The Branded And The Stranded
One morning back in September, a cowboy in southern Arizona found a human skull in the desert near the Mexican border.
This cell-phone photo of the skull was taken minutes before the sheriff arrived with his own camera and brown paper evidence bag.
TEXT AND PHOTOS BY JAMES MARTIN
One morning back in September, a cowboy in southern Arizona found a human skull in the desert near the Mexican border. Over the years, our cowboy, a man named Scott, had seen two complete bodies as well as a number of loose rib cages and arm bones in the brush. Running across human remains out on the range wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary for him. The land where he grazes his cattle, the eastern edge of the Sonoran Desert outside Nogales, is both one of the harshest physical environments in the continental US and one of the most heavily trafficked points of entry for illegal immigrants from Mexico. Last year, officials there recovered the bodies of at least 230 migrants who had died trying to make it into the state, many of them through this treacherous stretch of border.
I gave Scott a call and asked him if I could join him in a cattle roundup to see what it’s like out there, and he said sure.
All of the black cattle are Brangus breed. The white cow and her calf crossed the US-Mexico barbed-wire border in search of greener grass
A few days later at dawn we set out on horseback. There were seven cowboys and myself. As we rode up a narrow valley a few minutes south of his ranch, a Border Patrol agent in a pressed green uniform stepped out from under a mesquite tree.
“Our sensors detected some heavy traffic ahead and we’re waiting in ambush,” he told us as another agent with a walkie-talkie stomped over through the grass. It was obvious that our presence would disrupt their ambush and since we had work to do anyway, we continued on down the valley.
The breed of cattle we were out to wrangle were Brangus—a hybrid of Indian Brahman and Scottish Angus. The cows are bred to combine the Angus’s stocky build with the Brahman’s genetic resistance to heat and disease, which helps them cope with the sweltering Arizona summers. The ranch we were working for rears only black-haired Brangus, so I was a little surprised when we finally came on our cattle and I noticed a white-haired cow and her calf casually grazing in the midst of the herd.
This group was apprehended and handcuffed by the US Border Patrol around 8 AM. A Border Patrol helicopter had spotted them in Potrero Canyon, near Meadow Hills Estates.
“That cow comes from our neighbor just on the other side of the border,” Scott explained to me. “The Mexican cattle come through holes that smugglers and coyotes [Mexican men who serve as border-crossing guides] cut in the barbed-wire fence. We kick them back over and repair the hole, but they just keep walking the fence until they find another opening. Their ranch’s land is overgrazed and the owner doesn’t have enough help to herd them in. They’ll be back again next week.”
Arizona has been one of the biggest flash points in the fight over illegal immigration. Despite the state taking up only about a fifth of the overall US-Mexico border, the Department of Homeland Security estimates that more than half of all illegal entries come across its southern edge. The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (the creepier, more militant splinter of the Minuteman Project), headquartered in Scottsdale, built ten miles of border fencing on a nearby supporter’s ranch in early 2006. And when Congress passed the Secure Fence Act later that year, ordering the DHS to put up 700 miles of double-layered fence by the end of 2008, the majority of the barrier was set to run across the bottom of Arizona. So far they’ve finished 76 miles.
These cowboys are flanking a large calf. The calf will be castrated, branded, vaccinated, cut, and tagged before it stands again.
I asked one of the cowboys I was riding with what he thought of the fence. “If anything, it might help this section of pasture,” he told me. “But a lot of the land out here is just too steep and out-of-the-way to build anything on.”
The argument for the fence is pretty cut and dry: Put it up, no one comes in. But opponents contend that rather than curbing the flow of illegals into the US, the gap-ridden fence will simply redirect migrants into more remote and hazardous routes. In addition to the danger of trekking through the Sonoran on foot or in the back of a crowded truck, a series of recent US Border Patrol crackdowns on entries has driven up the cost of being smuggled into the States. This has led to increasing rivalry between smuggling gangs and to the emergence of bajadores, basically pirates who steal other smugglers’ cargo (i.e., people). And even if neither the desert nor the bajadores get you, there’s still the chance of running into the well-armed drug runners who often use the same smuggling trails.
Considering all the problematic ambiguities of the human-immigrant situation, I was happy to put it out of mind and deal with the black-and-white matter of the migrant cattle. After herding the Brangus back to the ranch, we locked them all in the corral and called it a day.
