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Ranching No Man's Land

By David F. Crosby

Mexico has belatedly discovered that its criminal syndicates have become so powerful that they directly threaten the state. In fact, Mexico hovers on the brink of becoming a narco-state. Its criminal syndicates control the Mexican side of the Texas/Mexico border and the smuggling of drugs and illegal immigrants into Texas. Their influence and reach have crossed the Rio Grande River in ways that many politicians and media prefer to not acknowledge.

Caught in this crossfire are ranchers trying to protect their property and their way of life. Here are some of the problems they face daily.

The criminal organizations
To understand the security problem along the Texas/Mexico border, you must understand the criminal organizations that control it. The drug cartels are the top tier of organized crime on the border. Alliances and territories change, but the primary cartels operating along the Texas border include the Gulf, Sinaloa, Juárez, Beltrán-Leyva, Los Zetas, Los Negros and La Familia gangs.

Each controls smuggling routes into the U.S. through Texas. They use these routes to move their drugs and illegal immigrants into the U.S., but they also operate as toll companies — they charge smaller criminal enterprises such as human smugglers to use their territory and routes to carry out their own criminal enterprises. The cartels earn billions of dollars controlling these smuggling routes, and big money leads to violent turf wars to wrest control of territory from rivals.

The cartels control the wholesale distribution of their drugs in the U.S. maintaining cells in major cities such as Houston, El Paso, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas. These cells supply drugs for retail sale to violent street gangs like MS-13 and the Mexican Mafia. To make extra income — like any business, the cartels seek multiple revenue sources — the cartels have become major players in human trafficking and kidnapping. The major threat for Texas ranchers is that these smuggling routes often traverse their property.

The South Texas invasion
To understand the illegal migration pattern in South Texas, think of it as an upside-down funnel. Illegal immigrants cross the Rio Grande River all across South Texas. Typically, the coyotes — paid guides who smuggle illegal immigrants into the U.S. — steal vehicles on the U.S. side to pick up and transport the illegal immigrants toward the population centers of Texas. That causes the funnel to narrow, and makes the small Texas town of Falfurrias — about 70 miles from the Rio Grande River — a major chokepoint for cartel drug smuggling and human trafficking.

The Border Patrol checkpoint at Falfurrias has one of the highest seizure rates in the U.S. The permanent Border Patrol checkpoint is located on Highway 281, a major road. Obviously, illegal immigrants would prefer to use secondary roads to simply drive around this roadblock, but the Border Patrol parks patrol vehicles along these secondary roads, monitoring vehicular traffic, and the Texas Department of Public Safety heavily patrols these roads, making a drive around risky.

So coyotes usually dump their human loads or drug mules into the brush before the checkpoint, and lead them around the checkpoint through the rugged and rural terrain of the ranches bordering both sides of the Border Patrol barrier.

If the group successfully navigates its way through the cattle ranches, coyotes on the other side of the checkpoint pick the group back up and transport them into Houston. So terrain and coyote tactics put the cattle ranches around Falfurrias at ground zero for the illegal immigrant invasion and the Mexican cartel drug wars.

As one Hildago County rancher (who wished to remain anonymous) said, "We're within 5 miles of the border here, so they're just passing through — it's when they get farther north and their tongues are hanging out that they get desperate and dangerous." The farther north he was referring to is Falfurrias. According to the Border Patrol, they depend on the ranchers in the Falfurrias area as additional eyes and ears.

Problems caused by illegal immigrants trespassing
Contrary to open border activist assertions, illegal immigration is not a victimless crime. Ranchers along the border suffer economic loss daily due to illegal immigration.

Illegal immigrants damage fences and gates, damage water lines and water storage tanks, leave massive amounts of trash on ranchland in "lay up" locations, vandalize ranch property, engage in home invasions of isolated rural homes, kidnap illegal immigrants and hold them for ransom, and even murder.

Ranching has always been a low margin business that requires operational efficiency to succeed, and illegal immigration makes that effort even more difficult for borderland ranchers.

Ram and run
The "ram and run" costs all South Texas ranchers dearly. When the DPS or Border Patrol agents pursue a vehicle, usually stolen, filled with illegal immigrants, the coyote often will run off the road, perhaps destroying a fence, and travel off-road a bit before bailing out on foot. They know the pursuing vehicle will not follow them off-road.

The rancher must repair his fence immediately to prevent cattle from wandering onto the highway. The cost for each incident is usually between $1,000 and $1,800, paid out of pocket by the rancher.

One rancher reported that he has had 4 ram and runs so far this year at a cost of $6,000 to repair. All ranchers interviewed agreed that the federal claims process was a joke, and none had ever received any reimbursement from the federal government for damages to their fences caused by pursuits gone wrong.

Coyotes view fences and locked gates as impediments to their criminal enterprise, and cut or damage them on a regular basis. In an effort to halt the vandalism, some ranchers have gone so far as to build stepladders over their fences to let the illegal immigrants cross without damaging the fence. Unfortunately, this rarely works because the illegal immigrants often believe these ladders are under surveillance. They simply move to another location, cut the fence and cross there.

Damaged water pipes
Cattle need water, so every cattle ranch has water sources for livestock to drink. Unfortunately, many illegal immigrants do not want to drink from the stock tank and, instead, physically break the pipe supplying the tank to drink fresh water directly from the pipe. Then they just leave the pipe gushing precious water on the ground.

