Year in in-depth reporting

The NI’s newsroom staff did a lot more last year than simply cover the news events summarized in our recent three-part 2021 Year in Review. We also regularly published in-depth pieces that examined the important trends and issues affecting the community, and took hard looks at the activities of local government. Here’s a rundown of some of the best examples of that work from the past year.

Click on the headline for a link to the original story.


By Nick Phillips, Feb. 5

By Nick Phillips, Feb. 12

As the county expanded its COVID-19 vaccination effort beyond healthcare workers and police, some members of the public were left wondering who exactly was eligible. What’s more, people who thought they might be eligible were befuddled by the county’s online pre-appointment system, which generated neither an appointment nor a clear confirmation that a person’s name had successfully been added to the wait list.

“It seems to be a huge mystery,” 74-year-old Bob Kullgren of Tubac said of the eligibility question.

This pair of stories published in February highlighted citizen concerns and sought answers to their questions, though the answers weren’t always illuminative.

“To give you a clear-cut answer, it’s really tough,” Health Services Director Jeff Terrell said of vaccine eligibility. “We’re trying to get people in through all the groups the best we can and spread it out the best we can.”

As more doses arrived and eligibility expanded further and further, the questions diminished. And on April 2, when anyone 18 or older became eligible for the jab, the county also dropped its much-maligned online pre-registration portal in favor of a new online system that allowed the public to directly schedule appointments.

By Genesis Lara, March 1

By Genesis Lara, March 11

Sonora vaccines

This photo posted to the Facebook page of the Sonora State Health Secretariat on Feb. 16 touted a “22-percent advance” in the effort to vaccinate senior citizens in rural parts of the state. In Sonora and the rest of Mexico, seniors in rural communities were given vaccine priority.

Since the start of the year, people ranging from police officers and teachers to produce workers and seniors 75 and older had been coming from around Santa Cruz County to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in Nogales.

But just across the border in the much larger city of Nogales, Sonora, there was no equivalent mass vaccination effort at that point. In a country where vaccines had been hard to come by, and where President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador touted the need to confront the inequalities faced by the nation’s poor, Mexico’s vaccine rollout focused not on the cities, but on rural towns and villages.

As a result, while the residents of Nogales, Sonora – a city with an official population of 265,000 – waited for their chance at a COVID-19 vaccine, senior citizens in the outlying communities of Santa Cruz and Saric (populations around 1,000) began receiving inoculations.

“The whole country is starting with the small municipalities that are farther away from health services, particularly hospitals and clinics,” Gianco Urías, spokesman for the state of Sonora health department, told the NI.

Then, two days after the first of these two stories was published, state authorities announced that Sonora had received an allocation of 20,475 Pfizer vaccines that would be sent to Nogales, Sonora for residents ages 60 and over. Vaccination clinics began on March 9, but demand far exceeded supply and capability at the sites.

Rosita Maria Castaños, 72, who arrived early at one location, was among the lucky ones. While others were turned away, she and her husband, aunt and cousin were given spots in line.

“For our part, we feel very thankful because we fortunately got vaccinated,” Castaños said afterward, though her group still had to wait six hours for their shots. “We were so many people and the personnel did everything they could, but it was disorganized.”

By Nick Phillips, March 12

Federal law enforcement agencies began warning local officials that they might start releasing border-crossing asylum-seekers onto the streets of Santa Cruz County, as they had done in other southwestern communities.

The warnings were amplified by Sheriff David Hathaway during a radio interview with Fox News, in which he said: “The Border Patrol officials have asked me: ‘Sheriff, where do you want us to turn these people loose in your county?’”

Hathaway also told FOX News that migrants were “being released right out the front door” of the Sonoita Border Patrol Station. That wasn’t actually the case at the time, and the possibility of large-scale migrant releases in Santa Cruz County never came to fruition. But when the Sonoita Station released three U.S. citizen arrestees in the middle of the night two weeks later, and two were subsequently arrested for burglarized a shop next door to the station, rumors circulated that the crime had been committed by undocumented foreign nationals.

Regarding the question of freeing undocumented asylum-seekers, migrant advocates said that far from a safety risk, letting people out of detention was a good thing. And to some, the Border Patrol’s tactics looked a lot like a passive-aggressive attempt to undermine the new Biden administration’s efforts to scale back the hard-line policies of the Trump era.

“Part of me wants to believe that Border Patrol is intentionally releasing individuals into the communities because they want to feed this narrative of a crisis at the border,” said one advocate.

