By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Residents along a sleepy stretch of Cochise County's border with Mexico are literally up in arms over seven robberies by hooded, armed men who have broken into homes to terrorize and plunder. Politicos and a legion of border lawmen are clamoring to stop the marauders.
Although nobody has been killed or seriously hurt, the crime spree has a chilling, Capote-esque undercurrent that has gun sales and hysteria rising exponentially. Teams of three and four armed robbers have deliberately targeted occupied homes, disabling telephones, hog-tying victims, threatening their lives, taking their stuff and driving off in their vehicles. The bandits--all Mexicans, authorities claim--seem to enjoy it. Victims say their assailants laugh, and sometimes invoke the Robin Hood mentality--you're rich, we're poor, what's yours is now ours. In fact, none of the victims has been well-to-do.
Wearing combat fatigues and operating at night, the robbers have struck in the communities of Palominas, Bisbee Junction and Naco, Arizona. Some victims swear the robbers already know where all their belongings are--that the bandits case the places and return for the sheer pleasure of torturing their victims while they strut about and ransack homes in a leisurely fashion.
The arrests of two suspects on April 21 brought a collective sigh of relief. Then robbers struck again a few nights later, blindfolding and tying up a 73-year-old widow who had just returned home from the Midwest after three weeks.
On May 6, authorities arrested Mexican citizen Jose Enrique Valenzuela, 42, and identified him as a suspected ringleader. Some victims have described one assailant as being heavily tattooed, like Valenzuela, who has been a fugitive since 1989, when he was convicted in absentia of armed robbery and aggravated assault in Pima County. Investigators are seeking physical evidence linking Valenzuela to the robberies.
All this mayhem has unfolded against the quiet backdrop of the Espinal plain, which slopes gracefully southward from the Mule Mountains. It is a place, says one resident, that reaches "clear to the ma¤ana." It is a place where people believed they could escape crime. It is also a place known as "Cocaine Alley," and between local, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies, badges are as common as yuccas. First-term Cochise County Sheriff John Pintek has been under intense pressure to catch the criminals, but says he has resisted calls for federal troops. He fears an international incident.
Not to miss the limelight, elected officials have jumped in, as well. U.S. Representative Jim Kolbe, who helicoptered in to demonstrate his concern, doesn't support use of the National Guard. But a spokesman for U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini says DeConcini mentioned the idea to Pintek as "a total last resort." DeConcini dashed off letters to Mexican officials, demanding help in catching the culprits.
One Hispanic resident of Bisbee Junction says the police and politicians have missed the point: Mexicans play by their own rules--always have, always will. "This place is already an international incident," he says. "Three or four Mexican males in a car is suspicious. . . . I still think the main point is the psychology--the siege mentality out here.
"I saw people running around outside my house, so I called 911," he continues. "I was describing my address, giving my name [to the dispatcher]. There I was, standing in my door, looking out, a loaded gun in my hand. And I thought, 'This is a helluva way to live.'"
Pintek is worried about gunplay, and says the victim could be an officer on patrol in the brush or a neighbor who has accidentally been shot by another neighbor. Yet at one meeting of concerned residents, Pintek provided the text of Arizona's self-defense statute, describing when it's okay to shoot someone.
Pintek says Mexican police are doing little to help--in fact, he accuses them of complicity. "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem," he says.
From the U.S. side, there are allegations--so far, unconfirmed--that Mexican police raided a home in Sonora and recovered property stolen during one of the robberies, but did nothing.
Pintek recently went to Naco, Sonora, where he met with Mexican municipal, state and federal police. He presented evidence, collected by the U.S. Border Patrol, that the two suspects arrested on April 21 had been dropped off near the border by a sedan bearing police lights. Pintek says his Mexican colleagues deny having any sedans.
Meanwhile, some observers say that if the robberies continue, drug runners might intervene to shut down the ring. The smugglers are not pleased with the extra police presence the crimes have generated.
The spree began last July, when a Palominas resident was rushed from behind by four armed men, bound and robbed. During one robbery, an elderly woman was fondled by one of the intruders. The most recent robbery was on April 26 at the home of Georgia LeGrand, a 73-year-old woman who lives alone in Bisbee Junction. Ignatius Soriano, a preacher, tells a stark tale: "The guy with the mask . . . he hit me with the rifle across my back. Then he kicked me in the groin, and on the side. . . .
"My wife is yelling at him . . . 'Leave us alone, in the name of Jesus.' . . . He put the rifle right on her forehead, put the other rifle right on my son's forehead. He told them, 'Shut up or we'll kill you.'
"Well, I try to turn over, and this guy takes the rifle and shoves it down my throat. And I'm gagging."
Lorene Hardt, 74, is determined to avoid a similar episode. "We have loaded weapons. [Her husband's] is right by the side of the bed--a loaded shotgun," she says. "Most of the guys are doing it. That's the way they feel about it. You come into our home, you're going to get it.