The Town that Time Forgot

Highway 8 leaps out of the Cortez Sea and heads straight to the US, bends at the international border and doesn’t stop until Phoenix, AZ. Along the way it intersects 2 US interstates and avoids most population centers. Surrounding the route are desperate farmlands, a sparsely populated national monument, an untenable reservation and a bombing range. The only cities bisected by this paved path is Sonoyta, a border town located at the gate between freedom and desperation, Ajo/Why and Gila Bend. Very few inhabitants can be found along the lonely trail.

The drug cartels could not have picked a better transit hub, even if they were asked to do so. The route at night is dark and unlit. The few Border Patrol agents and Park Rangers that regularly haunt the sparse terrain on the US side keep a low profile and are hard pressed to cover so much territory. The crossing point at Lukeville, AZ is closed at night, locking the gate from midnight to 6 am. But that doesn’t mean that nothing goes on around route 8 at night. In fact, there is a lot of going around going on, and cartels have invested heavily to ensure that their narcotic loads continue unabated. Scouts occupy the high ground along the entire way, as far as 100 miles into the US, in order to coordinate the safe arrival of contraband substances into the land of dollar bills.

2015 was the most violent year on record for Sonoyta. 38 people were killed in a one month stretch from April to May. Inner-cartel gun battles and gangland enforcement wasn’t always the status quo in town. Sonoyta used to be a bustling border stop, where US residents could enjoy a dinner away from the ordinary or take a pit-stop on their way through to the tourist destination of Rocky Point. Rocky Point is still a premiere destination, but more for drug smugglers who bring their cargo ashore at the abandoned beaches of Rocky Point, before moving along to Agua Prieta and a handful of border crossing destinations. Sonoyta remains appealing to cartels, not only because of its sparse population and submissive obedience, but because of the 330,000 uninhabited acres of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on the US side, adjacent to the Tohono O’Odham Nation Reservation, which is larger in size than the state of Connecticut. US Federal Law enforcement is these areas is anemic and easily exploited by the network of cartel scouts and coordinators.

Bordertown violence is carefully controlled and rarely spills over to the US side. It is in the cartels best interest to keep it that way. But recent disturbing discoveries of stashes of assault rifles being found along the route has Arizona law enforcement concerned that weapons proliferation could be raising the stakes in the area. Most AZ State Troopers and Sheriffs officers may find themselves outgunned if they were to confront one of the many tractor-trailer loading/unloading operations. Border Patrol agents are already overwhelmed by the excessive case loads, illegal alien smuggling operations and poor top cover from US Government officials. A taller wall is unlikely to solve this problem. More law enforcement officials and better policy is needed to ensure border security and the safety for US citizens in their pursuit of happiness.

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If you are ever going to visit this route, consider the very specific threat warning the US Government put out regarding the area:

Sonora is a key region in the international drug and human trafficking trades and can be extremely dangerous for travelers. Travelers throughout Sonora are encouraged to limit travel to main roads during daylight hours. The region west of Nogales, east of Sonoyta, and from Caborca north, including the towns of Saric, Tubutama, and Altar, and the eastern edge of Sonora bordering Chihuahua, are known centers of illegal activity, and non-essential travel between these cities should be avoided.

The travel warning goes on to advise not to travel at night or stop along the way. While cartel violence has subsided for the moment in Sonoyta, it is likely a result of a negotiated truce amongst the Sinaloa cartel itself and could fall apart at any moment as the younger muscle will feel more and more disenfranchised by an aging leadership body that is under constant law enforcement surveillance. Many younger lieutenants may not feel like providing the respect that the older generation feels that they deserve. This is not unlike any other generational rivalry that exists everywhere.

Law enforcement within Sonoyta itself is scarce and follows the Mexican theme: Lower level, local municipal police are the most visible and also the most corrupt and likely to have some cartel affiliation or loyalty. The state police are less common areound town and are typically responsible for Sonora state affairs and also susceptible to co-option and corruption. The power base for state police is still tied to where the officers are from and as a result, creates pressure situations for them and enables favoritism. Federal police are the least common and least prone to corruption to work with the Sinaloa cartels in Sonoyta. Although it has been proven lately that any time federal police show up in town, a raid is about to take place or something extraordinary is about to occur. Very few of Sonoyta’s 10,000 residents would place full confidence in Federal Officers simply because they are from other states within the country.

Because of the delicate state of affairs surrounding the small town, outsiders typically are not trusted and locals generally keep to themselves, withholding social commentary and personal opinions. Recent murders of local law enforcement officials, journalists and human traffickers demonstrate that the town of Sonoyta is very much under the control of the Sinaloa cartel, who have invested heavily in keeping the commodities flowing all along route 8.

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