The next morning we set out again at five. We rode south toward Potrero Canyon searching for the black Brangus. The road runs along the western side of one of the more upscale neighborhoods of Nogales. From the top of a hill we heard the echo of gunshots and saw a helicopter in the distance circling low over the valley. “The gunshots are coming from the Border Patrol’s firing range,” one of the cowboys explained. A minute later he said, “Looks like they found something down here.” Below us in the valley, six border-crossers stood handcuffed between a pair of Border Patrol trucks. Two agents were talking with the migrants while a third stowed an assault rifle in the back of his truck and took off. The agents said hi to us as we passed and carried on with their questioning.
Old man Jesus is 73 years old. He has outlived two of his wives and is married to a third. He has between 10 and 12 children, but he doesn’t know the exact number. Here he is bringing a pair of huevos to a clear plastic bag of balls that hangs on the fence
Back at the corral that day, two cowboys were roping calves in preparation for their entry into steerhood. They lasso the hind legs or the neck, then make a few quick wraps around their saddle horn and tow the calf over into the shade. Once in the shade, another cowboy runs up and grabs the underside of the calf. He grapples the calf down onto its side and shoves his knee into its exposed hip, then he grabs the front left leg and pulls it into multiple bends. This maneuver is called flanking.
While the first guy is holding the front leg, another cowboy slides in and spreads the calf’s hind legs, bracing them apart with his knees. Now the calf is pinned and exposed. That’s when an old cowboy named Jesus comes over with his knife. As he passes the calf’s head he slices off the tip of its left ear (this helps the cowboys identify their own cattle). The old man then moves down to the calf’s crotch, where he pinches the empty scrotum and slices it off. After discarding the nut sack, the old man forces his hand up into the open groin, grips the calf’s white, retracted testicles in his knuckles, and yanks them out. He then cuts the balls at their stems and drops them in a plastic bag tacked to the fence with the rest of the day’s gonads. We’ll be having huevos de becerro for lunch today.
This cut and welded “Normandy-style” vehicle barrier, made out of recycled train track, extends across California Gulch. From here, it is about a three-hour drive down multiple dirt roads to reach the nearest interstate.
While all this is happening, another cowboy punches a plastic tag through the calf’s right ear and injects the neck of the calf with a general vaccine. The old man walks back from the fence carrying a metal branding iron with a bright orange Z at the end. He pushes the iron onto the calf’s back left hip and gently rocks it for four seconds, then does the same to its left shoulder. The smoke smells like burning hair and grilled beef.
One of the cowboys tosses an ashy powder on the open wound where the scrotum used to be and then the calf is released. It kicks itself up to its feet and makes a few spastic bounds before calming down and heading back to the corner of the pen with the rest of the calves. They do this to 40 or 50 calves over the course of the day.
A view to the west along the US-Mexico border taken from Nogales, Mexico. This section of fence is made of military-surplus landing pad from the Gulf War.
Coming up with a similarly efficient way of distinguishing legal residents from intruders in the herd has been a recurrent problem for the official wranglers of human cattle. The DHS’s attempt to institute a national ID card for citizens in 2005 has been opposed by the legislatures of all but one border state (California). The same year, under the auspices of speeding up the flow of people at border checkpoints, the DHS tested out visas equipped with radio-frequency ID tags to be carried at all times by visitors to the US. The dual ports of entry in Nogales were two of those chosen for the experiment, with the RFID tag functioning in the same way as an EZ Pass toll card, albeit one that would allow the government to keep tabs on any alien in the country. Last February, however, DHS secretary Michael Chertoff announced that the tags had proven unfeasible and the whole project was being scrapped for the time being.
On the third day we headed southeast toward the border at California Gulch after another long morning roundup. After about an hour on unkempt dirt roads, a couple of serious-looking Border Patrol agents pulled up alongside us in a green buggy. The one on the passenger side held a high-powered rifle with the lens cover on the scope pushed aside for viewing. We explained that we were on our way to take pictures of the new section of border fence that had been constructed out of old train track. They replied with their best expressionless stares and eventually allowed us to continue.
The dirt road we were on ran through the barbed-wire fence and continued past the pieces of recycled train-track welded into a vehicle barrier, over a dry creek bed, and on into Mexico. There’s a cute little irony in the use of old means of transportation to cut off new ones (large portions of the fence in Nogales are made out of surplus landing pad from the first Gulf War), but I suspect it’s probably lost on the migrants who scramble their way through and around these barriers trying to get to a patch of greener grass.