Ranchers fear drug cartels more than immigrants at US-Mexico border


Demetri Sevastopulo in Nogales, ArizonaSeptember 9, 2016 4:54 pm

A US border patrol officer liaises with a local rancher at Nogales, Arizona

A US border patrol officer liaises with a local rancher at Nogales, Arizona

On a sweltering summer evening in southern Arizona, dozens of carpet-soled moccasins lie along the portico of a ranch 20 miles from Mexico, serving as a reminder of one of the biggest problems on the border: not illegal immigration, but drug trafficking.

Interrupted only by the cicadas, Jim Chilton, a fifth-generation rancher, and his wife Sue explain that Mexican drug mules, who routinely traverse their 50,000 acres of land, cover the soles of the moccasins — which are then worn over shoes — with carpet to avoid leaving tracks that US border agents could follow.

 Mr Chilton, whose ranch stretches back to a simple barbed wire fence that separates the US from Mexico, was speaking the day before Donald Trump hardened his stance on illegal immigrants in a speech in Phoenix. The rancher says he backs the mogul and his plan to build a wall on the border because it would reduce the influence of the Mexican cartels.

“We live in an area controlled by the Sinaloa cartel,” says Mr Chilton who has installed motion-sensor cameras on his land to capture video of the drug mules. “We have a mountain back here, Sinaloa cartel scouts resided on it. [On] all of the mountains back here, we’ve seen cartel scouts . . . In fact, they may be watching us now.”

While Mr Trump’s wall has resonated from Iowa to Ohio, as well as with Mr Chilton, many border residents in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and California are not concerned about illegal immigrants. A recent poll by Cronkite News, Univision News and The Dallas Morning News found that 72 per cent of Americans in border cities opposed the wall, although there has been no comparable study for rural areas, where the population is less Hispanic and where drug traffickers tend to have an easier time getting into the US than at the official border ports.

None Garcia, a Mexican-born rancher who has lived in the Arizona border city of Nogales for decades, says Mr Trump has created an ugly climate in the US with his deportation plan and rhetoric about Mexicans.

The Arizona-Mexico border at Nogales©Demetri SevastopuloThe Arizona-Mexico border at Nogales

“He’s trying to deport 11m people. Are you going to be stopping me every day? Do I fit the profile and will I be stopped everywhere?” says Mr Garcia, who laments what he describes as “very hurtful” language from Mr Trump.

One reason for the lack of concern in the area about illegal immigration is that it has been in decline, particularly since the 2007 financial crisis, as the US has fewer jobs to offer. According to the US Customs and Border Protection agency, the number of people caught crossing into the country illegally fell from 1.1m in 2006 to 337,000 last year. But the amount of heroin and meth seized along the border has risen threefold during the past five years, helping to fuel an opiate epidemic and contributing to drug overdoses overtaking car accidents as the top cause of injury deaths in the US.

Driving around Nogales, the closest border city to the Chilton ranch, Vincente Paco, a CBP agent, points out two cartel scouts on a hill in Nogales Sonora, a Mexican city on the other side of a three-mile border wall. “We are focused on targeting both [illegal immigrants and drugs] but the biggest threat is drug smuggling,” says Mr Paco, who says the trafficking business has been taken over by the cartels, which see migrants “as dollar signs” because they can serve as drug mules or be used as decoys inside the US.

He says US agents and the cartels are playing a game of chess that involves watching each other closely and trying to ensure that their technology does not fall behind. Mr Chilton says his cowboys have found $2,500 satellite phones, $2,000 binoculars and other sophisticated equipment that scouts have left behind. And Mr Paco says the cartels use everything from tunnels and compressed-air cannons to sewage systems to get drugs into the US.

While Mr Trump focuses on the crime of illegal immigration, Mr Chilton expresses sympathy for the migrants, saying that as many as 40 have died on his ranch. On the Mexican side of the wall in Nogales, images of candles are painted on the barrier as a memorial to the Mexicans who have lost their lives trying to complete the crossing into the US.

In Nogales, candles are painted on the barrier as a memorial to the Mexicans who have died©Demetri SevastopuloIn Nogales, candles are painted on the barrier as a memorial to the Mexicans who have died

Mr Chilton has 22 wells and 29 drinking fountains on his land where migrants can quench their thirst in the harsh desert heat, and these help reduce the number of deaths. And he has even offered water to armed traffickers who showed up outside his door looking for “agua” from the elderly couple.

But he says the cartels are brutal in how they treat migrants, describing cases when women have been repeatedly raped and men have had their fingers cut off. Sue Chilton says the couple are not scared, but that when they notice that drug smugglers are in the area they turn off the lights and lay low in their kitchen until the mules have left.

“How do we protect ourselves? We pack guns,” says Mr Chilton, who owns a .223 calibre ranch rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun and a Smith and Wesson pistol. “I have a gun with me everywhere I go.”