Highway 85 And Lukeville’s Checkpoint

Big plans – or no plans – for the biggest little highway in Arizona

By Luis Manuel Ortiz

When you drive from Phoenix to Los Angeles, by Interstate highway 10th, you only need to go about 30 miles before finding a sign saying “To Mexico”. There you take the teensy State highway 85 which passes by Buckeye, cross through Gila Bend, also cross through Ajo – a town that once had great importance in mining business but nowadays has nothing – and ends in Lukeville, which is separated from Sonoyta by an infamous fence that they want to turn into a double wall – or even into a triple wall.

But, let’s take a U turn: when the 85 passes Gila Bend it crosses Interstate 8, which leads to San Luis, Yuma and Sand Diego. And just in front of Ajo it merges – at a point oddly called “Why” – with another itty bitty road called the Ajo Way, which leads to Tucson, crosses through the heart of the Tohono O’odham reservation, and passes not too far from the sadly famous Sasabe, which has turned into the world’s capitol (along with with Altar) of the illegal alien crossing.

These 3 ways cross through one of the most barren and desolate zones of Arizona – perhaps in the whole country – and precisely because of this loneliness and roughness, it is among the areas chosen by the “polleros” (smugglers) to cross the border with their human cargo. It’s impossible to know how many have died in their attempt to challenge the dessert, but we know that, only in recent years, there are hundreds who fatally lost the challenge.

Less than 10 years ago, the 85 was narrow, desolate, boring and tiring, with an automobile traffic almost nonexistent.

But suddenly it began to appear, here and there, heavy machinery working at a side of the road, a short distance away. Later we realized what they were doing: Another car lane. Another car lane for the little highway!

And it is all Puerto Penasco’s fault.

When the caborquenses (‘Caborcans’) traveled to Phoenix, we took the way to Sonoyta, crossed “la linea” (the border) in a blink of an eye and then by the 85 we reached Arizona’s capitol in just three and a half hours. If we were on our way to Tucson, we head for Altar and there, using a good unpaved road (good if it is not the monsoon season), we arrived in Sasabe and then onto Tucson in no time. But modernity is not without its inconveniences.

Seeing the work done in the widening of the 85 we tried to investigate the cause. Nothing. The authorities gave zero information. A low level public servant simply said: “we are working to improve our highways”.

But a visit to Puerto Penasco, perhaps in 1997, gave us the answer. There was a long time since our last visit and just arriving we noticed that the place was beginning to improve, with construction works that maybe were not as great as those that are being built right now, but were harbingers of things to come.

Those gringos! They were creating – with great foresight- the conditions and facilities for their fellow countrymen to make Puerto Penasco their own. Their Puerto Penasco!

Nowadays 85 is a tiny road only in parts of the way, some parts still a bit long, but it is on a fast track to be turned into the highway, we sonorenses (Sonroans) would love to have (and not in isolated areas but on the way to the big cities, so they were no longer the roads of the dead).

Well, that swiftness to cross the border in Sonoyta is a thing of the past. Some time ago the crossing was only chocked during the holydays (Veteran’s day, Thanksgiving, or the infamous Spring Breaks) when half of Phoenix and half of Tucson escaped to Mexican beaches to sunbathe. Crossing from Sonoyta to Lukeville was sheer martyrdom: endless hours waiting to pass because thousands of cars had to cross trough only three checkpoints. (Aand years ago there was only one.)

Well, now that happens every weekend, and daily traffic, without being quite as intense, is often beginning to be.

And what happens on the Mexican side?

When the cars reach those 3 checkpoints, the traffic is a bit less dense. The biggest problem is where only two lines of vehicles that can be formed – because there is no room for more in the Sonoyta streets that lead to the border crossing – and one has to merge into a single line of cars.

Do you know why? Because in the middle of the street is a small shack of the Only Sonora program, which has been out of service for years!

Since many weeks ago reporter Samuel Murillo, from La Voz de Phoenix (The Voice from Phoenix), has been trying to find out what is being done by both sides to solve the problem. He went to Sonoyta and nobody knows anything, he looked around for Municipal and State authorities, but they were all too busy and promised to call back later, something that none of them did.

Here in Phoenix, the director of the State Tourism Office, my good friend Margie Emmerman, informed him that a binational group was formed to identify solutions for the short, middle, and long term to present in a plan to the governors from both states coming November. That’s on the State Government level, and that’s good.

Meanwhile, on Federal Government level, a public servant called Ramon Riesgo, which is in San Diego, California, in an office called U.S. General Services Administration, send Samuel an e-mail in which he stated categorically that “we have no plans for a new control checkpoint in Lukeville”.

But then, in what looks to me like a contradiction, added “we are coordinating working meetings at all levels of government from both countries for a possible project of adding two lanes with two more checkpoint stations. To begin we will make a master plan of the zone since the investment not only includes the facilities for the checkpoint stations but also transport infrastructure (highways)”. Sounds like too many details for something you have no plans for …

But Samuel keep looking for clues and one leads him to find a document in which is clearly stated that the government of the United States already have ready an all aspect project, including the amount of the investment to enlarge and modernize Lukeville custom’s office. The project is ready, but in it you can read “a probable cause of delay could be the need for Presidential approval” – and you all know very well that Bush is more worried about Iraq and getting out of the messes his Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, gets him into – than to think about Arizona and Sonora.

Remember Puerto Penasco

Nevertheless, I don’t believe the delay would be too long. Because in the United States the President does not take very long to decide (as it is in Mexico) and if he could ust not take the time time to read all aspects of the project … it may be enough if his advisors just say him “everything is fine, just sign here”. So there is hope.

And he’ll sign faster if they say to him “remember, Mr. President, Puerto Penasco is in that Mexican region, barely one hour away from our border, which the USA have been trying to appropriate since 200 years ago”. And you can bet your last dollar that he’ll sign.

As you see, no matter what the answer is they have already more or less started turning the 85 into a big highway…

And I think that if the Mexican Government is also going to act as well, it could start by tearing down that Only Sonora shack that’s standing in the way …


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