NOGALES, Arizona—They found the first drug tunnel in 1995 near an old abandoned church. The church is gone now, replaced by a Burger King, but the tunnels keep coming.
More than 110 have been discovered snaking from Mexico into the city of Nogales since then, says Tony Estrada, the Santa Cruz County sheriff, who expects more to come.
“It doesn’t really stop,” he said.
The day after Attorney General Jeff Sessions toured the border at Nogales (without media), Estrada took The Daily Beast for a short drive along the burnt-red metal fence that stretches for miles between the southern border of Arizona and the northern Mexico state of Sonora.
The sky was clear, the fence was quiet, and the handful of Border Patrol agents standing around an SUV a ways away from us looked calm, relaxed, and maybe a little bored. Estrada noted all of this—the perfect zero-humidity, 80-degree weather; the calm.
It’s nothing like what Donald Trump described on the campaign trail.
Estrada, a Democrat who gave Bernie Sanders a tour of the fence during the Democratic primary, has spent 50 years working in law enforcement on the border. And he’s an inconvenient figure for the president’s law-and-order message. While Trump billed has himself as every cop’s dream come true throughout his entire campaign and now into his presidency, Estrada views him as completely ignorant about his signature issue, immigration. And he sees Sessions—a former U.S. attorney who spent 20 years in the Senate before becoming attorney general—as a babe in the woods when it comes to the border.
And while Arizona’s most famous sheriff is the now-defeated Joe Arpaio, who stumped for Trump, Estrada has found himself in a different kind of spotlight: perpetually having to explain to outsiders that Trump doesn’t, in fact, speak for all Arizona sheriffs.
Estrada said President Trump and Sessions’s strategy to fight the cartels there is based on a myth that he’s heard for decades: that if there are enough raids and crackdowns and checkpoints and barricades and arrests, the drug smugglers will give up.
“We created the cartels because of the demand that we have here,” Estrada said.
As long as Americans want drugs, he said, the cartels will oblige. Estrada isn’t alone in this view. In background conversations with The Daily Beast, numerous federal law-enforcement agents have shared the same sentiment: that the only thing that could seriously, permanently weaken the cartels that have increasing power in northern Mexico would be Americans doing less heroin and meth. As long as Americans buy drugs—increasingly, drugs laced with dangerous synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil—the cartels will be around. And it’s an emerging consensus that helped fuel the backlash to Trump’s proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act—legislation that would have eliminated the requirement that government-subsidized health-insurance policies include coverage for addiction treatment. The bill generated so much controversy, it didn’t even get a vote on the House floor.
The new tough-on-immigration approach to the cartels may have an easier time in Congress, where Republicans are loath to oppose funding hikes for defense, immigration personnel, and law enforcement. Sessions and Trump are selling their fight with cartels as battle to take on invading forces who poisoned Americans because of Obama’s feckless border enforcement. The way to vanquish them, in their view, is more law enforcement and more border security: thousands of new border patrol agents, Reaganite priorities for federal prosecutors, a big beautiful wall.
Sessions used bellicose language the day before to describe Americans’ relationship to cartels.
“When we talk about MS-13 and the cartels, what do we mean?” the attorney general said. “We mean international criminal organizations that turn cities and suburbs into warzones, that rape and kill innocent civilians and who profit by smuggling poison and other human beings across our borders. Depravity and violence are their calling cards, including brutal machete attacks—even beheadings.”
“They threaten the very integrity of our nations in our hemisphere,” he added.
But in Estrada’s view, that threat wouldn’t exist without the eager complicitness of the millions of Americans who buy what the cartels sell. And the cartels, as he sees them, aren’t completely lawless; they’re beholden entirely to one law: the Law of Supply and Demand. In his view, no wall will be able to stop the cartels from just giving Americans what they want. As border security became more professionalized over the last two decades or so, he said, drug smuggling got professionalized too—hence, the rise of the cartels. The wall will just make them more resourceful.
“I don’t know if it will make them stronger,” he said. “I just think they’ll be more creative. They’ll probably corrupt more people on both sides of the border.”