By Lidia Terrazas, March 30

A “call to the public” is a practice allowed by state law that provides citizens the opportunity to make direct comments or requests to their elected representatives during government meetings. The issue the speaker chooses to address can be part of the official agenda for the meeting, or another topic of personal concern, such as the person’s municipal utility bills, an event they are planning, or heavy truck traffic near a school.

However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, most governing bodies closed their meetings to public attendance, in turn eliminating the possibility of an in-person call to the public.

In Santa Cruz County, several governing bodies adopted practices that allowed citizen voices to still be heard at meetings via remote access calls to the public. At the City of Nogales, however, the change in access and approach resulted in the effective elimination of those voices from the meetings and their agendas.

“The long-term repercussion is that the mayor and the council have all the power in the world to make all kinds of rulings and we don’t have a voice,” said local resident Anne Doane, who had spoken up at the city’s calls to the public prior to the change in policy.

At the next city council meeting held after the publication of this story, Mayor Arturo Garino said he wanted the call to the public restored.

By Genesis Lara, April 2

Ralph Quiroz ranch

Rancher Ralph Quiroz saw a number of his cows become mysteriously ill in early 2021, and seven ended up dying.

Early in 2021, pregnant cows mysteriously started getting sick and dying at a 350-acre grazing area that rancher Ralph Quiroz and his business partner Scott Corrigan manage in Elgin.

“First we found one dead one day, then another, and then two in one day, and it was like that until we reached a total of seven,” said Quiroz’s wife, Angie.

To find out what was going on, Quiroz called Hereford-based veterinarian Dr. Gary Thrasher to conduct a necropsy on the dead cows and examine the ill ones.

After witnessing the way the sick cows were behaving, Thrasher was almost sure he was dealing with a case of acute lead poisoning. Blood samples tested at a lab in Texas confirmed his suspicion.

As it turned out, new landowners had recently begun cleaning up a homestead dating to 1912 that was near Quiroz’s corrals. The site had been surrounded by old cars, large batteries, old paint buckets, roofing tiles and mining rocks – all of which could potentially contain lead. It appeared that as the cleaning project progressed, some of the materials became exposed and accessible to grazing cattle.

Quiroz said it would take his family years to recover what they had lost.

“To recuperate the seven that we lost, which in reality were more like 14 heads, it’s going to take us about three to four years,” he said. “Those are calves that we didn’t sell and cows that aren’t going to produce more calves.”

By Nick Phillips, April 6

For this story, reporter Nick Phillips visited the San Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora, where he met people including Henry Antonio Chicas, a 32-year-old from Guatemala City who had made a months-long journey north and a harrowing four-day desert crossing, only to be detained by U.S. authorities and sent back to Mexico.

Back in Guatemala, Chicas said, he’d worked a reliable job for years as a motorcycle delivery driver for Burger King and had a wife and three young children. But he decided to make the journey north when a friend proposed the idea and smugglers told him that getting into the United States would be easy.

“You’re paying a ton of money and they tell you you’re going to sleep in hotels,” he said. “It’s not like that, it’s a lie.”

Chicas was one of a growing number of primarily Central American migrants who have been making their way to the U.S.-Mexico border during the previous two months after hearing promises about an easy crossing and a permissive moment in U.S. immigration policy.

In fact, the Border Patrol still had the authority under a public health measure invoked during the COVID-19 pandemic – Title 42 – to immediately return to Mexico any adult who entered U.S. territory without legal documentation.

By Genesis Lara, April 16

Mexican shoppers

Nogales, Sonora residents Ernesto Salazar and Yolanda Gastelum take a break from searching for less-expensive food products and household items in the stores just south of the DeConcini Port of Entry. The two said they had to adjust their shopping habits since the U.S. border restrictions prevented them from their usual shopping trips in Nogales, Ariz. Now they were buying more in Nogales, Sonora.

The relatively lively activity on shop-lined Calle Obregon in Nogales, Sonora one April afternoon contrasted sharply with the scene a few blocks away on the Arizona side of the border, where stores selling clothes, footwear, blankets and other items popular with Mexican shoppers had been mostly closed since the U.S. government implemented cross-border travel restrictions in March 2020.

The U.S. restrictions against “non-essential” travel from Mexico, meant to stem the spread of the coronavirus, also cut off a large number of Sonoran consumers from the stores they used to patronize in Nogales, Ariz. But as the old adage goes, one man’s loss is another man’s gain, and some employees working at stores on Calle Obregon said the losses that Arizona businesses had suffered had resulted in small gains for shops like theirs.

