With its steep hills and deep arroyos, the border around Nogales has been good country for smugglers since the U.S-Mexico line was drawn in 1848.

Around the turn of the 20th century, undocumented Chinese workers were the prized commodity. During Prohibition, homemade tequila, beer and other spirits made their way to market in barrels on the backs of donkeys treading narrow paths through the rugged terrain.

One 1920’s rancher got into the act by renting out his string of pack mules. After bootleggers brought the moonshine across the border, they unloaded the mules and let them go. The mules would head home every time. Years passed before local customs officials discovered the self-directing mules and figured out what they were up to.

It sounds quaint, compared to the deadly cat-and-mouse that plays out today between drug smugglers and government agents on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Yet Prohibition was deadly even then. In 1926, just two years after the formation of the U.S. Border Patrol, two agents were killed in a shootout with liquor smugglers near Nogales.

More than 70 years passed before another Border Patrol agent died in the line of duty (other than car accidents) in Southern Arizona. Smuggling routes closer to jobs and customers in Texas and California became popular, and Nogales fell into disuse.

Things got so casual, locals could cross back and forth through holes in the fence to go shopping or visiting, and agents, who often knew people by name, would give free rides back to the border.


Then, in the mid-1980s, concern over drug and migrant smuggling led to a border-wide crackdown that continues to this day. As paths through Texas and California were blocked off, Nogales briefly reasserted its historic role as a favored crossing place.

Soon the border buildup spread to Southern Arizona. New walls and fences were built, closing off favored in-town crossing spots, and ever-increasing numbers of Border Patrol agents, armed with sophisticated weapons and equipment, stepped up their patrols in the surrounding countryside. Inevitably, gunplay ensued.

In June, 1992, a Nogales, Sonora, man suspected of being a scout for drug smugglers was killed by Border Patrol agent Michael Elmer in a canyon eight miles west of town. (The case is described in The Border in Moral Context Part Two.)

Then on June 3, 1998, Agent Alexander Kirpnick became the first Nogales Border Patrol agent killed by smugglers since 1926. A multilingual Jewish immigrant from Ukraine who’d been on the force only a year and a half, Kirpnick was shot by a marijuana smuggler he was attempting to arrest in a canyon outside town. His killer, a Nogales, Sonora, man with a long rap sheet, was captured, tried and imprisoned for life in the United States.

In the nearly 20 years since Kirpnick’s death, two more Tucson Sector Border Patrol agents have been shot and killed in the line of duty, Brian Terry in 2010 and Nicholas Ivie in 2012. Both deaths had connections to U.S. law enforcement: Ivie was killed in a friendly-fire incident involving other agents, and Terry was killed by a gun later linked to a botched ATF sting called Fast and Furious that put guns in the hands of drug smugglers and led to a Congressional probe. His killers were also tracked down, tried and jailed, essentially for life, in the U.S.

End Prohibition — again

History teaches that, if law enforcement were the answer to America’s drug problem, it would have been solved long ago. But clever smugglers, corrupt officials, thousands of miles of land borders and tens of thousands of coastline, elaborate tunnels, infinite airspace, not to mention domestic production, will always ensure that demand will be met.

The opening of the documentary Cartel Land comes to mind: It shows masked young men mixing a vat of chemicals over an outdoor fire at night, while one proudly proclaims they are the best meth cookers in Michoacán.

Who can doubt that, somewhere in the backwoods of America, a bunch of meth cookers aren’t also proudly proclaiming themselves to be the best?

I hesitate to bring up Cartel Land, because the film goes on to tacitly endorse vigilantism as a legitimate response to the situation, with which I couldn’t disagree more. It also draws false parallels between people arming themselves against cartels in Mexico and border vigilantes on the U.S. side. The circumstances are completely different.

Other than a handful of deaths like those described above, the U.S. side of the border is pretty quiet. That’s because we have outsourced most of the violence associated with drug prohibition to Mexico. Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman is today’s Al Capone, with the attendant mayhem that helped the U.S. decide to end its 13-year experiment with alcohol prohibition in 1933.

The consequences of modern-day prohibition have been far more deadly for Mexico, however, than Al Capone ever was for us. More than 200,000 people, of all ages and from all walks of life — students, teachers, activists, journalists, mayors, police chiefs, guilty and innocent alike — have died in the drug war in Mexico since 2006.

In just one horrifying example, a story by Ginger Thompson in the July, 2017, National Geographic describes how the Zetas cartel killed an estimated 60 people, including entire families with babies, and burned down several houses in two towns of the border state of Coahuila in March, 2011. The massacre happened after the DEA received a tip about two drug lords’ cell phone numbers and shared it with Mexican law enforcement.

Even though we’ve managed to avoid this level of depravity, the toll of drug prohibition hits home here too. Shame, secrecy, and the uncertain ingredients and dosages associated with criminalization have resulted in tens of thousands of overdoses and deaths annually. Prohibition also leads addicts to engage in crime to support their habits, and to mass incarceration.

From the scene of meth cookers mixing poison in the mountains, to the deaths of addicts, Border Patrol agents, and tens of thousands of other innocent people, to inner city crime, jails bulging with the untreated, and many other ill effects, I draw a different conclusion from Cartel Land and current U.S. policy.

More people with weapons on the border and in Mexico will not make us or them safer, and drug prohibition has been a dismal failure. We must work non-violently to legalize drugs, just like we did with tequila.

–August 24, 2017