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In search of hope along the U.S.-Mexico border

A family mourns the loss of a husband, father, son

Published: Saturday, Oct. 6 2012 3:27 p.m. MDT

Julani Arsiniega talks with Father Gilbert Malu of the Church of the Immaculate Conception during their annual "Fiesta del Sol" in Douglas Ariz., Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012. The church is about a half mile from the Mexico/Arizona border but even with the proximity, residents report having very few problems from the Mexican side.

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

EDITOR'S NOTE: The death of former Provo resident and Border Patrol agent Nicholas Ivie has focused the nation's attention on the U.S.-Mexico border. Staff Writer Dennis Romboy has reported from the scene throughout the week. Today he looks at the challenges for families along the border.

DOUGLAS, Ariz. — A few blocks from the closely aligned 18-foot high iron posts that separate the United States and Mexico, Father Gilbert Malu conducted Mass in an open lot to kick off the Church of the Immaculate Conception's annual Fiesta del Sol fundraiser.

With the setting sun glowing red between scattered clouds, he told parishioners in Spanish the four-day event isn't as much about gathering funds as it is about gathering souls.

Malu has about 1,200 families in this congregation, one of three in Douglas for which he serves as pastor. He has seen what the drug trade and the violence can do to his members and others in this border town.

Just last week, he held a funeral Mass for a 24-year-old man who was shot to death just across the border in the sprawling Mexican city of Agua Prieta.

Malu doesn't know what the young man was involved in but said he was waiting for his father to pick him and his sister up when some men grabbed him. His body was found down the street.

This week, a woman came to him for money because her husband had been kidnapped. He's also ministering to another family whose son was abducted.

Malu says he can't ransom a kidnapped father or bring back a young man. But this Congo native who came to Arizona as a Catholic missionary in 1993 offers something:

"People need some sense of hope," he said.

In the high desert of southeastern Arizona, drug trafficking, gun smuggling, border security and immigration aren't issues to be argued in hallowed halls and presidential debates.

Here where the United States meets Mexico, those realities come to life. And death.

Nicholas Ivie

The family of slain U.S. Border Patrol agent Nicholas Ivie knows that firsthand now. The former Provo, Utah resident died patrolling a heavily traveled drug corridor in the rugged mountains between Douglas and Naco. They will gather to bury a loving husband, father, son this week.

It's not that they didn't know his life could be taken. But now the intersection of those vexing problems has pierced their souls.

"We never thought it would happen to us, but it did," said Ivie's brother Chris Ivie, who added with little solace that shootings along the border "seemed so rare."

Ivie was the third border agent killed in four years.

"There are more murders in a week in Tucson than we've had in Cochise County in four years," said Becky Orozco, a Cochise College history and political science professor.

Orozco grew up in the county and knows the border well. She wrote the curriculum for a border studies program at the college. She doesn't deny there are problems but says shootings tend to be magnified because of the intense national interest on the border.

Residents would rather not have the spotlight trained on them after incidents like the Ivie shooting. And their perspectives on life along the border are as diverse as the people here. Douglas and Naco are overwhelming Hispanic. Sierra Vista is mostly white with a large military presence at Fort Huachuca. Funky Bisbee is for hippies and people living off the grid.

Life on the line

One day from retirement and moving back to his native New York, Sierra Vista Police Chief Ken Kimmel is still hesitant to have his photo taken for a news story. "I don't want to be on the cartel hit list," he says. 

Richard Atkinson has lived in Naco, the border town near where Ivie was killed, for 50 years.

"It’s a dangerous area," he said. "There’s cartels fighting over this territory."

And he takes precautions to protect himself.

"I’m armed. We have weapons in our house. Pistols and rifles and shotguns and we lock the guns real well," he said.

Chicago transplant Jimmy Pionke owns a Jimmy's Hot Dog Company on Highway 92 in Bisbee, a popular eatery among border agents including Ivie. He lives on 12 acres less than a mile from the border. He said he's only seen an illegal immigrant once in the 11 years he has been there.

"Safest place I ever lived," he says while he and his wife, Pammy, serve up Chicago dogs and twice-baked spuds.

Pionke blames the media for portraying border towns as war zones. "It's not dangerous," he said. "Those of us who live here know if you don't go in the wrong place at the wrong time, you're just fine."