“People have no choice but to buy everything here, so that brings a rise in local consumption,” said Jesus Antonio Moreno García, the manager at the Sport Time shoe store. “I think a lot of businesses here have improved their sales because people aren’t crossing the border to shop (in Arizona).”

Israel Perez, manager of Chulas Fronterizas apparel store, said he’d seen plenty of new customers since the border-crossing rules changed.

“We’ve had a lot of clients that have told us things like, ‘Well, since I can’t cross the border anymore, it’s the first time I’m learning of this store,’” he said. “There are a lot of people that are barely becoming familiarized with businesses here.”

By Nick Phillips, April 16

Fuentes

Ramon Alberto “Beto” Fuentes, seen here in April during an interview at McDonald’s on Mariposa Road in Nogales, was regsitered as a candidate for public office in Nogales, Sonora despite the fact that he was waiting to be sentenced to prison in the United States after he pleaded guilty to drug smuggling.

Ramon Alberto Fuentes, better known locally as “Beto,” is nothing if not bold. The dual U.S.-Mexican citizen ran a shockingly well-funded but ultimately unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Nogales in 2014, tried and failed two years later to bring strip shows to a local hotel, and published a short-lived Spanish-language newspaper in Nogales that regularly resorted to plagiarism.

Then in 2017, Fuentes was indicted in the United States for smuggling hard drugs across the border. He pleaded guilty in January 2020 and remained free on his own recognizance as he awaited sentencing.

Then things got really weird. The U.S. Attorney’s Office did not oppose Fuentes’ request to be able to cross the border to Mexico, ostensibly to manage an essentially non-functioning news website, and prosecutors then went along with Fuentes’ repeated motions to postpone his sentencing. Fuentes used the opportunity to work as an advisor to a Sonora state representative while proclaiming his innocence.

With his U.S. sentencing stuck in limbo, Fuentes appeared on the Labor Party’s 2021 electoral ticket in Nogales, Sonora as the party’s candidate for síndico procurador propietario – roughly the equivalent of a city attorney.

When reached for comment for the NI’s story on this latest turn of events, Fuentes insisted on meeting in person with the reporter – which he did one morning at the McDonald’s on Mariposa Road. Still, he refused to answer questions about his pending criminal case and its ramifications for his political aspirations.

Now long after the story was published in both English and Spanish, the Labor Party withdrew Fuentes’ name from its slate. In another twist, Fuentes’s sentencing hearing finally went forward at U.S. District Court in Tucson, a year-and-a-half after he pleaded guilty.

But perhaps to nobody’s surprise, Fuentes didn’t show up for the June 15 hearing and is now a fugitive from justice.

By Lidia Terrazas, May 12

At a Nogales City Council meeting last spring, Mayor Arturo Garino ticked off a list of news outlets that he had spoken to in recent days: FOX, CBS, Newsweek, Newsmax, Tucson Sentinel, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, 12 News Phoenix, and Tucson TV stations KGUN and KOLD.

But one news source missing from the list, as well as from other similar inventories offered by the mayor at recent meetings, was the city’s only newspaper, the Nogales International.

As of May 2021, Garino, who puts transparency at the top of the list of his priorities on the city website, had not returned an email or phone call from an NI journalist seeking comment in nearly a year, and had only directly commented for a story once during that period.

He agreed to talk with the reporter of this story, he said, because she was working on a larger reporting project about Nogales while embedded temporarily with the NI.

Garino, who had also been giving the cold shoulder to local radio station La Maxima, said one reason for his lack of cooperation with local media was the type of coverage his office receives.

“Every time I get called by somebody from the news, it’s never for something positive,” he said.

Garino did, however, become slightly more responsive to the NI after this story was published.

By Lidia Terrazas, May 18

ELL

Mattheo Basurto Valencia, 5, sits with his mother, Anna Laura Valencia during a visit to their home in Rio Rico on May 7. Mattheo, whose first language is Spanish, struggled to get started with his English language acquision during distance-learning preschool in 2020-2021, his mother said.

Dilan Padilla, a 16-year-old junior at Pierson High School in Nogales, said he enjoys getting up for school. But he likes it a whole lot better on the days that he gets to be on campus and interact with teachers and students face-to-face, rather than studying remotely from a computer at home.

His mother, Lourdes Quintana, said the preference was visible in both Dilan’s motivation and performance during the in-person sessions offered by the school as part of its hybrid learning model. And she thought the fact that her son was still learning English was a key factor in the disparity.

