They spent ten winters hunting quail in the sun. But those halcyon days ended last week for Terrie and Glen Stoller. Smugglers — armed, numerous, and brazen — have frightened them off their southeast Arizona property.
The couple is selling their home, 45 miles north of the Mexican border in the notorious Chiricahua Corridor.
“Last winter,” says Terrie, “as we walked the hills looking for quail with our dogs, I kept thinking, ‘What if we come upon a drug encampment? What’s going to happen to us?’ I carry a camera, my husband carries a 12-gauge for quail, and we have four hunting dogs. It’d be the end of us. It’d be no contest against drug runners carrying rifles and big weapons.”
Glen likens the family to frontier homesteaders loading a wagon and returning home. “Cochise has won,” he says, referring to the Apache chief who made the Chiricahua Mountains his homeland. “The Indians are running us off.”
I drove out to the Stoller place for moving day. Their winter retreat is a modest, Santa Fe-style manufactured home west of Highway 80, at the mouth of Horseshoe Canyon.
The couple, both 71, made a party of their last hours in Arizona. Terrie had lunch ready for dear friends who came to help pack. Others drove to the barbed wire fence around the property, threw their arms wide and said, “Let’s have a goodbye hug.”
It was a sad day, made more so by events in Washington.
At the precise moment Americans citizens were saying a wrenching farewell to their friends and property, President Obama stood on the White House lawn and listened as Mexican President Felipe Calderón criticized SB 1070, Arizona’s own effort to deal with a state under siege.
Obama offered no correction or objection, and what a shock to see an American president acquiesce to a foreign leader’s interference in the affairs of sovereign Arizona.
But Obama and his cabinet have had plenty to say about SB1070 on other occasions, and most of it has been nakedly political, uninformed, and demagogic.
The day after the Stollers’ move, we were treated to a second spectacle – Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives, most of them, standing to cheer as Calderón repeated his slanders against Arizona.
Do we even need to mention the shameful treatment by the government of Mexico of migrants passing through that country — the rapes, beatings, and robberies to which they’re routinely subjected?
Do we need to mention Mexico practically shoving its people out of the country to take advantage of their hard labors here, and the billions they send back to shore up the economic and human rights basket case Calderón oversees?
The hypocrisy bends the mind.
Finally, this week, two months after Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and Republican Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl asked for help to defend the state’s border, the president agreed to send “up to 1,200″ National Guard troops and request $500 million in supplemental spending for added security measures.
More money is always welcome, but everything hinges on how it is spent. The troop commitment is more symbolic than real, and the details here are critical, too. How many of the “up to 1,200″ will be sent to Arizona? Our border with Mexico is 380 miles long. Our representatives asked for 3,000 soldiers in Arizona alone.
Will the National Guard be stationed right on the line, with bullets in their guns and the authority to defend themselves? Almost certainly not. The border is a “combat zone,” says T.J. Bonner, head of the Border patrol agents’ union, too dangerous even for Border Patrol.
You read that correctly. Without armored vehicles to protect them, Bonner opposes putting Border Patrol agents on the border itself.
But the Stollers and friends kept Washington’s alternate reality far away this day. They worked, chatted, and reminisced as the moving trucks filled up. It was a blue-sky morning in this rural valley on the Arizona-New Mexico line.
The landscape here is among the Southwest’s most beautiful, big beyond imagining, with waving grasses, dirt roads that never end, and hidden canyons that twist through the Chiricahuas and their sister mountains, the Peloncillos, on the New Mexico side.
But smugglers of both people and drugs now control those ranges, and these dangerous men have transformed life here. Some residents carry weapons inside their houses. Others grab a firearm to step out to the garage or the storage shed, or to go to the market.
The Stollers own a nursery in California and grow grapevines for farmers and wineries. When they began wintering in Arizona, they never locked their doors, even though they encountered illegals who’d ask for water or food, sending Glen to the fridge for leftovers.
“We didn’t feel it was our job to turn them in. We felt sorry for them,” says Terrie. “Work is hard to find in Mexico, and they’re just trying to feed their families.”
But that began to change several years ago as break-ins mounted, with reports of guns stolen. The Stollers themselves were broken into in May last year and again in June, and in January, a retired couple living a mile north suffered a home invasion by two illegals, one carrying a machete.
“It all built up,” says Terrie. “The Apache School was being totally ruined and trashed and everything taken out of it. Then Rob Krentz was killed March 27, and he was just down the road.”
One of Terrie’s pressing fears was for her beloved Llewellin setter hunting dogs.
At night, the animals would often respond to a coyote and charge out the doggie door to investigate. Terrie says she’d lie awake listening for their return, hoping she wouldn’t have to “go out and find them with a bullet in them next morning.”
“It didn’t happen, thank goodness,” she says. “But we didn’t want it to happen, and we became fearful enough we finally said, ‘That’s it. We can’t stay.’”
The Stollers could be forgiven for harboring bitterness. But it’s not in their nature. Terrie acknowledges feeling some anger, although her primary emotion is sadness.
“We don’t know who to blame,” she says. “Is it the government’s fault? Is it people taking drugs in America? Is it Mexico for allowing it to happen? There’s no use blaming anyone. It’s just a sad state of affairs. We’ve met so many wonderful people in Arizona, and we’re just keeping our fingers crossed nothing happens to them.”
In one respect, the Stollers are fortunate. They’ve found a likely buyer, a fellow who grew up here and wants to return to the valley in retirement. Selling the place through a real estate agent to someone just coming in, without local ties, would’ve been impossible.
“Nobody in their right mind would even look at it, knowing what’s going on here,” says Terrie.
Property values are plunging across the borderlands. I got an e-mail last week from retired Cochise County judge Rich Winkler, 71, who always dreamed of owning a cattle ranch. He lives outside Rodeo, six miles from the Stollers and fifty miles north of the Mexican line.
His ranch is in the Peloncillos. Here is what he wrote:
Mary and I have worked all our life to pay for this place, and now they tell me it is worth nothing because no one will buy it. I don’t blame them. Helen Snyder sells real estate in the area and she said that since Rob’s death, the market is dead it the water. I can’t believe my country would leave me high and dry like this.
If the heartbreak Winkler feels doesn’t leap from those words, read them again. Heartbreak is everywhere here, every day.
Wendy Glenn, with husband Warner, lives on a ranch right on the border east of Douglas, and she’s a throwback, as tough as they make them. But she choked up likening the Stollers’ moving day to a funeral.
As she carried boxes out to the truck, Glenn said, “This is God’s country, and it’s being taken away from us.”
Leo W. Banks covers the border for the Tucson Weekly.