Ranching in the border area is becoming more dangerous

Jun 3, 2011
by WLJ

Unlike most ranchers, Texan Richard Garza Ray no longer looks forward to wide open spaces. The Starr County cattleman stays in his house, where he said there is a loaded gun in every room. He ventures out only when necessary to check cattle and fix fences and water lines cut by those crossing his ranch on foot.

Garza Ray’s land sits three miles from the Texas border with Mexico, and like many of his neighbors in Texas and other border states, he’s used to illegal aliens trekking through pastures in search of jobs and a better way of life.

In the past few years, the hassles of cut fences and campsite litter have turned into deadly encounters as the constant threat of merciless drug and human smugglers looms large. Many ranchers know the fate of Arizona rancher Rob Krentz, who was killed by suspected drug smugglers while checking a water line last year. So they remain vigilant, always looking over their shoulder, and wondering how much worse it will get before it gets better.

“People have been victimized and don’t report it because they are afraid for their lives,” Garza Ray said. “I am too, but I don’t have any place to go. I don’t want to get myself shot, but I’m not moving. If someone tells me to leave my ranch, it’s going to be a gunfight.”

Comprehensive immigration reform efforts fell through in 2007 amid calls that border security needed beefing up. President Barack Obama reopened the national dialogue on immigration in a speech in El Paso, TX, earlier this month. It’s time to move forward with reforms, he said, since the Department of Homeland Security addressed issues raised in 2007: They’ve doubled the number of Border Patrol agents and nearly finished building the border fence. The metrics used to gauge success have moved in the right direction, with apprehensions of illegal crossers—and by government accounts the numbers of such crossers—down 40 percent and drug seizures up 31 percent.

While government reports tell of success, experience tells farmers, ranchers and border law enforcement agents the danger is growing. In this series of articles, DTN/The Progressive Farmer will explore the dangers of ranching on the southwest border, the effectiveness of the U.S. border security strategy, and the role national policies on border security and immigration play in finding a solution.

Always armed

Ten years ago, Garza Ray and his wife moved back to the ranch he was raised on in Starr County after he worked as a police detective in College Station, TX. The Vietnam veteran hoped the peace and quiet of life on the Starr County ranch would help him cope with his posttraumatic stress disorder, but now he wonders if the fight going on in his back yard is worse than the war he fought as a young man.

Two armed Mexicans in camouflage fatigues confronted Garza Ray between his house and horse corral one day. He pulled out his .44 Magnum, but the bullets had swelled up in the chamber and it wouldn’t cock.

Several of his horses ran between him and the men. Pete the Wonderhorse, as Garza Ray calls him, saved his owner: The horse charged the trespassers and they ran.

Afraid of nighttime intruders, Garza Ray occasionally fires off a ‘mad minute’— a minute of nonstop gunfire designed to make anyone thinking of coming close to his home reconsider—before going to bed.

Not all ranchers are as heavily armed as Garza Ray, but most won’t embark on their daily duties without a pistol on them and a rifle in the truck. Sergio Benavides is a fourth-generation rancher who lives in Laredo, TX, and runs his operation 30 miles away in Jim Hogg and Webb counties. He said fewer illegal migrants cross his pastures looking for a better life; instead, there are more “mules” moving drugs. He saw a group in soldier-like uniforms trespassing on his ranch recently with visible gun barrels sticking out of their backpacks. He left as fast as he could.

“I’ve always carried a pistol for snakes and stuff, but now I carry a little more ammunition, a little bit more power just in case,” Benavides said. “I would hate to do that (shoot someone), but if it’s my life or their life, I’m pretty sure I will.”

He started carrying a pistol and rifle two years ago when things started getting bad; now he’s training a guard dog. He heard someone clear their throat while hooking up a hay trailer alone one night. He grabbed his pistol and scanned the brush, but couldn’t see anyone. The dog is an extra precaution.

Coyotes—the human smugglers paid to bring immigrants north—often steal food and valuables on their return south. Some ranchers have lost track of how many times their homes have been broken into. It’s why Garza Ray keeps a gun in every room and Benavides just stopped locking the doors.

The making of mules

Illegal immigrants, hat in hand, used to ask Benavides for food, water and a little work as they traveled north to seek a better life. They were rural people, respectful of cattle, and he felt sorry for them.

But now the migrants are less rural, more desperate. In the mid 1960s, the Mexican government launched a program to help deal with rising unemployment in the border regions. They opened factories that would receive duty-free raw materials from the U.S. and ship the finished goods back dutyfree. The passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 spurred a huge expansion of employment at the factories, called maquiladoras, and many rural Mexicans changed in their subsistence farming lifestyles for a steady paycheck.