The unexpected shift to remote learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic was difficult for many students. It created an especially unique challenge for English language learners, who lean heavily on in-person interactions and non-verbal cues to reach proficiency.

According to leaders at the Nogales Unified School District, approximately 75 percent of the more than 6,000 students enrolled at NUSD schools are or were English learners (ELs) at some point in their lives. During the 2020-2021 school year, 21 percent of students in the district were classified as English learners.

While the disruption to traditional learning models was difficult for ELs already in school, it has also impacted students taking their first steps into the education system.

Mattheo Basurto Valencia, 5, was set to start kindergarten at San Cayetano Elementary School in Rio Rico last fall after participating in preschool in 2020-2021. But as an English language learner, completing preschool online was especially difficult for Mattheo, according to his mother Anna Laura Valencia, who described her son’s progress learning English language to that point as “abysmal.”

“It was really hard,” she said of distance learning, “so when I was given the option of in-person, I said yes immediately.”

By Genesis Lara, June 16

After several years of drought and an especially dry first half of 2021, some Santa Cruz County cattle ranchers had to make big adjustments after the climactic conditions left them short on two things critical for raising cattle: grass and water.

“This is, at least in my lifetime, an unprecedented drought as far as the severity and duration of it,” said local rancher Dean Fish. He explained that local ranchers largely depend on the monsoon rains during the summer months for producing forage – the grasses and field plants that cows graze on.

Recently, however, the region hadn’t seen enough rainfall during the summer or winter to allow for much grass to grow, and pastures were looking more and more bare as the unusually hot and dry month of June wore on.

Rancher Dan Bell said he began taking responsive measures the previous October. Bell said he first sold some of his older cows, which were already near the end of the typical cycle on his ranch and would normally be the first to be sold. But as the drought dragged on, both Fish and Bell were pushed to sell those they would normally keep a while longer.

For livestock hydration purposes, the two ranchers turned to a more reliable water source – wells. Bell said he also had been putting out barrels with a liquid supplement to help keep his cattle healthy. Fish said he’d begun buying larger amounts of hay from outside sources.

Fortunately for ranchers and their cattle, the 2021 monsoon was especially wet once rains arrived in July, and that triggered a boom in vegetation growth around the county.

By Nick Phillips, July 16

Drone

Border Patrol Agents Frank Novotny (foreground) and Daniel Bristol unpack a SkyRaider drone from its carrying case prior to a demonstration in July. Drones increase the agency’s surveillance capabilities, but also raise civil liberties concerns.

Border Patrol Agent Daniel Bristol, who is in charge of the drone program at the agency’s Nogales Station, said the station has two drones and they’re usually used on every shift, day and night. He added that, as drone technology continues to advance, the station is hoping to add more so-called Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems to its toolkit.

“It helps with manpower, it’s a deterrent, or it can detect,” Bristol said. “This is one of our better assets.”

Agent Alan Regalado, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in Nogales, said that in addition to being a “force multiplier,” the drones are sometimes a safer way to start gathering information about people crossing the border than sending agents right to them.

But critics say the small drones are yet another technology – like large drones and camera towers – that can invade the privacy of borderlands residents.

“A force multiplier is all well and good, unless it means that it includes putting the equivalent of a federal agent in an aircraft over your backyard, which is one of the problems with a lot of the Border Patrol’s technology and their effect on the privacy and civil liberties of border communities,” said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union.

By Nick Phillips, Aug. 3

After complaining about decisions made by the city manager, the Nogales City Council in 2020 rewrote the procedure for choosing departmental directors in the municipal government. The changes were supposed to give elected officials more say in the hiring process, and the city attorney said they would improve transparency.

In the four months leading up to August 2021, the city put three new people at the top of three of its departments – the first such hires since the changes. This story showed that in making the hires, city staffers followed the new process on some occasions, but ignored it on others, and officials disagreed on whether the new rules have led to positive changes.

By Genesis Lara, Aug. 12

At the beginning of the summer, the San Juan Bosco migrant shelter in Nogales, Sonora was welcoming between 100 to 150 people into its facility each evening. But around the beginning of August, staff said, that number more than doubled to approximately 380 migrants per night.

Personnel at the Kino Border Initiative, a Jesuit ministry that provides a variety of services to migrants in Nogales, Sonora, also said that their numbers shot up dramatically, from attending to about 300 people per day, to as many as 1,300 people each day within the previous two weeks.

