A former Customs officer discusses life, death and vigilantism on the Mexican border. Lee Morgan doesn’t like what he sees
"When these ... vigilantes get so brazen as to start putting gun barrels in the faces of hysterical, crying little girls ... we, as an American society, have lost our moral ground," ex-U.S. Customs Special Agent Lee Morgan, referring to an infamous 2004 confrontation in Arizona, writes in his 2006 memoir The Reaper's Line: Life and Death on the Mexican Border (Rio Nuevo Publishers).
"What the people want is simple. They want law, order, regulation and security on our last great frontier, [and] without question they deserve that. However, if the U.S. government cannot provide it, then the vigilantes, racists and hate-mongers will do so for the wrong reasons. It's as elementary as that." Morgan's insights and frustrations come from spending nearly 30 years working narcotics on the Arizona-Mexico border. Last year, upon his retirement, the salty former law enforcement agent published a sprawling, 525-page account of his career and assessment of the failures of current U.S. border policy.
The Reaper's Line examines drug smuggling, immigration, corruption, vigilantism, and a host of other border issues in frank, colloquial language that's as comfortable to slip into as a barstool conversation. "I've personally been shot, shrapneled, slashed, clubbed, burned and nearly dragged to death," he writes.
Never one to mince words, Morgan freely discussed his book and his opinions with Intelligence Report from his retirement home in Texas — he'd rather not say just where, since there's still a price on his head. "I had a guy from the Arizona Department of Public Safety and an agent with Department of Homeland Security both show up on my doorstep [after The Reaper's Line was published] and say, 'There's another contract out on you.' I said, "I'm retired, man! What part of retirement don't the drug lords in Mexico understand?' Obviously, they don't take that into consideration."
INTELLIGENCE REPORT: What motivated you to write The Reaper's Line?
LEE MORGAN: The stories of the people on the border need to be told, from everybody's perspective — the smuggler's, the illegal alien's, the rancher's, the vigilante's. It would be lost in history otherwise, and right now the border is probably the most interesting and dangerous place in our nation. If nothing else, the people in this country need to know what is going on on the border, because they're not being told the truth by the government.
IR: What is the biggest misconception about life along the border?
MORGAN: A prime example [came] when I was talking to some folks on a radio show in Alabama the other day. They absolutely believed that every Mexican, whether they're here under the guest worker program or the amnesty program or any kind of Mexican in the country at all, that they're all illegals. Just all illegals! "Get rid of them all!" I wanted to ask them how they would treat the Mexican-American population compared to Mexican nationals. I never got to that question, but I fear what the answer may have been — there's no diffence at all.
And that needs to be straightened out. If we don't, I fear a backlash here for Mexican-American U.S. citizens. The majority of my friends are Mexican-American, because of where I've been living and what I've been doing, and we owe it to them to address these issues so that they or their children don't get discriminated against in the near future.
IR: How has the book been received? You're not shy about naming names.
MORGAN: Those you would expect to be aggravated or angry about the truth are. Some people are going to like the truth and some aren't, and the people who aren't going to like the truth are the ones doing the wrong thing. Like the vigilantes and the drug lords. Yeah, those people are pissed, the dope lords especially.
As far as the vigilantes go, I write about Roger Barnett [a well-known militant in southern Arizona's Cochise County] and tell the truth about him, you know, what a bigot and racist and hatemonger he is. [Editor's note: Barnett declined to respond to several interview requests from the Intelligence Report, including one faxed to his attorney.] The Barnetts [Roger and his brother Donald] were really aggravated about that.
IR: How did they express that aggravation?
MORGAN: I got a card from them. It showed a cowboy at the edge of a canyon, and he was bent over the edge looking into the canyon and his horse was backed up to him looking like he was going to kick him off the edge. The card said, "We're behind you all the way!" — a little hint that if they ever got a chance they'd kick me over the cliff. They were careful about how they worded it but I take that as a threat. The Barnetts' names were on the card.
IR: As you know, Roger Barnett recently lost a lawsuit filed by a family of U.S. citizens he detained at gunpoint in 2004, and he was ordered to pay them nearly $99,000. But neither of the Barnetts has ever been criminally charged in Cochise County. Why do you think the Barnett brothers seem to have been given a free pass by local prosecutors, despite many allegations that they've violated criminal law while detaining alleged border crossers?
MORGAN: I can only surmise that [it's because] the guys are millionaires, Republicans [in a heavily Republican county], and right-wing.
IR: You included a couple of remarkable stories about the Barnetts in your book, the first being an account of a meeting with Donald Barnett in which he tries to strike up a deal with you. Would you describe what happened?
MORGAN: I had a good partner with me; he was a federal agent like myself, and he happened to be Mexican-American. We were talking to this guy, Donald Barnett, and basically he told us, and everybody know this, that he has sensors and night vision — everything the Border Patrol has, or any military outfit that is hunting for people at night.
We met him out on the highway, and we talked over the hood of the truck. He told us he wanted to hunt drug mules and get their loads of dope. We said, "How are you going to do that?" And he said, "You know, we've got all these sensors along a system of trails." We asked him, "Are you going to report them to us when you see them?" He said, "No, I'm just going to shoot over their heads and make them drop their dope, and then they'll run off. And then I'll bring it to you or I'll call you or something." When he started talking about shooting over people's heads, I was like, "No, no, no! I don't think so. We're going to go talk to the U.S. attorney and we'll get back with you."