It’s the children of the maquiladora workers who need to hire coyotes to guide them north across the border. Separated from the rural lifestyle, they don’t know how to survive off the land or distinguish north from east, said veterinarian Gary Thrasher, who has lived on the border for more than 40 years in Hereford, AZ, in Cochise County. The recession in the early 2000s hit the maquiladoras hard. Living in ghettos and unemployed, many became involved with gangs or Mexican drug cartels just to get by; others wanted to try to make a better living in the U.S.

The lucrative drug trade, an estimated $10 billion business, and demand for coyotes fueled the cartels’ rise to power and their current turf war. Ruthless and cold-blooded, the cartels have killed nearly 34,000 people in Mexico since 2006, according to a Mexican government estimate, but their coercion takes many forms. Many are drafted into cartel employment under threat of death or death to loved ones. Migrants are forced to carry the cartels’ 60-pound packs of marijuana on the trip north or pay exorbitant amounts to be released from safe houses. It’s nearly impossible for a rancher to distinguish who’s a smuggler and who’s a migrant until they get close enough to be in danger.

The violence is driving a wedge between communities separated only by a line drawn in the desert sand in 1851 when Mexico surrendered half of its territory to the U.S. Many people who live along the border have family and businesses on both sides, and maintaining those relationships keeps getting harder.

Benavides hasn’t crossed the border in eight months. In the past, he drove seven hours to tend his cattle in Mexico every 15 to 20 days. During one trip, he was struck by a peculiar phenomenon: People all along the route seemed to know who he was.

“They told us they’ve (the drug cartels) been asking about us. I’ve tried to keep away as much as I can,” he said. Mexican ranchers have been killed or run off their land in droves by the cartels who want their pastures as launching points for smuggling operations. Many, like Benavides’ business partner, moved to safer places, operating their ranches from a distance.

Costs double on the border

Thrasher has tended cattle in all of Mexico’s northern states and throughout Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, where he also runs a feedlot and backgrounding operation.

Fixing fences, almost a daily chore on border ranches, is a small frustration and a small cost compared to the fear. Thrasher said the cost to run a ranch within 20 miles of the border is double what it costs 100 miles north. “You spend at least 20 percent of your time someway related to border traffic, whether it’s helping the border patrol, it’s closing gates, it’s putting your cattle back after border patrol left the gates open, it’s putting cattle back after they’ve (immigrants or smugglers) cut the fences,” Thrasher said.

Migrants break water pipes if they can’t figure out how to get access to the water inside, so ranchers need to check them daily. “If you’ve got a big ranch, you could spend all day long driving back and forth to check the waters, just to make sure it works.”

Dehydration in Arizona’s arid climate claims 300 to 400 immigrants’ lives each year, Thrasher said. Cattle die of dehydration too, but “it’s really pathetic when I autopsy one and it died of bloat because it ate a plastic bag.” He once thought a cow died of diphtheria, but it ate a plastic prepaid calling card that got stuck in its throat.

There’s some pattern to the trail of litter: Water bottles on walking paths, backpacks left in camp, and socks are found in the brush 20 yards from camp where they were used as toilet paper. Ranchers shouldn’t have to put up with that, Thrasher said.

Benavides said it’s hard to find good employees. When many local people moved to town when their families grew too afraid of the countryside’s dangers, Benavides hired a ranch hand from Mexico who wanted to come to the U.S. side.

Ranchers who want to get out of the business often can’t. A ranch that supports 900 mother cows may be worth $8 million farther north, but it may only be valued at $3 million to $4 million at the border, Thrasher said. He knows of at least 10 ranches that have been for sale for more than five years. Ranchers also have a hard time convincing northern producers to send cattle south for backgrounding.

“Everybody across the country talks about biosecurity and herd management and fertility and managing rest rotation of your pastures. Well, if your fences are destroyed, your gates can’t be kept closed, how can you do any of that? How can you do any management? You can’t,” Thrasher said. “That’s why I say it’s so expensive to operate a ranch anywhere near the border.”

It’s also exhausting. Benavides often thinks of the days he didn’t have to look over his shoulder, confident the people in his pastures respected his cattle. Now, he fears smugglers. He wants to know when it will end and how much worse it will get before it gets better. He understands why some have left.

His family runs other businesses to support themselves, but the ranch is what he loves. “I’ve always said if it wasn’t for the romance in it, I’d be out of it in a second. It’s our love. That’s what we love to do. We love to take care of our properties and our cattle and everything. We are ranchers.” — DTN