This latest increase in migrants arriving to the area, according to representatives of KBI and the San Juan Bosco migrant shelter, could be attributed in large part to U.S. Customs and Border Protection carrying out “lateral repatriations” within the previous month, in which migrants detained after an undocumented border-crossing are sent back to Mexico through a port of entry far from where they entered. In this case, it appeared that large numbers of people who had been detained in Texas were deported into Nogales, Sonora.

CBP didn’t directly respond to questions about the agency’s reason for transferring migrants from Texas to Nogales, or even confirm that it was happening. But the agency said in a statement that several Border Patrol sectors had seen a sharp rise in apprehensions, and added that in general, it might transfer detainees by air or ground to other sectors to expedite processing.

Migrant advocates, however, asserted that the U.S. government’s decision to transport people from Texas to Nogales for expulsion was meant to address the multiple-crossing effect.

“To prevent those multiple crossings, I think that the government is transporting people to an unfamiliar place to make it more difficult for them. And we’re seeing that, although it’s an inhumane strategy, it’s effective,” said Christian Soenen, a Kino Border Initiative volunteer.

By Genesis Lara, Aug. 27

Paisanos Mailboxes

Kenneth Larriva, owner of Paisanos Mailboxes on Terrace Avenue in Nogales, provides information to a new customer in August. The business provides a U.S. shipping address for customers in Mexico, many of whom relied on someone else to pick up their parcels after U.S. border travel restrictions went into effect in March 2020.

One afternoon in August, Mike Gonzales stopped at a couple of mailbox businesses in Nogales, Ariz., then drove his car across the border into Nogales, Sonora with about 45 packages in his possession, most of which were addressed to people other than himself.

After transporting the packages from the United States to Mexico, his next steps were to deliver some to addressees residing in Nogales, Sonora, and mail the others to recipients in other parts of Sonora or Mexico.

Gonzales, a 41-year-old Ambos Nogales native, was one of a number of local residents who discovered a business opportunity in providing cross-border mail delivery services for Mexican citizens who couldn’t cross through the U.S. land ports of entry as a result of ongoing travel restrictions.

“I saw an opportunity and, thank God, it’s been going very well,” Gonzales told the NI.

Administrators at two local mailbox businesses – Paisanos Mailboxes and Kayak – said the auxiliary cross-border courier service being provided by people like Gonzales had become a much more popular trend since March 2020, when the U.S. government prohibited non-essential travel trough its land ports of entry.

By Nick Phillips, Oct. 8

During the late afternoon of June 16, Marisol Garcia Alcantara, a 37-year-old mother of three from Mexico City, was shot in the head by a Border Patrol agent as she and several other undocumented border-crossers rode in passenger vehicle on a side street in Nogales.

Garcia survived the shooting and was deported back to Mexico without knowing why the agent decided to fire their weapon at the car. Interviewed by the NI in late September, she said she was struggling with medical complications from the shooting and working with a U.S.-based nonprofit organization to find legal representation for her in the United States.

“I feel bad, I feel sad, I feel angry,” Garcia said.

In addition to leaving Garcia in the dark, the U.S. government’s decision to release only limited information about her case highlighted how federal law enforcement agencies often feel little obligation to explain their actions to the public following use-of-force incidents.

In several recent cases involving people who survived a shooting by federal officers operating in the local area, the wall-of-silence approach dragged on for years, leading survivors to turn to the civil justice system for answers.

In December, Garcia took the first required step toward suing the government over her shooting.

By Manuel C. Coppola, Oct. 14

By Manuel C. Coppola, Oct. 26

Tubac townhouses

Townhouses under construction in Tubac are seen here in October. Local builders said they couldn’t put up new homes fast enough to meet demand.

Santa Cruz County wasn’t immune to the housing crisis affecting many other areas of the country, as these two stories illustrated.

First, for those who qualify for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development vouchers intended for people who are homeless, at risk of being homeless, or fleeing domestic violence, there simply wasn’t anywhere for them to live. As of October, there were 84 individuals or families on a waiting list for the Housing Choice Vouchers, or Section 8 housing, said Robert Thompson, director of the Nogales Housing Authority.

“There aren’t any rentals. No hay. People just hunker down,” he said.

Meanwhile, for those thinking of buying a home, the median price of a single-family residence in Santa Cruz County went up 28 percent during the first nine months of the year, according to data from the Multiple Listing Service of Southern Arizona. The increase was driven by demand and a lack of housing inventory, as builders were unable to construct homes fast enough to satisfy market demands.

