William Hurt has been ranching New Mexico’s Bootheel for decades on land that runs along nearly 30 miles of the Mexican border.
He remembers the cross-border cattle rustling, robberies and marijuana fields just south of the line in the 1980s. He lost “a rifle, a good hat, a pair of boots, a bedroll, pistol, ammunition and a stereo” to a break-in by a border crosser in 1987. The illegal traffic has come in waves since then. Today, he says, it’s drug runners.
Hurt and other ranchers say they respect Border Patrol agents and the tough work they do, but they deplore some of the ways the agency manages itself and its strategy for patrolling the region. Why aren’t more agents stationed right at the line, they ask, stopping the drug traffickers where they cross?
“My No. 1 concern is that Border Patrol doesn’t provide us the level of protection they need to because they don’t work the border,” Hurt told me. “And No. 2, they don’t provide us with enough information when something does happen.”
The reported kidnapping of a ranch hand in the Bootheel last December has ranchers on edge. Drug runners allegedly loaded the man’s vehicle with dope and forced him to drive them to Arizona, where he was let go. He returned “roughed up” but otherwise unharmed, according to his employer.
The incident has stoked ranchers’ fears and renewed concerns that the Border Patrol isn’t doing all it should to keep the area safe. Ranchers’ groups are holding a public meeting this Thursday in Animas to air their views.
“Border Patrol utilizes a layered enforcement posture,” agency spokesman Ramiro Cordero told me in an email, explaining the agency’s border security strategy. “Agents will follow (track, sign-cut) for miles and utilize different methods to identify disturbances on dirt roads in order to determine the route of travel of individuals who have entered the country illegally. Border Patrol also utilizes different types of technology for purposes of patrolling the border (sensors, cameras, remote video surveillance systems, forward-looking infrared systems and mobile surveillance systems), and unmanned aircraft.”
Illegal crossings are way down in the region, Cordero says. In the El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico, apprehensions by the Border Patrol – considered an indication of trends in illegal border crossings – have dropped 87 percent over the past 15 years.
In 2000, agents apprehended more than 115,000 people in the El Paso sector; last fiscal year, agents picked up fewer than 15,000 people. A quarter of those apprehended last year were from Central America, many of whom are fleeing violence in their home countries and typically turn themselves over to agents.
But those facts are cold comfort to ranchers who say they feel alone out there.
In New Mexico’s remote Bootheel, a ride from Lordsburg to the border can take more than two hours, and a rancher’s nearest neighbor might be 35 miles away or more over rough country roads. The hardy people who call the region home are knit by common challenges in a harsh border environment.
Border Patrol agents come and go. The agency declined to tell me what turnover at the Lordsburg station looks like, but from what I hear from ranchers, the Hidalgo County sheriff and the National Border Patrol Council union, it’s high.
“Attrition nationwide is on the rise,” union spokesman Shawn Moran told me. “If it is a hardship location like Lordsburg, I would say it is even higher. I know they track attrition, they just don’t want to admit the problem is there.”
“It’s difficult for agents to stay in those stations because there is nothing there for families,” Cordero said. “We have talked to senators and congressmen about this. We have to work together to find a way to make it more appealing.”
Cordero told me that the Border Patrol has agents in training who will be sent to the Lordsburg station and anticipates closing the staffing gap soon – the station is down about 50 agents in a location budgeted for 284.
“Sometimes we work with the same agents, but a lot of times it’s new people,” Hidalgo County Sheriff Warren Walter said. “It’s an ongoing problem. I think it boils down to the locals wanting things stopped at the border, not at 50 miles in. It leaves a bitter taste.”
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Lauren Villagran in Las Cruces at firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.