The story goes like this:
A ranch hand working in New Mexico’s Bootheel stumbles upon men and two or three vehicles stranded in remote cattle country. They turn out to be drug runners from Mexico who take him hostage, load his vehicle with narcotics and force him to drive to Willcox, Ariz., where they leave him alive but warn him not to go to the police.
That alleged incident and a host of recent break-ins have ranchers across Hidalgo County and in southeastern Arizona outraged about what they say is a decline in border security. The cattle growers associations of both states are hosting a meeting this week in the tiny town of Animas to air their grievances to elected officials – including pleas for more boots on the ground – and they expect to draw a crowd.
The Bootheel’s rugged terrain of ridges and arroyos, sparse roads and sprawling desert has historically presented challenges for law enforcement charged with keeping the region safe, particularly from illegal traffic coming from Mexico. It’s a corridor favored by traffickers moving dope north to the drug-hungry U.S. market.
The ranch hand was working for Elbrock Water Systems on the Gray Ranch on Dec. 7 when he was allegedly hijacked by drug runners, according to Tricia Elbrock, who co-owns the Animas-based company that provides well and septic services from Tucson to El Paso.
The Elbrocks, their employees and law enforcement searched for him all night before he called from Willcox before noon the next day, she said.
“They kidnapped him, tied him up, threw all our tools out and fittings and loaded our company vehicle with all the drugs,” Elbrock said. “They waited till dark to leave the ranch. They needed him to help guide them through to the highway.”
On the phone, Elbrock gasped back a sob as she said: “This is still pretty raw. We got him back safe. They did rough him up, but we got him back. It’s a mess. I don’t know what to tell you. We have got to have help down here.”
The FBI confirmed that it is investigating the alleged kidnapping, referred to the bureau by Border Patrol. FBI spokesman Frank Fisher in Albuquerque said no arrests have been made but declined to comment further, citing the pending investigation.
The day their employee returned to Animas, Elbrock said, she, her husband, Edward, and the employee were questioned by State Police, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI.
“The folks down there have never gotten any relief from illegal crossings,” said Caren Cowan, executive director of the Albuquerque-based New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association. “And things have ramped up. These people are desperate. They are absolutely desperate. We have had countless meetings with government agencies over the years, and I say this with all due respect, all we hear about is what they are trying to do and nothing gets done.”
“The main reason for this meeting is this incident,” said Meira Gault, whose 20,000-acre ranch lies just north of the U.S.-Mexico border in Hidalgo County. “People feel they aren’t protected. Everyone is scared.”
Border Patrol reported apprehending 11,000 unauthorized border crossers in fiscal 2015 and seizing more than 15,000 pounds of marijuana. A spokesman said the agency could not break down apprehensions or drug seizures in the Bootheel specifically.
The Border Patrol’s Lordsburg station has been understaffed in recent months, down about 50 agents in a location that is budgeted for 284 agents. But there are agents in the pipeline. A spokesman said the agency has candidates at its training academy that will be assigned to the Bootheel.
Organizers say they have invited elected officials to the meeting. Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, whose southern New Mexico district includes Hidalgo County, is scheduled to be there, according to a spokeswoman.
“The vandalism and the trespass issues have increased,” said Erica Valdez, who ranches more than 40,000 acres between Animas and Lordsburg, about 35 miles north of the border.
The same night of the reported kidnapping, Border Patrol tracked and apprehended two alleged drug runners after a 3 a.m. pursuit in the Animas Valley that involved eight agents working in vehicles, manning a night-vision camera, trekking on foot and riding ATVs, according to a criminal complaint against the two Mexican nationals charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.
The bed of their vehicle was allegedly loaded with 2,774 pounds of pot.
The complaint filed by the U.S. attorney in New Mexico makes no mention of a kidnapping. But it does say that just before that pursuit took place, a different “suspicious vehicle” with its rear lights extinguished “possibly went off road to avoid detection” in the same area.
“The border is not secure,” Valdez said. “It doesn’t matter how tall of a wall you put up, they are going to tunnel under it, they are going to torch through it. If they want to come across, they will. The only way they are going to stop it is with boots on the ground at the border. We would like to see more agents.”