Douglas, Ariz., a Boomtown on the Border

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Towns on the U.S.-Mexico border have always profited from illegal trafficking. The latest traffic is in people. Wealth accumulating in Mexico has helped towns such as Douglas, Ariz. — which also benefits from U.S. federal dollars spent to combat trafficking.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

For as long as there have been borders, there have been laws against what's allowed to cross them, and people who've made money breaking or enforcing those laws. Along the U.S.-Mexican border these days, people smuggling is big business. Both sides seem to depend on one another, sometimes in unexpected ways.

NPR's Ted Robbins explains.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

In the border town of Douglas, Arizona, population 15,000, there's a man who seems to know everyone's business. You can find him most evenings at a park on 8th Street serving juice from a bright, yellow van. On the side of the van, the name of his business: El Mitote.

Mr. KEOKI SKINNER (Owner, El Mitote): El Mitote is to gossip, mitotero is a gossiper. People come to my business to gossip.

ROBBINS: Keoki Skinner is a light-haired, fair-skinned gringo and a former newspaper reporter. He runs this licuado stand with his Mexican wife Laura. At the moment, they're mixing their most popular concoction, pico de gallo.

Mr. SKINNER: Watermelon, cantaloupe, papaya, pineapple, jicama, cucumber, salt, chile and lime.

ROBBINS: Keep that contrast of flavors in mind for the rest of this story: sweet and sour, cool and spicy. It pretty well describes life here on the border. The spicy is what Keoki Skinner says really drives the economy.

Mr. SKINNER: It's kind of an illegal universe. It has long roots. It goes all the way back to the days of Prohibition and alcohol here. These families have been smuggling through this area for years.

ROBBINS: And not only liquor and drugs.

Mr. SKINNER: Organs. Over the years, I've covered certain stories about organ smuggling. Parrot smuggling, you know, you name it. Things that have tariffs on them or that are legal in one country are going to be - people are looking for ways to smuggle this stuff across and make money.

ROBBINS: For the last decade, the major commodity has been people. The Mexican city right across the border, Agua Prieta, is 10 times bigger than Douglas. It boomed with hotels, restaurants and shuttles serving those arriving to cross.

And that was sweet for Douglas, says its mayor, Ray Borane.

Mayor RAY BORANE (Douglas, Arizona): People from across the border came over here and they purchased all of those things that they needed to house those people, to feed them, to give them all of the little amenities that they need before they cross the border.

ROBBINS: The sour part came when the illegal immigrants crossed in large groups at night and tore up Douglas neighborhoods. Residents complained and the U.S. government cooled things off with a border crackdown. It built a thick, ribbed steel fence along the urban stretch of the border and stationed about 550 Border Patrol agents here. That too brought money.

Mr. HOWARD HENDERSON (Owner of Two Local Radio Stations in Douglas, Arizona) Now we have from what I understand is the world's largest - probably the most expensive - Border Patrol station ever, you know?

ROBBINS: Howard Henderson owns two local radio stations in Douglas. He and a group of businessmen meet daily after work at the Warehouse, a local tavern.

Unidentified Man: He's just graduated, eighth grade.

ROBBINS: Realtor and Developer Albert Varela says 60 to 90 percent of his sales are to Border Patrol agents.

Mr. ALBERT VARELA (Realtor and Developer, Douglas, Arizona): And that's been a big change.

ROBBINS: Varela is building new in an otherwise old town.

Mr. VARELA: I think we're offering them a product that we didn't - they didn't have before, you know? Which is new developments, new subdivisions with newer homes.

ROBBINS: Sweet, but the security buildup risks producing a sour backlash. Remember the immigrant boycott in the U.S. on May 1st? On that day, the people of Agua Prieta Sonora did not cross to shop.

Mayor Ray Borane.

Mayor BORANE: The local merchants here start shutting their stores down. And they didn't shut down in sympathy with them. They shut down because of the lack of traffic.

ROBBINS: Traffic, legal and illegal. On the border, both sides depend on it. But when your neighbor is 10 times larger, well, Keoki Skinner says there's an old saying.

Mr. SKINNER: When Agua Prieta gets a cold, Douglas gets pneumonia. Economically speaking, the U.S. side depends on the Mexican side.

ROBBINS: And it depends, at least partly, on illegal activity. Many residents in towns all along the U.S.-Mexican border say they welcome more security. At the same time, they're aware that it really is a sword that cuts both ways.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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