At the Douglas port of entry, thousands of people move across the border daily without incident. Mexican citizen Rodolfo Gonzalez walks his two American citizen children Kevin, 9, and Emily, 5, to school in Douglas every day. He describes the mood as "tranquilo."

A half-mile away, the church fiesta brings families together on a balmy evening. Residents say they don't live under a cloud of fear. They lead their lives like Americans do all over the country. On this night they're dining on homemade tacos and empanadas while watching young girls dance in frilly, colorful dresses.

The violence and drug running occurs in the mountains and hills around them, not in town.

Peace and violence

A woman waiting in line to buy $2 burritos at a weathered wooden booth says she wouldn't raise her children anywhere else. Her 27-year daughter has a college degree and is earning a master's online. Her son is headed to college.

Regardless of their sense of safety, border town residents agree it's not illegal immigrants looking for a better life that causes concern. Most of them don't linger. They head for points north.

The drug trade, they say, fuels the bloodshed.

"The reason it comes is because U.S. citizens are using it in huge quantities and are willing to pay the price," said Orozco, the college professor. "Until it changes, it's a cancer on society in Mexico. It's destroying whole (South and Latin American) countries."

Several mountain ranges with steep slopes descending into deep canyons run along the border in southeastern Arizona. They're favorite places for hikers and smugglers alike.

Border Patrol agents spread out through popular areas such as Ramsey Canyon, the hummingbird capital of the United States, warning hikers that their cars might be gone when they get back. Abandoned backpacks, water bottles, clothes and diapers litter the once pristine forests. Unattended campfires have burned hundreds of those of acres.

The Border Patrol presence has increased dramatically the past few years. White and green trucks are posted along highways, dusty back roads and next to the wall.

Ivie is among more than 1,000 Border Patrol agents who have arrived to the Tucson district since 2008, which includes Cochise County, an area of 80 miles and part of the territory he patrolled. It's the result of Homeland Security, a need to secure the border with a wall and agents. Ivie came in January 2008.

Difficult questions

Whether the surge is working is a matter of perspective. And less certain is what to call it: Is it a drug war? An immigration war? A defense of American life and property?

For the Ivie family, the answer might lie in Nick Ivie's life of service. It doesn't matter what anyone labels the situation. He loved his country and served it proudly. But it didn't matter what side of the fence people lived on.

His Mormon mission to Mexico City taught him to love Mexican people, family members said. They recounted how as a border patrol agent he once carried a pregnant border crosser wearing rags on her feet a mile and a half to medical care.

Irene Rojas watched the border wall go up a few hundreds yards from her house in Douglas.

"We have border patrol going around here like crazy, so they're there. They're there for us," she said.

Retired corrections officer and one of the self-described Bisbee "dropouts" George Coppedge says that bothers some people: "I think this whole border protection might be overkill. I see a lot of wasted money," he said standing in front of the expanded and newly dedicated Brian A. Terry Border Patrol Station in Bisbee. Terry died in a shootout along the border in 2010.

Orozco says increased enforcement isn't going to work. If it wasn't so politicized, she said, people could look at the real range of the problem and put up the resources to address it.

Opportunities for young people in Douglas are scarce. The Border Patrol, the state prison on the outskirts of town and the local school district are the largest employers.

Pedro Miranda, 24, contemplated his future while eating tacos at the fiesta with his girlfriend and her mother. He earned a certificate in automotive repair but doesn't want to be a mechanic his entire life. He's thinking about applying to the Border Patrol. But Ivie's death weighs on his mind.

"What worries me is being out in the desert," he said.

What worries Father Gilbert Malu is young men being in the desert for the wrong reasons, caught up in a vicious business that tears them from their families or leaves them for dead.

And when that happens, the fallout often lands on his doorstep.

"It is tough," Malu said. "There are so many families that struggle."

All he can do, he says, is turn them toward Christ.

He helps them see "the difference God makes in our life." He urges them to keep fighting for good. He prays with them, and he asks God to soften the hearts of the abductors and lead bad men "to come to their senses."

That sense of hope Malu tries to instill in his parishioners will be evident this week in the lives of another family dealing with the tragic intersection of these real-life issues.

Ivie's brothers talked about relying on a Heavenly Father to get their family through the fallen agent's death, and will do so again at his funerals in Arizona on Monday and in Utah on Thursday. Their Mormon faith teaches them that Nick and Christy Ivie and their two daughters will be together again. It teaches them to hope for a brighter day.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com Twitter: dennisromboy

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