The U.S.-Mexico Border's 150 Miles of Hell
Credit: Photograph by Peter van Agtmael

In late 2010, after the ninth corpse or body part had been discovered on his ranch in a span of 12 months, David Lowell sat down and drafted a document that he later took to calling, with a grain of dark pride, "my map of atrocities." Lowell lives in southern Arizona, 11 miles north of Mexico, in a hinterland canyon in the middle of the busiest drug- and human-smuggling corridor in the United States. Lowell's map, "Sites of Recent Border Violence Within the Atascosa Ranch," renders the ranch boundary as a thick black line. Inside the line glow 17 red dots, each stamped with a number. Among the descriptions in the corresponding key: "Rape tree with women's underwear" (2); "Fresh human head without body" (3); "Skull" (3A); "Body found 500 yards west of Lowell home" (6); "Body found 100 yards south of Lowell home" (7); and "Patrolman Terry killed by Mexican bandits" (12).

Lowell, who is 84, has owned and run the Atascosa Ranch for more than 35 years. He is slight and chalk-pallid but possessed of a steady vigor. He handed me a copy of the map in his office before taking me on a tour of the ranch. "In the case of the human head," Lowell said as I was examining the map, "one of our cowboys came to the house holding a Safeway bag and said, 'You wanna see something interesting?' And I said, 'Sure,' and I opened the bag and inside there was a fairly fresh human head. Meat. Fresh-looking meat."

After telling the cowboy, Martin, to put the head back exactly where he'd found it, Lowell called the Santa Cruz County sheriff's office. Neither the responding deputies nor Lowell nor Martin could find a corpse. Eventually, the county medical examiner matched the head to the remains of a body recovered a mile away. The deceased was an illegal immigrant who had probably been abandoned by his guide and died of hunger or exposure. Animals had dissected his corpse.

About five years earlier, the Sinaloa Cartel, one of Mexico's most powerful drug-­trafficking organizations, had assumed control of the smuggling corridor, which runs from Nogales to Phoenix and is roughly 8,000 square miles. All of the human smugglers work for the cartel now. ("The days of the independent coyote are gone," several locals told me.) Decapitated enemies and illegal immigrants left to die are the detritus of a newly disciplined, unitary system.

The Nogales–Phoenix corridor is one of the roughest, least-accessible swaths of land along the U.S.–Mexico border. It became the Sinaloa Cartel's primary trafficking route not long after the 9/11 attacks, when "border security" was a touchstone phrase and lawmakers worried that bomb-bearing terrorists posing as illegal immigrants would exploit the country's permeable southwestern border. The Department of Homeland Security sought to move beyond mere deterrence and achieve "operational control" of the border. It assigned the Border Patrol a special "priority mission": to prevent "terrorists and terrorists' weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, from entering the United States." Legislation in 2004 and 2006 provided funding for 10,000 additional Border Patrol agents, mandated 700 miles of new fencing, and authorized the deployment of advanced surveillance systems: laser range finders, mobile ground radar, unmanned aerial vehicles, infrared cameras.

The technology and agents are in place, and much of the fence is complete, but the new tactics seem to have rerouted illicit traffic as much as decreased it. With superior fencing and detection equipment, and a recent burst of manpower, DHS has successfully shielded populated areas and shut down some major trafficking routes. Elsewhere, though, agents are scarcer, and the new fence is not continuous or uniform: Pedestrian fencing alternates with vehicle barriers and long stretches of open border. Much of the Nogales–Phoenix corridor is, in any event, so mountainous as to be unfenceable, and its isolation and immensity make it inimical to law enforcement. As DHS selectively tightened the border and drug seizures increased, the cartel moved into the corridor. The infrastructure and counter-­surveillance systems it has established there make its operations virtually ineradicable. It now ships an enormous volume of narcotics through the corridor each year, including as much as a quarter of all the marijuana that enters the United States.

Lowell occasionally sees smugglers hiking through canyons on the ranch. There are typically 10 porters and two armed guards. "They're very often a matched team, all about the same size, muscular and in good condition. Our policy is to turn off at a right angle or go back the way we'd come. I've had one or two experiences where I've thought, 'Somebody might really take a shot at us.'"

It is unlikely that a trafficker would deliberately shoot at a U.S. citizen. The more attention traffickers attract, the less efficient they become, and cartel bosses prioritize efficiency. "The Sinaloa Cartel includes some of the best entrepreneurs of all time," a senior DEA agent based in Tucson told me. "These guys know how to make billions of dollars better than anybody." They prefer their assault rifles to be used against bandits.

Confrontations between traffickers and bandits, or "rip crews," account for most of the violence here. When bandits become too disruptive, the cartel reportedly deploys teams of assassins. In 2010, a sheriff in Florence received an intelligence report from the DHS: Cartel leaders planned to send "a group of 15 very well-equipped and armed sicarios [assassins]" into the Vekol Valley, south of Phoenix. A month later, two men were killed there, in what appeared to be a sicario ambush.

