Drug czar El Chapo has been caught once again to considerable acclaim, but given the enormous American appetite for illicit drugs, his departure from the trade won’t make much difference. He will quickly be replaced by others equally violent in Mexico’s never ending drug war. For example, El Mencho, or Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, whose narco cartel in a rampage last May stormed the city of Guadalajara, setting fire to banks and stores. When a military helicopter arrived, the narcos shot it down, then executed five soldiers inside. “A brazen and terrifying display of power,” writes Yahoo News reporter Meghan Walsh, who notes the cartel’s many gruesome videos of killing and torture.
This is the kind of thing ranchers along the Arizona border face. In fact, they form the first line of defense against the growing invasion of drugs, money, corruption and violence that has poisoned Mexico and is endangering the United States. They are doing their best to prevent it.
The border is not protected. Stretching 2000 miles over desert and mountains, over an Indian reservation and a wildlife refuge, it’s easily crossed by drug runners with sophisticated gear and no scruples. The Border Patrol is spread too thin and often not on the border. Ranchers work with the Patrol when they can but are largely on their own. Aside from handling their cattle, they must deal with armed predators who damage their property and threaten their lives.
As such, they exemplify a tradition that is no myth. Like their forebears who won the west, they are trying to save it. In fact, judging from old photos, they bear a striking resemblance to the legendary frontiersmen – same weathered, chiseled features and sober mien, no swagger but a clear look of resolution. Not easy to cross them, as even the drug cartels have learned. Americans are soft, mindless drug consumers, scoff the cartels who profit from them. Not all Americans.
Ed Ashurst, one of the leaders of ranch resistance, says he sometimes gets weary of it all and wonders if he should give up the fight. Not very likely. He’s about to publish a book on the subject and quitting doesn’t seem to be in his blood – not the western way. He complains, as do others, that the rest of the country tends to ignore them, even consider them a bit odd, while a growing torrent of drugs, now heroin in particular, moves north seemingly unobserved by government and media. The Accidental Superpower, a sweeping survey of US global responsibilities by Peter Zeihan, concludes that “the expansion of the Mexican drug war to all of North America is emerging as the greatest geopolitical threat to the American way of life.”
For the ranchers, immigration has changed dramatically. A few years back, they were used to people crossing the border for work and a better life. They may have left some trash and done some damage, but ranchers generally didn’t bother them and sometimes offered them food and drink. Today, they come in groups, hooded, clad in black with night-vision goggles and automatic weapons. They’re managing the drugs and defy interference. Others who cross, like the spate of children in recent months, are fleeing the cartel violence in Mexico. Understandable, since some 60 thousand Mexicans have been killed by the cartels in the last few years.
How to defend against them? Not very easy. Ranchers scoff at the notion of a wall. A number have been built and they don’t stop the drugs. Traffickers go through, under or over. John Ladd’s 14 thousand acre ranch with ten miles on the border has been a major drug route. He’s counted fifty-one drug-laden trucks crossing his ranch in the last three and a half years. Those are the ones he has seen. He has to keep repairing his steel fence because it’s cut by a chain saw in a matter of minutes. And as he works on it, there’s always the danger of being kidnapped. Even when a wall serves its purpose, like the one protecting the border town of Nogales, drug runners can simply go a few miles beyond it and cross unimpeded.
The cartels are certainly dangerous, says rancher Ashurst, but their main weapon is fear. They’d prefer not to hurt Americans – bad for business. They’d rather scare them into submission. For example, a local man was kidnapped by smugglers to transport their drugs. When released, he was told not to talk or his family would be targeted. He has had little to say. “This is an American citizen on American soil,” says a somewhat incredulous Ashurst, who lays much of the blame on Washington. For political reasons, each administration wants to show the American public the border is secure when it clearly isn’t.
This can be taken to extremes. A veteran Border Patrol officer Nicholas Ivie was said to be killed by another agent in a friendly fire incident in October 2012 and thus sent to his grave the victim of an accident. But Ashurst has come upon evidence indicating armed Mexican intruders initiated the gunfire, which has been omitted from the official report. Why show there’s trouble on the border, particularly just before a Presidential election?
Ranchers pay a price for standing up to the cartels. Five years ago, Bob Krentz was killed on his ranch by a Mexican lying in wait for him. His widow Susan maintains the ranch and carries on the anti-cartel fight for which she also may have paid a price. Coming out of church, she was hit by a car and seriously injured. A drunken driver was held responsible, but suspicions point to something more. The cartels have a long memory and a long reach. Responding perhaps to those a little more timid, she says “We are not vigilantes. Just let us alone so we can do our job and keep the peace.”
Still, she talks too much, complains a local newsman, fearing perhaps the effect of her words on Mexican tourism. No use scaring people with the facts, such as a 185-mile stretch of road from the border city of Matamoros to Ciudad Victoria, capital of the state of Tamaulipas. It’s known as “Death Highway” because motorists have been routinely stopped, robbed, kidnapped and killed by the Gulf and Zetas cartels along the way. Now federal police cruisers regularly escort a convoy of cars on the route, which is still taking a chance since the cartels could intervene with even more cars and guns.
In early January, Gisela Mota was beaten and shot to death a day after taking office as the mayor of Temixco, the latest of about 100 mayors to have been assassinated by the cartels in recent years. Temixco is a suburb of picturesque Cuernavaca, favorite of foreign tourists and residents, many of whom are now leaving for a more peaceful setting. Susan Krentz is not to blame.
If the cartels are not enough, ranchers face another possible danger – the arrival of terrorists. So far, it’s mainly talk, but they could cross the border as easily as anyone else, though it would be less trouble to enter the US lawfully with a visa, as terrorists have. Moreover, the cartels do not look kindly on anyone interfering with their business and leading to bad publicity, as terrorism would. But never overlook the power of money, say ranchers. With enough of it, the terrorists could make a deal with the devil.
KGB files reveal that in the Cold War, pro-communist guerrillas established sabotage units on the Mexican border with weapons and explosives to be used in the event of outright war that thankfully didn’t occur.
At 79, tall, rangy Warner Glenn has an additional chore beyond ranching and spotting drug runners. He has become something of an environmentalist. He and his popular, active wife Wendy, now deceased, helped form the Malpai Borderlands Group, which seeks to preserve the land as well as use it. Conservationists and environmentalists have successfully combined with ranchers to the benefit of both, showing cattle and wild life can coexist.
This avoids the kind of clash that has occurred in Oregon. Glenn says a consensus has now emerged on handling fires, the center of that controversy. Sometimes, they will be allowed to burn, sometimes not, depending on conditions.
Glenn has also come to terms with the Border Patrol, routinely criticized by ranchers for inefficiency and susceptibility to bribes. On a lion hunting trip in late December, his daughter Kelly’s mule slipped in the snow. Kelly fell, breaking her leg and fracturing an eye socket. Far from help on a bleak mountain side, father and daughter had a grim outlook. To their surprise, a group of Border Patrol agents appeared on foot and horseback. A helicopter landed precariously and took them to safety. Kelly is on the way to a full recovery.
They did a great job, says Glenn. No point in battling other Americans over lesser issues in view of the epic battle coming across the border.