They [officials at the U.S. attorney's office] told us to go back out there and read him the riot act on civil rights violations and things of that nature. We went back to tell him to cease and desist any activities like that and that he was not going to be working with us. He really got aggravated and teed off.
When he was making these plans, we were talking about the Border Patrol and being out there at night, and he was like, "What they don't know won't hurt them, this is just between us. You don't have to tell them what I'm doing."
Well, of course I had to. I was bound by police safety ethics, if nothing else, to tell the Border Patrol that this guy was going to be out there at night doing this so they wouldn't get shot or hurt. So I told them, and told him I told them, and he was really angry about it.
IR: At another point in your book, you say the Barnett brothers had plans to open a lodge and bring big game hunters in for immigrant-hunting "safaris." How did you hear about that?
MORGAN: My partner Butch and I were sitting on the side of the road, watching the Barnetts detain a group of UDAs [undocumented aliens]. We wanted to make sure that nothing went awry in that situation, that nobody was abused or anything.
While we were waiting, my partner gets out and goes over to talk to one of the ranch hands that work for the Barnetts. Butch came back to the truck and he was like, "You wouldn't believe what these guys are doing! That ranch hand said the Barnetts are building this hunting lodge to bring people in to hunt UDAs."
After that, I noticed that all the dates when Roger Barnett would turn aliens over to the Border Patrol were on weekends and holidays. It's a sport for them, a hobby.
When you look at these weekend apprehensions the Barnetts have had a hand in, what does that look like to you? It kind of corroborates this and verifies it. It's just crazy.
IR: How do longtime residents of the borderlands view the Barnetts?
MORGAN: That depends on who you talk to. If you talk to ranch people with common sense, nobody's going to agree with what they do. But talk to vigilante types or right-wing people, and they're going to agree with them.
And you do have the few good, patriotic people that may not go left or right, but they want to see something done about the border; they may support the Barnetts and their vigilante activities for the wrong reasons. They're probably pretty good folks, but you know everybody's all upset about the border and the federal government not addressing it and taking care of it. Like I wrote in the book, if you can't give the American people border security through the federal government, then the vigilantes will do it, for all the wrong reasons — that's who the people will turn to. And the neo-Nazis and the KKK have got to love that. These are the guys behind the scenes, pulling strings here, going, "Man, this is great for us!" They love it. It's the perfect issue for them to hide behind and promote their racist agenda.
IR: What kind of border policy would you favor?
MORGAN: We need border security for criminals — actual, real criminals that cross in the midst of regular folks — and a guest worker program for the folks that are just coming in to feed their kids. That would free up a lot of law enforcement dollars and man-hours to look for the real criminal aliens that are looking to do us harm.
IR: After three decades working the border, how does the current climate compare to the way things were in the past?
MORGAN: This hype, this rhetoric, this phobia about Mexicans — I don't think I ever heard it this bad before 9/11. In the '70s, we'd pick 'em up, send 'em home, pick 'em up, send 'em home. They'd eventually make it [into the United States], get their work done and go home on their own. And nobody was screaming then. Now, it's all about the "terrorists." To attach the working illegal alien, who has been coming here for years, to the terrorism issue is wrong, wrong, wrong!
Mexican people helped settle the country, for God's sake. Where did this come from? I'll tell you where it came from — the terrorist 9/11 issue coming up, and right-wing conservatives and the KKK and neo-Nazi people looking to move their own agenda forward.
IR: Now that you're retired, what do you miss about your job?
MORGAN: I miss my partners and my buddies but not the job, because everything is so crazy now. It's such a losing scenario with so many issues. We're not getting ahead with the war on drugs. It's all a matter of politics. And they just manipulate the numbers, play with the numbers, to make themselves look good.
I'm done. I'm exhausted.
IR: Is building an enormous fence, as some suggest, the answer?
MORGAN: Hell, no! That's just a waste of money. They'll just go under it, over it, around it, or through it. A fence actually benefits the drug smugglers. They'll hide behind it, cut their own damn gates in it, lock it from the inside of Mexico and then open it up and run their dope through in truckloads whenever they want.
The government can spend all the money they want for enforcement and enforcement tools, and we need to do that to protect people from criminals and terrorists, no doubt. But when it comes to the illegal aliens, until we give them jobs in Mexico, the U.S., or a combination of the two, until we address that one simple issue, this illegal immigration issue, problem, whatever you want to call it, will not ever be solved.
Sooner or later, we're going to have to have some kind of partnership with Mexico. Immigration [from Mexico] has been going on for 150 to 200 years. Why do you think you're going to stop it now with any kind of enforcement or spending billions on any kind of wall? You've got to feed the people.
The stereotype of the illegal alien in, say, the '50s, '60s, '70s, was the guy in the kitchen or the guy in the field that was no threat. Now the right-wingers, they're changing this stereotype to a guy with an AK-47 and a grenade in his mouth heading to the mall to blow you up. And that's a problem.