South Texas ranchers report that, just like fences, they will spend several thousand dollars a year repairing water pipes and submersible pumps destroyed by trespassing illegal immigrants.

Trash
Trespassing illegal immigrants will often hide in brush during daylight hours and move at night. They leave all types of trash in their hiding locations. While this trash is unsightly, more importantly, some of it is contaminated with potential pathogens.

Illegal immigrants entering Texas come from Mexico, South America, Africa, the Middle East, and even China. Many of these immigrants have Third World diseases.

According to Dr. Mike Vickers, DVM, a commissioner with the Texas Animal Health Commission and a member of the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, "Multi-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDR-TB), HIV, hepatitis B and C, Chagas disease, dengue fever, and neurocysticercosis are just a few of the diseases illegal immigrants bring with them." Consequently, ranchers have to use caution when cleaning up these dumpsites.

Theft and vandalism
Illegal immigrants routinely steal and vandalize ranch property — particularly vehicles and hunting lodges. While most seek food and water, others want to destroy property. In some cases, illegal immigrants have burned down buildings and ranchland as well.

Dead bodies
A Hidalgo County rancher had this to say about coyotes, "Coyotes have GPS [global positioning systems] and cell phones, so they know where they are all the time. A coyote will walk his illegals into the ground. If they can't keep up, he will just leave them. He doesn't care. You will find them sometimes wandering the ranch and desperate for help to get back to a road so they can return home."

As a consequence, illegal immigrants sometimes die on ranch property — some due to the elements, some to coyote violence, some to rape and robbery. The body count near the Rio Grande River is small — a Hidalgo County rancher will usually find only 1 or 2 bodies a year. Near Falfurrias, ranchers routinely find bodies on their property.

According to Vickers, who owns a ranch in the Falfurrias area, "In 2009, 71 bodies were found on ranches in the Falfurrias area. Since 2005, between 400 and 500 bodies were found."

Intimidation
The drug cartels and street gangs that work with them use intimidation to keep ranchers and locals from speaking out. As one Hidalgo County rancher said, "You have to watch what you say or you'll turn yourself into a magnet. When you're a rancher they know where your gate is. What's happening now is the same thing that happened 100 years ago."

Vickers further explains, "Gangs try to intimidate the ranchers. Some ranch employees work for the gangs and the cartels. They keep an eye on what's going on, and help out by intentionally leaving a gate unlocked for the night so a load can be moved, and that type of thing. Gangs like MS-13 and the Mexican Mafia have a heavy presence in South Texas and they work closely with the cartels. It's the gangs that will actually carry out retaliation."

The fever tick
The fever tick — actually the Boophilus annulatus and Boophilus microplus ticks — once threatened the entire Texas cattle industry. Eradicated from the U.S., but not Mexico, the fever tick remains a constant threat, and USDA "tick riders" patrol a buffer zone along the Rio Grande River from Del Rio to Brownsville, rounding up Mexican strays that cross the river, inspecting cattle in the buffer zone, and running dipping operations to keep the fever tick contained. Their tools still include the horse, the lasso, a gun and a radio.

Unfortunately, recent border violence and illegal immigration have affected their ability to do their jobs. "The tick riders were pulled off the river about 2 months ago after several were shot at from across the Rio Grande River," says Vickers.

Cartel violence in Mexico has also affected fever tick containment operations. The USDA Tick Force scratched and dipped cattle in Mexico before their export into Texas, but violence has forced the agency to move this operation to the U.S. side at 2 points of entry (Hidalgo and Laredo).

Vickers explains, "Two of our veterinarians were threatened in Mexico coming from the export pens. One was stopped by the drug cartels outside of Nuevo Laredo and held for a while at gunpoint. The other was robbed outside of Piedras Negras (Eagle Pass). Eagle Pass is now closed and cattle passing through Del Rio and Presidio are still scratched and dipped in Mexico."

West Texas
While West Texas has a significant human smuggling problem, it is not as severe as the invasion seen in South Texas. Two reasons account for the difference. Illegal aliens apprehended in West Texas — the area from Laredo to El Paso — go before a federal magistrate, and are incarcerated for 2 to 6 weeks before being deported for illegally entering the country.

The Border Patrol catches and releases in South Texas, primarily because federal prosecutors based in Corpus Christi lack the manpower and resources to handle the workload. In addition, the South Texas route offers quick access to large sanctuary cities such as Houston. In sanctuary cities, the local police do not enforce immigration law.

Drug smuggling, and the violence that accompanies it, is the major problem in West Texas. In Hudspeth County, the sheriff's department earlier this year bluntly warned its ranchers to arm themselves when they are out working their property.

Governor Perry wants new state law
Governor Perry hopes to get a bill out of the next legislature to make human trafficking a state crime with a sentence of 25 years to life. This will allow state and local police to put away coyotes and the master minds behind human smuggling operations for a very long time, even if federal prosecutors decline to do their job.

Changing attitudes
A rancher in South Texas — who insisted his name not be used, for fear of retaliation — summed up the violent border problem in a few sentences. "Attitudes are changing with ranchers. We realize we have to do something. We are proud of the stand Arizona ranchers have taken. There just aren't enough boots on the ground. The whole issue has just become too political."

It has also become too violent and too dangerous to ignore. It has become an undeclared war — a war we are not winning. 


"Ranching No-Man's Land" is from the January 2010 issue of The Cattleman magazine.