About the U.S.-Mexican Border Fence in Nogales, AZ

Around the time I started writing my Border Patrol novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, I figured a research trip to the southwestern border would be a good idea. So in June 2003 I flew down to Arizona for two weeks. I arrived in Tucson, rented a white Jeep Wrangler and headed south on Interstate 19 (with the top down, natch) to Nogales, Arizona, where I had already decided a good part of my novel would take place.

Below is a photo of the international border fence I took during that visit. It was my first experience ever at the U.S. – Mexican border. (I re-create the experience fictitiously through the eyes of my protagonist, Billy Maddox, in my novel.)

The U.S. - Mexican Border Fence in Nogales, AZ (2003)

The U.S. – Mexican Border Fence in Nogales, AZ (2003)

When I was there more than a decade ago, the border fence, or “la linea”, was made of corrugated steel plates that used to be parts of landing mats from the Vietnam and the first Gulf Wars.

Differences Between Border Fences

It’s ugly as sin; establishing that fact requires only simple observation. In a 2011 article in the Christian Science Monitor, a citizen of Nogales related her experience growing up before the landing mat fence was raised. Before 1994, a 2.8-mile stretch of border through and beyond Nogales was marked by a simple chain-link fence through which, as the author Lourdes Medrano points out, citizens on both sides could peer and observe the way life was lived in the other country.

Subscribe to The Write Place using the box in the right column.

That opportunity clearly was not a priority for those who raised the steel mat fence. As if the fence wasn’t bad enough, and it’s not easy to see in my photograph, but three lines of barbed wire run along the top of the fence to deter climbers. One problem for line agents as a result of this fence has been that they became vulnerable to attacks from the other side. You can’t see anything through the steel fence. Up until a few years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for agents to get hit by large rocks thrown from the other side.

Ms. Medrano, the author of the Christian Science Monitor article, also wrote casually about how, when the chain-link fence was in place, citizens from both side of the border could casually slip through, not for illegal migration purposes necessarily, but for the purposes of experiencing and appreciating the culture on the other side of the city.

Nogales is actually a city cut in half by the border, which could understandably make people inclined to want to visit friends and family on the other side of the fence.

Another curiosity about her article is the accompanying image of the fence. Here’s the link again. In her photo, the fence is painted into a cheerful, colorful mural. That differs significantly from and likely came later than the date of my photograph, which shows a drab, mud-brown slash in the earth that seems to suck all light and positive feeling from the accompanying landscape.

Border Fences: Bad for Business?

When I toured the DeConcini port of entry in Nogales in 2003, the customs officer showing me around pointed out how when the landing mat fence went up in 1994, local businesses, especially those on nearby Morley Avenue, were incredibly unhappy that the horrible aesthetics would create a distasteful environment and drive potential customers away.

When I pointed out to my guide how the composition of the fence nearest the port of entry changed from the steel plates to a sandstone-like wall with squares of aqua-blue glass, he smiled and agreed that aesthetic demands meant that something more attractive than the steel mats was necessary in an area populated by large numbers of people.

Subscribe to The Write Place using the box in the right column.

Presumably, that would have been little consolation to the shop owners on Morley Avenue, a few blocks away, who still had to deal with the fence looming over their businesses from the nearby rock and scrub-covered hills, or to the citizens of the hilly Buenos Aires colonia on the Mexican side of the fence.

A New Border Fence: Bigger and Better?

This fence–the one I saw in 2003–was replaced just three years ago by a taller one the U.S. government claims will be both more secure and also safer for Border Patrol agents patrolling the line. The newer fence is taller than the last one and has a metal sheet at the top that makes it fairly impossible to climb.

The new Nogales fence is bollard style, meaning it is composed of a line of vertical posts set close together but which still allows people to see through to the other side. That at least provides something of a return to Ms. Medrano’s earlier days when she and citizens on the other side of the fence could see how life was lived on the other side.

From the U.S. government’s point of view, the increased safety for line agents comes from the fact that you can now see what was happening on the other side and who is there. In 2012, the Nogales International news outlet reported that, at the one-year anniversary of the new fence, assaults on agents were down and communications between both sides of the border were up.

Subscribe to The Write Place using the box in the right column.

Fences come and fences go on the U.S.-Mexican border. But in many respects, for security, safety and aesthetics, things would seem to be moving in a positive direction.

About Joe Kovacs

I write literary fiction and am currently pursuing literary representation for my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, which is about a young Border Patrol agent in southern Arizona. Subscribe to The Write Place Blog by submitting your email address in the box in the right column of this page.
This entry was posted in Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, Border. Bookmark the permalink.