Ranchers endure fear, damage from 'coyotes'
SASABE, Ariz. – Melissa Owen heard the tear of a blade across a screen, then the boom of a boot as two smugglers kicked in the door of her Altar Valley ranch house.
Home alone, Owen, 66, did what any Texas transplant living four miles from Arizona's border with Mexico would do.
“I hope one is still picking birdshot out of his butt,” she said of the 2005 incident during a tour of her Sierra Vista Ranch, 640 acres of rolling Sonora Desert that has become a major smuggling corridor for narcotics and illegal immigrants.
From Texas to California, U.S. ranchers deal with sticky-fingered, “dead-heading” drug mules or coyotes returning from dropping off pot or people.
Isolated and often alone, ranchers and their belongings make tantalizing targets, they told a Tribune-Review investigations reporter during a two-month journey along the Mexico-United States border.
“It's unsettling, but I don't scare easily,” said Owen. “It's one thing to have 40 or 50 people at the gates, with starving babies. You empathize with them. But the demographic is changing. They're being replaced with hard-core criminals.”
In the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Owen watched U.S. Border Patrol double its staff in the Altar Valley. The agency erected a three-strand barbed-wire fence, finally blocking the smugglers from driving stolen trucks onto her ranch and abandoning them.
At the time, the political will in Washington seemed to be changing course on illegal immigration, Owen and other ranchers said, giving them hope that their lives and economic enterprises would be protected.
But Owen, other ranchers and the Border Patrol then began to fret that the increasing security would be ruined by a major natural gas line.
Roger San Martin, the patrol agent in charge of Border Patrol's Tucson Station, wrote to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington in 2012 stating that he feared a planned Kinder Morgan natural gas pipeline to Sasabe bisecting the Sierra Vista would act much like a superhighway, sparking “a more robust smuggling infrastructure, a higher crime rate” for communities in both nations.
Owen said she and other ranchers assumed that the feds would listen to Border Patrol's concerns and nix the project. At the very least, she figured the commission would divert the pipeline toward Nogales, a border community that wanted it.
On July 1, 2014 , however, the commission green-lighted the $200 million pipeline through Sasabe to the Mexican interior. By October, the gas was flowing — and so were coyotes with their illegal immigrants along a trail as wide as a street that had been made for the pipeline over the Sierra Vista, she said.
Owen said the process highlights the hypocrisy in Washington, where even conservative legislators who talk tough about controlling illegal immigration seem to back away when big corporate interests are concerned.
“They defiled pristine habitat ... They didn't care about the jaguar or any of the eight endangered species. They didn't care that Nogales was begging for the pipeline. They didn't care that they were building a superhighway for drug smugglers and illegal immigrants,” Owen said.
When contacted by a Trib investigations reporter, commission officials reiterated the agency's findings in its final impact statement and orders. Those documents conceded that smugglers in Texas exploit pipelines, railroads, transmission lines and access road right-of-ways to bypass Border Patrol checkpoints.
To prevent that in the Altar Valley, Kinder Morgan would build “deterrents” along the route to thwart traffickers, and Border Patrol had enough resources to handle any rise in crime, according to FERC's findings.
Kinder Morgan said the corporation worked closely with federal law enforcement for two years to come up with a border security plan but could not discuss sensitive details. Most of the pipeline traverses state land, not private, and the project met all government guidelines, company spokesman Richard N. Wheatley said in an email.
The few affected ranchers were “compensated very well” for easements necessary to build the pipeline, he said, and the project benefitted scores of other Americans by hiring hundreds of workers and continuing to send gas south along a “cheaper, safer and cleaner” pipeline, compared to alternatives.
Owen said she held out against the project but eventually had to settle with Kinder Morgan or risk losing a portion of her land to eminent domain. She told a Trib investigations reporter that she's not allowed to discuss the terms of the deal, but believes no amount of money was worth it.
“I'm still a little raw about this,” Owen said.
Myths about immigration
Along the 1,933 miles of border separating the United States from Mexico, ranchers repeatedly told a Trib investigations reporter that they feel marginalized in the larger national debates over immigration and drug enforcement policies.
Their views are hardly uniform, however.
Owen, for example, favors decriminalizing most marijuana laws to hurt the Mexican drug cartels. She thinks “right-wing and left-wing goofballs” in Congress have impeded immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for many immigrant families.
Although she's generally a supporter of President Barack Obama, Owen called on the president and the First Family to vacation at her ranch for a week to better understand border security issues and the problems ranchers face.
“If a drug cartel took over Pittsburgh, there would be a nationwide outcry to do something. Well, what do you think happened here in my valley?” Owen said.
About 40 miles north of Sasabe — and on the other side of the political spectrum — Pat King runs the 50,000-acre Anvil Ranch with her husband, John. She echoes Owen when describing how the Altar Valley has changed over the past 25 years, especially the rise in violence caused by smugglers.
A cowboy's worst fear today, she said, is riding up on a “rip crew.”
Operating out of Mexico and often dressed in camouflage and brandishing military-grade rifles, these gangs of criminals often hide near water troughs to ambush the human caravans toting bags of marijuana north.
“You pretend that you don't see them and you go the other way. You don't reach for anything. Not a phone, not a gun,” King, 71, said. “You just turn around slowly and hope that one of them doesn't put a bullet in your back.”
King's Anvil Ranch has a full-time security guard because illegal immigrants repeatedly tried to loot their home. She said she was shocked when smugglers threw clothing, dirt and manure into the water to vandalize cattle tanks, preventing thirsty immigrants from drinking and putting livestock at risk, too.
“I think what most people don't realize is how destructive they can be,” she said.
Owen echoed King when she decried “the saintly myth of the illegal immigrant.” Each immigrant dumps onto the Sierra Vista between nine and 12 pounds of garbage, she said, and the constant smuggling traffic through the valley decimates a fragile desert ecosystem, especially at the nearby Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge.
King said the federal government could help more by maintaining ranch roads and fences damaged by smugglers and the Border Patrol agents who chase them, but emphasized the first order of business is sealing off the valley from illegal traffic. She wants the government to deploy active-duty combat troops to southern Arizona but doesn't expect to see them because politicians don't care.
“I live in no-man's land. I don't become a U.S. citizen until April 15th,” she said.
Strangers on their own land
The Valdez family has owned a ranch in Puerto Rico, Texas, for 75 years. Eddie Valdez, 50, told a Trib investigations reporter that too often Americans forget that many citizens living north of Mexico are descendants of ranchers with Spanish land grants.
In 1848, after surrendering to invading U.S. forces, the government of Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and ceded more than half of the nation's territory, including Texas, Arizona, New Mexico and California, to the United States.
Sometimes, he said, Congress needs to do less — not more — and occasionally listen to Mexican-American families who have owned land along the border for generations.
He points to the border fence being built across the southwestern states: A fabrication shop he runs got a federal contract for some of the steel barriers, but like most residents interviewed in the Trib investigation, Valdez said the federal project was little more than expensive political theater that didn't stop illegal immigrants from walking through rancher property in his neck of Hidalgo County.
“They put the fence up and we had more activity. It channeled them and they came straight to us,” he said.
A flood of Border Patrol agents and Texas Department of Public Safety troopers also has been a headache. Many are young, he said, and don't understand the Rio Grande Valley's distinct Tejano culture. They repeatedly pull over American ranchers of Hispanic descent, believing they're smugglers because they dress well and drive expensive trucks.
“I have a white hat and a black hat,” he said. “But it doesn't matter which one I wear. They still stop me.”