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In digital age, cattle rustling on the rise

A professor in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences at NMSU herds cattle at the school's Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center north of Las Cruces. Recent reports suggest a bit of a comeback in cattle rustling on both sides of the border. (Courtesy of NMSU)

A professor in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences at NMSU herds cattle at the school’s Chihuahuan Desert Rangeland Research Center north of Las Cruces. Recent reports suggest a bit of a comeback in cattle rustling on both sides of the border. (Courtesy of NMSU)

Internet news agencies, business magazines and blogs are littered with reports of modern cybercrimes.

Some discuss corporations having their retail operations hacked and their clients’ credit-card information stolen. Others talk about identity theft and consumers’ credit ratings destroyed by criminals who steal their Social Security numbers and other personal information in order to commit crimes.

Some crimes utilize the cutting edge of modern technology and are so sophisticated that it makes a person wonder what these criminals could have achieved if they had decided on a legitimate career.

Lately, I have been seeing reports of another type of crime that most people would associate with the bygone era of the Old West and Old Mexico — cattle rustling. One-hundred-fifty years ago in these regions, cattle rustling was a way of life for many criminals. The McClaury and Clanton families of southern Arizona became famous for their run-in with the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday at the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

During their heyday, these families also were famous for their propensity to rustle cattle on ranches adjacent on the Mexican border and in Mexico’s interior. Their area of operation stretched from Tucson to northern Mexico.

During this period, Mexican federal officials (federales) pursued cattle rustlers, both Mexican and American, who were wreaking havoc on herds in northern Mexican states. Justice was swift and cattle rustlers who were caught often ended up hanging from the nearest tree.

It appears that in the 21st century the tools of the cattle-rustling trade have shifted from horses to pickup trucks, but the basic crime remains the same. A couple of weeks ago in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, approximately 100 head of cattle were stolen from the Chihuahua Cattlemen’s Association yards in Palomas, Mexico, just across the border from Columbus, N.M. Three armed gunmen forced their way into the yards, loaded cattle into a stolen cargo trailer, and fled south into Mexico’s interior. To date, they have not been apprehended and the estimated heist was valued at close to $80,000.

In southeastern New Mexico, there have been several reports of rustlers stealing cattle, butchering them, and getting away in their trucks before state officials could apprehend them. I have friends in various parts of the American Southwest who have told me stories about portions of their herds disappearing, most likely at the hands of thieves.

Cattle are valuable assets and often are afforded free rein to graze on large ranches of private land or on tracts of leased public land. They are provided a source of water and left to graze for months until they are rounded up for the winter season or to send to market. Cattle can be looked at as fairly liquid assets that spend a lot of time in remote and unguarded areas.

In hard economic times, people desperate for food help themselves to a calf here and there to feed their families. Regardless of economic conditions, many criminals see cattle rustling as a way to make a quick buck on a stolen product that can be sold to disreputable buyers or butchered for meat that can be sold on the black market.

As was the case of cattle theft in Palomas, the rustlers were armed and planned a coordinated attack that succeeded in close proximity to a populated area. Cellphones, walkie-talkies, powerful trucks, and trailers are all tools that make modern rustlers hard to apprehend, especially for ranchers who struggle to keep vigilance on all of their land holdings on which cattle graze and wander.

So while our fears are heightened by reports of the next computer virus or corporate website hacker, out in rural areas modern cattle rustlers are operating under the same premise and using the same tactics as historical figures such as Billy the Kid. In spite of the modern world with all of its technology changing our lives on a daily basis, this aspect of thievery has not changed. In fact, this archaic crime has proliferated into an age-old scourge and lured a new criminal with an ancient bent in the U.S.-Mexico border region.

Jerry Pacheco is the executive director of the International Business Accelerator, a nonprofit trade counseling program of the New Mexico Small Business Development Centers Network. He can be reached at 575-589-2200 or at


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