Realtors said many buyers were coming from out-of-state, including California, with some even making offers above list price.

But while the jump in home prices may have been good news for sellers, investors, real estate agents and people moving from more expensive markets, it likely put home ownership further out of reach for many residents of Santa Cruz County, where the estimated median household income was $41,259 in 2015-2019, according to U.S. Census estimates. In Nogales, the estimated median household income was even lower, at $29,339.

By Jonathan Clark, Oct. 19

When the NI requested the names of the three city manager candidates the Nogales mayor and council reportedly interviewed behind closed doors this fall, the city refused. “I think Arizona law is really clear that finalists are disclosed and public, but all others aren’t,” City Attorney Mike Massee wrote in an email denying the request.

In fact, a 30-year-old legal precedent established that the names and resumes of anyone who is interviewed for a government job in Arizona must be disclosed to the public. So the NI tracked down one of the lawyers who litigated the landmark case of Phoenix Newspapers v. Board of Regents, decided by the Arizona Supreme Court in 1991, to refute the city’s legally unfounded position.

In addition, this story included comments from the executive director of the First Amendment Clinic at ASU, who explained how the public’s legitimate interest in knowing which candidates are being considered boils down to the concept of good government.

The story also contrasted the City of Nogales’ ultra-secretive approach to its manager search with a highly transparent process followed by another municipal government.

A week after this story was published, the mayor and council emerged from yet another closed-door meeting and voted to release the names of the three interviewees, bringing them into compliance with state legal standards.

By Jonathan Clark, Priscilla Bolaños and Manuel C. Coppola, Nov. 19

Gas

Javier Leal puts gas in his Sinaloa-plated vehicle on Nov. 17 in Nogales, Ariz. He said he was susrpsied to learn that gasoline is now more expensive on this side of the border than in Mexico.

With visa-holders from Mexico once again allowed to cross into the United States for non-essential reasons, retailers in Nogales, Ariz. welcomed them back amid a changed commercial landscape. Supply chain problems had been pushing consumer prices steadily upward, and some of the most visible indications of that trend could be found at U.S. gas pumps, where prices were at their highest since 2014.

Prior to the implementation of travel restrictions in March 2020, gas stations in Nogales, like many other local retail businesses, relied heavily on consumers from Mexico. Not only do some drivers believe, correctly or not, that the quality is better on this side, but the price of gas had consistently been cheaper in the United States.

Not anymore.

Camila Gamez of Nogales, Sonora gassed up her car on Nov. 16 at the Fuel Express Depot in downtown Nogales, Ariz. “It performs better than in Mexico,” she said, explaining her preference for U.S. gasoline.

But Rafael Diaz, a resident of Nogales, Sonora who was filling up the tank on his Volkswagen Jetta on Nov. 17 at a local Circle K, was rethinking his decision to buy on this side of the border.

“I just realized today that it’s cheaper, about $3.03 a gallon, in Mexico for regular,” he said. “Next time, I’m getting my gas over there.”

Other factors were at play as well. Local gas station owner Daniel Araujo said his business had benefited from U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s ability to the wait times relatively brief at the local ports of entry. And he pointed to another key factor in Sonorans’ decisions whether to make purchases in Mexico or the United States: the currency exchange rate.

“If you’re buying one dollar for 23 pesos, as opposed to one dollar for 19, it’s a huge difference,” Araujo said.

By Angela Gervasi, Dec. 17

Bustamante

Rosa Bustamante, left, laughs during a card game on Dec. 16 at the Santa Cruz Council on Aging’s Senior Center in Nogales. The center resumed its in-person activities 10 days prior, but some seniors will still hesitant to return.

When Aida Alvarez found out that the Nogales Senior Center planned to resume in-person activities on Dec. 6, nearly two years after putting them on hold due to the pandemic, she circled the date on her calendar. When the date came, the Nogales High School mariachi band performed to welcome the returning members.

“It’s a very special group for us, because we’re from the same age,” said Norma Bruce, who joined the center in 2015 and was back having lunch with her friends on Dec. 16.

But while the reopening of the Senior Center’s indoor services brought long-awaited social contact for some returning seniors, others were wary to come back. Director Arnold Montiel cited fear of the increasingly prevalent and highly contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 as the source of the mixed response.

Still, the joy in those who had returned was undeniable. Some, Montiel said, cried upon seeing him again.

“They’ve got to go out and socialize,” he said.

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