Surviving the Border

Even by Arizona standards, Arivaca, a town of 700 near the Mexican border, is something special. The people there just don’t like government, says a retired police sergeant who didn’t have duty in Arivaca, which is ok by him. Beyond native suspicions, there is heavy drug involvement on a major route from Mexico. A network spreads the word when police are approaching. and given the hostility, a call from Arivaca brings two deputies to the scene instead of the usual one. As they enter where they are not wanted, their car is sometimes pelted by rocks.

Violence is endemic and largely unreported. A murder may not be known until a dead body shows up. Veronica Schultz, who owns a nearby ranch, says she came across a man in a body cast and asked what had happened. He said another man had shot him, but he wasn’t complaining since he had shot the same man a year before. Better let things be. Drug cartel members live in Arivaca, and if offended, they can draw blood, as in Mexico. Indeed is Arivaca a bit of Mexico?

Sadly it is, say Jim and Sue Chilton whose 50 thousand acre ranch spreads scenically into the desert but is not entirely theirs. They must share it with Mexican drug traffickers who, uninvited, use its many trails to transport their cargo north to avid American customers that make their business possible. Along the way, they cut fences, dump garbage, set fires and occasionally leave a dead body in the arid desert. They are armed and dangerous, a far cry from the casual drifters who in years gone by were just seeking a job and a better life.

They do provide the Chiltons with a kind of entertainment. Cameras hidden along some trails film the intruders as they file north with drugs and return with other loot. As they watch the videos, the Chiltons wonder whom they are seeing – the usual Mexicans trapped into carrying the drugs or maybe a terrorist or two. Who knows?

The Chiltons realize they are on their own. Border Patrol and local police are too distant to respond quickly in an emergency. So Jim carries a pistol with him wherever he goes and other guns are strategically located around the ranch. “The law is in this holster,” he says. Though he has drawn his gun, he has not had to shoot at anyone. Once a group of armed traffickers approached his ranch pleading for water. He came out with it but also with his rifle, a necessary combination in such an encounter.

Protection is paramount, says Jim, but insufficient. Drug trafficking is both a national security and a humanitarian issue. He doesn’t want to have people die on his ranch. So he has built drinking fountains at various places that are easy to use. The idea is to help the migrants when possible while fighting the traffic.

Three neighboring ranchers have given up because of the danger and left. Jim and Sue say they will stay whatever happens. They cite the example of one of their cowboys who testified in court against his own son-in-law for drug dealing. For that, he was placed under a witness protection program in Texas for five years. But he decided to come back and is now foreman of the Chilton ranch. Have the cartels met their match?

Still, more help is needed. The Chiltons and other ranchers complain that the Border Patrol, like it says, should be on the border and not many miles beyond. Jim offered the Patrol ten acres of his land at one dollar an acre if they would regularly patrol it, and he would lend them the dollars. There were no takers. They would rather stay put, he says.

Unlike other ranchers, not to mention all the critics of Donald Trump, Chilton favors a border-long wall. It can be built despite the difficult terrain, he says, citing the example of the construction of the spectacular Alaskan railway that cut through even taller mountains with the primitive tools of the early19th century – hand drills, black powder instead of dynamite. Compared to that engineering feat, says Chilton, the border wall would be a picnic.

But as he and other ranchers acknowledge, a wall is no better than those who guard it. Manpower, lacking now, would be essential. Cartels are adept at going over or under any wall that is built. While the debate goes on, the drugs keep coming along with the violence and the corruption. Mexico on the march.

In contrast to Arivaca, nearby Sasabe, a tiny dot of a border town (population seven, down from eleven) is quiet and uneventful. Despite its size, it is a major crossing point, but drug traffickers pass quickly by a handful of buildings that offer no resistance. A wall hardly deters them, though it keeps out the migrants that used to come to work for the day at the Rancho de la Osa, a famed rustic Spanish hacienda built in 1889 and home to generations of ranchers who traded with Indians and Mexicans. Some are buried in the adjacent cemetery

A guest worker program is needed, says owner Veronica Schultz, who recalls a time when people could easily cross the border on various visits and chores. In fact, her ranch was popular with guests because it is only a mile from the border – just a stroll into romantic Mexico. Now a wall and crime intervene.

You’re all right if you don’t go looking for trouble, says Veronica. That’s just what ranch guests did one night. They went in search of traffickers to film and found them. The result was the highly esteemed “Cartel Land,” and the filmmakers lived to enjoy it. Generally, the cartels, while unsparing of Mexicans, don’t want to harm Americans if they can avoid it – bad for business. Still word of border violence keeps people from visiting the ranch that once attracted Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson and a host of Hollywood stars. It is now for sale. Maybe the buyer could increase the town’s population by one or two. Let Sasabe live.

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