Drug Smugglers Are Driving Across the Arizona Border in Broad DaylightBy Leo W. Banks
The October 2 shooting death of Border Patrol agent Nicholas Ivie brought national media to Arizona's Cochise County. After a few days, when investigators determined that the killing was a tragic a case of friendly fire, the media packed up and left.
Most of their stories will go unaired and unpublished, and that's a shame. With the election looming, voters needs to hear the truth at a time when Washington is spinning the nation into believing that the mission of securing the border has been accomplished. Nothing to see here, folks -- we've got this under control.
Not even close, says rancher John Ladd.
His San Jose Ranch sits right on the Arizona-Mexico line, ten and a half miles of land stretching from the town of Naco west toward the San Pedro River. Border Patrol has three camera towers on his property, an eye-in-the-sky Cyclops, and sensors hidden in the desert shrubs that activate when smugglers pass. A pedestrian fence (pictured below) blocks the entire ten and a half miles.
None of these security measures have worked.
Since the end of February, Ladd has had at least nine drug drive-throughs across his land involving 21 trucks. The smugglers cut the mesh border fence and pull it down, then ramp over the vehicle barrier just inside it. In most cases they tack-weld the fence back up and brush out tracks to disguise the incursion.
Eight of these episodes occurred in broad daylight, and in two of them the smugglers passed within 50 feet of a camera tower.
The ninth happened near dusk on Friday, September 28. The smugglers cut open a nine-foot-wide portion of the fence and pulled it back, leaving a hole wide enough to accommodate three trucks, including a Suburban and a Tahoe. Ladd says the trucks went north a short distance before turning and going back into Mexico. He has no idea what spooked them.
How can Ladd be sure the trucks are hauling dope? "I've watched this go on for years," he says. "I know what's happening on my land."
Neighbor Bill Odle agrees: "These are sophisticated break-ins, and it has to be some high-profit item making them a lot of money. What the hell else would it be? It ain't tortillas."
In the second episode, back in March, Ladd actually saw the dope in the back of a truck. He was driving south on one of his roads as three smuggler trucks came north. They passed within feet of one another.
"These were all fairly new Chevy pickups with Sonoran plates," Ladd tells me. "In the back I could see the rounded tops of dope bundles, and the driver in the last truck waved hello."
This is the border that Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says is as secure as it has ever been.
Over and over she reminds us that crossings have dropped to their lowest level since the Nixon years. Fair enough; folks I talk to every day confirm that the number of workers crossing has plummeted. The lousy economy here is one reason, the robust Mexican economy another.
But there's a third explanation: workers are afraid to cross land in northern Mexico controlled by drug gangsters. These dangerous men are taking advantage of the great magnet of American demand to run poison across our state.
The trend is fewer workers, but more drugs and more danger for those living on smuggling corridors.
Ladd has endured the border trouble for more than 20 years, the highest number of crossings coming a decade or so ago. On a single day in 2000, Border Patrol arrested 700 illegals on his land.
When the fence was completed in October of 2007, he thought his nightmare would end. But the fence design on his land is the least effective on the border. If Ladd and wife JoBeth leave home for any length of time, as they did on a trip to Yellowstone in June, one of their sons has to take a vacation from his job and come back to the ranch.
They can't leave the house unguarded. Ladd's dogs bark all night long.
"On the east side of my house, between there and Naco, there are probably four or five groups crossing every night," says Ladd. "During daytime, I'd say that on 90 percent of the days between last Thanksgiving and now, I've seen at least one group within sight of my kitchen window."
Today they come in much smaller numbers than years ago -- two or three illegals at a time, as opposed to 25 or 50. But they still make Ladd's life a misery.
After dark on Thursday, October 4, crossers jumped the border and stomped down one of his barbed wire fences. Twenty-five of his cows and calves got out. On Friday morning, Ladd got a call from the owner of the bar in Naco.
"Hey, John," he said. "I've got a bunch of your cows here. You better come get 'em." Ladd spent the day on horseback, rounding them up.
Next morning, his phone rang again with news that another group had cut the barbed wire fence separating Ladd's land from Highway 92, three miles north of the border. He worked on Saturday to mend that fence with twine -- a temporary fix.
Ladd deals with the constant insecurity by keeping in close contact with the more dedicated agents working his land. Nick Ivie was one of them. Recently, the two talked about the drive-throughs. Ivie was worried, saying to John, "Give me your cell phone."
"How come?" John asked.
"Because I want to program my cell number into it in case you have any trouble." Then he laughed. "I know you don't know how to do it."
Ladd also talks regularly with Odle and other neighbors. He tells of a recent conversation with a woman who stays home with her kids while her fireman-husband is away. She was mad about the fence cuts and wanted to fix them herself.
"I told her don't do that," says Ladd. "Stay inside. If you need something fixed, call me. You don't need to put yourself in that position."
Even Ladd has become wary of going to the border at night to fix his fences. But he has to, or his cows will drift into Mexico, gone for good. So after every drive-through, he goes down to the line in the dark to string wire across the opening, using his headlights to see.
He used to listen to the radio as he worked. No more. He wants to remain alert to sounds. He stops every few minutes to scan the landscape to see if anyone is approaching. "I'm carrying a gun again, and I don't like to do that," he says. "I almost feel like I'm in a combat zone."
A final note: on the same Friday morning that Ladd was gathering cows in Naco, three helicopters were circling the border. They stayed airborne for six hours. Ladd says a show of force of that magnitude usually means one thing -- somebody important has come out from Washington, and the feds want to make sure nothing embarrassing happens.
Sure enough, Acting Deputy Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection David Aguilar was visiting the Naco Border Patrol station that day. And Napolitano was in nearby Sierra Vista the same weekend, paying her respects at the Ivie home.
The choppers are gone now, and the bigshots have returned to their protected enclaves in D.C., free from the perils of the border they boast about.
FOLLOW US ON