ekolsrud@email.arizona.edu