Arturo Garino said one of his constituents told him about the razor wire on Saturday night.
Garino knew the military had installed a line of wire across the top of the fence that divides Nogales, a border town of about 20,000 in Arizona, from its sister city in Mexico, after troops were deployed to the border by President Trump before the midterm election. The resident, who lived just steps from the border, was calling Garino, the mayor, to complain that troops had been out again to deploy more wire across the 18-foot fence over the weekend.
What Garino saw when he arrived at the fence surprised him: Row after row of razor wire had been strung on the fence so that it covered nearly the entire surface in parts. Photographs show as many of six separate coils of wire — typically made from steel and studded with hundreds of razor-like barbs — covering portions of the fence, lending it the appearance of a war zone or a high-security prison.
Garino said he was confused. Trump’s push was for a wall, which the town already has. So what was the point of the wire?
“This is overkill,” Garino said in a phone interview. "It’s way over the top.”
Trump has painted a vivid picture of life on the border: Lawlessness; hordes of people seeking to cross; horrific crimes committed after immigrants make it into America. That is the universe created in the president’s Twitter feed and speeches, on cable news shows and partisan blogs. But the border is its own world — a nearly 2,000 mile stretch of land that exists mostly quietly and undisturbed. And towns like Nogales share the space that has been thrust into center stage of the president’s political ambitions.
The razor wire is what happens when those two worlds meet — when heated talk becomes policy in the real world. And on the ground in Nogales, it is not being received well.
The town’s city council passed a resolution unanimously on Wednesday to formally condemn the wire, and demand that it be taken down over safety concerns. Residents and business owners have told local reporters that it makes the town feel like a war zone — “an inquisition,” one said — and worry about the effect on its life and commerce downtown. Local newspaper columnists have panned it; a letter writer, Allen Zale, who said he served with the Army, said it reminded him of his time stationed in Berlin.
Garino said he’s concerned that the wiring is more of a danger than a safety feature because of the way it is installed down to the ground. The town’s code prohibits the use of the wire, which is also known as concertina wire, except in industrial parks and storage areas. Even then, it has to be at least six feet off the ground, he said. The wall it adorns stretches through many residential areas in the city, as close as 10 feet in some places to people’s property.
The tensions with the town have been exacerbated by the fact that federal authorities have shut out local officials from the process, Garino said.
“They should have the respect to call my office and call our police and fire chief and says these are our plans,” Garino said. “They didn’t call anybody, they just went and did it. They are not being good stewards in our city and that’s not right.”
He shared his concerns during a sit down with three agents from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Wednesday, but said they had a ready made response, speaking about “rapists, murderers and drug dealers,” and telling him that they had had a lot of incidents with people jumping the fence, he said.
“But that was strange, because the police chief, assistant chief and deputy city manager were there, and we don’t know of those things happening,” Garino said. “I don’t know where they’re getting their stats.”
The experience had left him with the feeling that the government wasn’t installing the wiring for safety reasons but for some other motivation.
“They can’t say they’re putting something up to protect us,” he said. "They’re putting up something that’s lethal all the way to the ground.”
A draft of the Nogales City Council’s resolution had noted the dangers posed by the wire, too.
“Placing coiled concertina wire strands on the ground is typically only found in a war, battlefield or prison setting, and not in an urban setting such as downtown Nogales, Arizona,” it said. “Placing coiled concertina wire that is designed to inflict serious bodily injury or death in the immediate proximity of our residents, children, pets, law enforcement and first responders is not only irresponsible but inhuman.”
The wire is an example of the work being done by the thousands of active-duty troops and National Guardsmen who were sent to the border by the president in 2018. The number of forces on the border numbers about 6,550: about 4,350 active duty troops and 2,200 National Guard forces.
William Speaks, a Defense Department spokesman, said that the military had installed more than 70 miles of concertina wire along the southern border, adding that it was working on an additional 160 miles. It said the military had spent $132 million so far supporting CBP. But estimates indicate that the cost of both deployments could tally about $1 billion by the end of the 2019 fiscal year.
In a statement distributed by spokeswoman Meredith Mingledorff, the Customs and Border Protection said that it was the process of adding four to six additional lines of concertina wire in “high-risk urban areas commonly exploited by criminal smuggling organizations.” It said that the locations it was installing the wire were on U.S. government property, outside of the town’s jurisdiction.
“Currently there are no plans to remove the concertina wire,” the statement said.
Safety fencing has been installed around the fence in places where the wire is low to the ground, along with warning signs in Spanish and English, it said.
“In locations where there is high pedestrian activity, the concertina wire is limited to only the upper portion of the wall,” the statement said. “Hardening of current infrastructure specifically in high-risk locations of the urban area help reduce the illicit activity, to include violent criminals, in these areas and increase the public safety.”
It declined to provide any specific statistics about border related crime in the area. Border Patrol agents seized 254 pounds of fentanyl and 395 pounds of methamphetamine in a record bust last week in Nogales, but the narcotics were being smuggled in a truck heading through a port of entry.
And the area has long been known to be the most popular target on the U.S. border for illicit tunnels. A 50-foot long tunnel into the city from across the border, suspected of being constructed to run drugs, was discovered in December before it was completed.
Evan Kory, whose family owns businesses in downtown Nogales, told the Arizona Daily Star that militarized operations near the border wall had felt like a threat.
“You hear on the news that an invasion is coming, but in fact," he said, “border communities have been invaded by our own government.”
Scott Zimmerman, the CEO and founder of K17 Security, a Maryland-based security consulting company, said in an interview that the safety concerns of local officials did not strike him as hyperbolic.
“When you look at that amount of wire that is something you’d most frequently see around a high-security prison, a nuclear facility, things along those lines,” he said. “Not something we commonly see here in the U.S.”
U.S. Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat who represents the area, joined local officials in calling for the wiring to be removed.
“The additional wire is nothing more than a spectacle by the Trump administration to reinforce his twisted narrative of rampant lawlessness at the border,” he said in a statement. “Border residents know that this mischaracterization couldn’t be further from the truth, and will not stand for the lies perpetrated by the Trump administration."
Garino said that life in Nogales differs sharply from the way the border has been portrayed in the political world in recent months.
The city’s fate is closely connected to Nogales, Mexico — a bustling city of a few hundred thousand on the other side of the fence with which it exchanges millions of dollars of goods and other commerce every year, Garino said. This symbiosis has given rise to a name that marries the two cities, despite the boundary between them: Ambos Nogales, or Both Nogales in Spanish.
“I always say this is one city of 400,000 people divided by a fence. But now it’s divided by concertina wire,” Garino said. “If the president gets his billions of dollars they’re not going to spend it in Nogales. We’ve had a wall. Now we have a wall with concertina wire."