We left the office, taking with us Lowell's springer spaniels, Ginger and Spook. The Sonoran monsoon had greened the canyon. Lowell's house, built of stone and 100-year-old adobe, stands above the canyon's wash, which had just received a braid of water. To the west, the canyon climbs into the foothills of the Atascosa Mountains. To the east, it widens into a valley that approaches the Santa Rita Mountains.

Lowell said that the cartel had scouts on mountaintops across the ranch. "I'm sure people will be watching us today," he said.

I said that must be disturbing.

"Oh, we kind of forget about it," he said. "But one of the dilemmas we do run into is that, fairly often, we see groups coming past our house – maybe a hundred feet away."

Until recently, Lowell and his wife, Edith, reported these sightings to the Border Patrol. "But after 2010 – 14 dead bodies, or people shot at, or people killed – we're not quite so enthusiastic about calling," he said. In the last two years, unknown assailants shot and killed an Arizona rancher named Rob Krentz and a New Mexico landowner named Larry Link. Rumors along the border hold that they were murdered in retaliation for reporting drug activity.

Edith, who had been running errands in Nogales, pulled up to the house and came over to say hello. "There was a helicopter hovering over the ridge, and two cars stopped where I drove in, and two female Border Patrol agents were out of their vehicle," she said. "So, a little action today." She told us to have a good time and walked inside.

The helicopter returned and hovered at the end of the Lowells' driveway. The Border Patrol had increased its presence in the canyon after bandits killed an agent named Brian Terry in December 2010 (number 12 on Lowell's map), but until then traffickers had used the intersection of the driveway and a county road, Avenida Beatriz, as a vehicle-staging area.

The concentration of agents has just pushed traffic into adjacent canyons, Lowell said. "The cartel is still bringing drugs down this canyon on a regular basis."

We climbed into his SUV and started down the driveway, immediately passing the ranch junkyard and hay barn. Loads of dope had been found in both places on multiple occasions. Border Patrol agents once found paraphernalia in the hay barn; a drug mule had been smoking marijuana out of a soda-can pipe. "Which was not optimal from our point of view," Lowell said, "because of the risk of fire."

One night Edith found a car parked in the middle of the driveway. Annoyed, she approached it. "To her horror, the trunk was open and two fellows were filling it with marijuana," Lowell said. "They looked at her, and she looked at them, until they'd gotten all the marijuana in the car and rode off."

We passed the Border Patrol SUV at the end of the driveway and began a steep climb up the canyon ridge. The road turned to dirt and the ridge narrowed. Ravines fell away on either side. In all directions sharp canyonlands stretched to spurred foothills and peaks. It was a landscape human beings should be moving around, not through. Sheriff's deputies sometimes had to be lowered into it by helicopter.

"One dead body was over there," Lowell said, stopping and indicating a point on a ridge. "Between there and our canyon were two others. The human head was found near where that road disappears. A second human head was found in the last year in about the same place. But it was an older head, more of a skull. We have one rape tree" – where the smugglers rape women they're guiding – "that I know about. But we have a neighbor who likes everything tidy, and she went up and collected all the women's underwear."

Two friends of Lowell's, out hiking southwest of the ranch, had found a tree with 32 pairs of women's underwear hanging from its branches.

"Some of them showed signs of having been there for a year or two," Lowell said. "It was a repeated rape site. There's some really bad people involved in this."

Later, back at the house, Edith joined us in the living room. The windows afford a view of the wash and the ridge beyond. I asked if it was hard to relax in the evenings.

"Well, we're careful to pull the curtains," she said.

"And we automatically lock all the doors," Lowell said. "We have a sophisticated alarm system with motion-sensing lights and three sirens, and we have guns."

Someone had tried to break into their bedroom once, but the dogs had scared him off. Six men had snuck up to the house and demanded money and food from Lowell's secretary, but she'd run them off with the dogs, too. A few years earlier, they had hosted an event for a state representative who was looking into the trafficking situation. Edith told the representative that drug carriers walked right by the house, and pointed out a window. "And right then I looked out, and here came a group of drug mules," Lowell told me. "In our yard! Fifty feet from the house. And they didn't pay any attention to us. They just hiked by with their packs."

One night, he said, Ginger started growling, and when he let her out she stopped on the porch and pointed. "I pretended that her head was a rifle sight, and I got behind her and sighted between her ears and over her nose. Soon two fellows walked through a gap in the bushes. Maybe 150 feet away."

"If Ginger starts barking loudly, we know there's someone around," Edith said. "Once in a while we hear noises getting closer, and our lights go on, and we get alarmed enough to get up and look out. Otherwise, we have peaceful evenings."