The U.S.-Mexico Border's 150 Miles of Hell
Credit: Photograph by Peter van Agtmael
Consider in that context the residents of the Silverbell Estates, arguably the most cartel-oppressed subdivision in the United States. An exurban isolate in the open desert of southern Pinal County, it is too remote for timely police response and is by design diffuse and unassuming. The streets, named for Greek gods and the signs of the Zodiac, are unlighted; the landscaping is muted; the faux-adobe homes sit on multi-acre lots. It is also almost perfectly centered in the corridor.

Not long ago, a resident of the Estates was surveying the desert landscape from his rooftop deck when he noticed a form on nearby Wildcat Peak. He examined it through binoculars he kept on the roof for viewing wildlife. A cartel scout was standing outside of a cave.

I heard this story at the home of a retiree named Pat Murphree. We were sitting at his dining room table, drinking iced tea with his wife, Pennee, and their neighbors, Jay Stewart and Sam Schreiner. At one end of the table a picture window framed Wildcat Peak. A telescope on a tripod pointed at the scout's cave, but you could see it clearly with a glance.

People here first became aware of the trafficking in 2007, when the sound of three-quarter-ton pickups bludgeoning their way through the desert began waking them up in the middle of the night. Running without lights, the trucks tore up the two-mile fence encircling the Estates.

"We repaired, what, 11 breaks in the fence about two years ago?" Murphree asked.

"About a quarter mile of fence, wasn't it?" Stewart said.

"And about a year ago, 14 breaks were repaired, and there's probably five or six of them out there now," Murphree said.

Residents called the Border Patrol and the sheriff's department, but the trucks were usually gone before they got there, and the traffic followed no pattern.

Stewart, a US Airways pilot, flies a single-prop plane recreationally, taxiing it out of his hybrid hangar-garage and onto a short unpaved runway. From the air he started spotting caches of goods in the desert. There were also pickups and SUVs camouflaged for future use or totaled and abandoned, jugs of gasoline, spare tires with mounted rims, cases of bottled water. He once landed near a Humvee, fully loaded with features, a Coach purse on the front seat.

"That was a guy's dream vehicle. He'd worked his butt off, owns a framing company, and here these SOBs steal it," Stewart said.

Dozens and dozens of vehicles were appearing in the desert, and the numbers haven't declined. "There's so many vehicles I've quit counting," Stewart said. He has found abandoned smugglers' vehicles at the end of his driveway and groups of illegal immigrants at the end of his runway. One day he took off, looked down, and saw 40 people.

"But that's what it's like living out here," he said. "You never know what's coming."

When he sees a group, he contacts the Border Patrol, sometimes staying up and "orbiting" the illegal immigrants, holding them in place until the agents arrive.

"So you've been an air asset of the Border Patrol?" I asked.

"More than once," he said. "But I moved down here to have fun, not to fight the drug cartel."

After the scout sighting, Pinal SWAT stormed and cleared Wildcat Peak, and Stewart and Murphree hiked to the cave and began cleaning it up.

"The trash, you can't imagine," Stewart said. "They'd been going up there at least six months, and you couldn't see it – they had it all covered with camo tarp."

"I think we took out 19 bags of trash," Murphree said. "That stuff stunk so bad."

"I was standing knee-deep in that rubbish pile," Stewart said. "It was all cans of menudo, and full of scorpions and black widows, and it was gag-a-maggot. It was bad."

There are also the casualties of human trafficking.

"They cram the pickup beds with people standing up and put a rope around them," Schreiner said. "And the sway of the bodies can bend the sides of the bed about 45 degrees. They lie on the cab roof, they lie on the hood, they take all the seats out."

About four years ago, just before dawn, in front of the big white stucco pillars of the subdivision's entrance, a pickup carrying 35 illegal immigrants took a turn too fast.

"I had to dodge dead bodies going to work that morning," Stewart said.

Murphree remembers seeing 26 people lying on the ground. Four of them, he could tell, were dead. Ten eventually died. Six rescue helicopters evacuated the dead and wounded. The helicopters had to queue up in the air. The cleanup took seven hours.

Early that evening, Murphree took me to visit Susan and Nathan Cary, who live at the southern edge of the Estates and are most exposed to the traffic. The Carys are children's advocates for an international organization called Compassion in Jesus' Name, whose motto is "Releasing Children From Poverty."

In their living room, they told me that they have always tried to feed and shelter illegal immigrants abandoned by their guides. It's become frightening, though. They have suffered break-ins, and they don't know whether the perpetrators are desperate immigrants, armed drug mules, or scouts. Of a man who showed up one winter, Nathan said, "He was cold, he was cold, and I thought, 'What am I going to do with him, this poor soul.' But you don't know who they are, who they're with."

One night, Nathan said, someone killed their dog. The animal's senses had shielded the property for many years. The killer had stabbed the dog in the eye with a fine-pointed object or shot it in the eye with an air gun, Nathan couldn't tell. He recognized the pointlessness of reporting the incident, but he felt that he should somehow mark the death of a loved creature.

"I don't feel safe walking here anymore," Susan said. "When we moved here, I walked all the time."

"I walk in the morning, but I take the dog, and I take a firearm," Nathan said.

They recently fenced in the property, which has helped hold down the number of people who come to the house unbidden. They keep the gate closed, but not locked.

"I'm not a hateful man, and if people want to come in because they need to, then they can," Nathan said. "The closed gate says, 'We're not expecting you, approach respectfully.'" Although they offer strangers the shelter of their covered front porch and food and water, they also call the Border Patrol. They will allow the house to be used as a comfort station, but not a refuge.

"When you're alone, it's unsettling, but when we're together we work as a team," ­Susan said. "He speaks more Spanish than I do, and I stay in here with the phone and the gun locked and loaded."

"So if I get knocked off, she'll make the call and have the gun ready," Nathan said.

When I left, he came out with me to open the gate and make sure I had my bearings. He held a rifle in one hand and a law-­enforcement flashlight in the other. He kept the rifle barrel down but held the flashlight just above it like a scope – ready, should the worst happen, to sight and shoot a figure coming out of the night.