Life Behind the Tortilla Curtain

Those who live close to the Mexican border in Arizona and New Mexico consistently express two sentiments. First, the number of illegals crossing the line has plunged from a flood to a trickle in most places. The feds and the political spinners love that because it allows them to say, with some truth, that the border is as secure as it's ever been.

But they leave out the second part. The worst of the worst, the drug smugglers, vagabond bad guys, and mulitiple deports who use the border as a turnstyle are still out there, as dangerous as ever, as plentiful as ever, if not more so.

Two kidnappings in six months late last year highlight the point.

The first took place in southwest New Mexico's boot heel on December 7, 2015. A worker for Elbrock Water Systems was working on the remote Gray Ranch when stranded drug smugglers commandeered his truck, loaded it with drugs and drove to Willcox, Arizona. They set the worker free there with a warning not to go to authorities. He did anyway and the FBI is investigating.

For weeks, the episode received no publicity. It stayed hidden behind the Tortillla Curtain. Everyone has heard the expression, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. A similar phenomenon occurs in the borderlands.

But boot heel residents, and their friends in southeast Arizona, decided it was important to pull back the curtain and tell the story. On March 10, they organized a gathering in Animas, New Mexico, that drew 500 farmers and ranchers, activists, state and federal bigwigs, and finally, considerable media.

The message: You have no idea what we face out here. You don't know what we see every day. You think the border is secure and it's not. Help us.

The second kidnapping happened two months earlier, on October 5, on a ranch outside Nogales. This event, too, has received no publicity. But it's an important story for Americans who want to understand life on the border.

From the beginning, especially with the perpetrator still at large, the Nogales victims have been reluctant to go public. Even today, with Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada confirming they have a DNA hit on a suspect being held in the L.A. County jail, the victims don't want their real names used.

We'll call them Sam and Mary. They're both in their 80s. Also taken that day was Sam's secretary. The ranch is located in the mountains west of Nogales along a notorious smuggling corridor. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was murdered not far away in 2010.

The episode began about 5:10 p.m. that day. Sam was working in his office, a separate building alongside the house, when his secretary walked in. She was being hustled along by a man holding two knives at her back. He said, "Do what I say or I'll kill you both."

The man was filthy, disheveled, and wild-eyed, suggesting he'd been walking the backcountry for a while. He marched Sam and his secretary over to the house and forced Mary to cook him supper. He helped himself to a beer from the fridge and stood while devouring four hamburgers. He waved one knife at the three of them while using the other knife as a utensil.

He went around the house pulling out drawers searching for valuables. He found a shotgun and a two rifles in a closet. He forced the secretary to hand over her two rings and demanded Mary's 60th wedding anniversary diamond ring. The secretary says that when Mary struggled to remove it, the man stepped closer waving the knife and threatening to cut off her finger.

Says Sam, "I considered a couple of escape or 911 scenarios. But one or all of us might've been stabbed. If I'd been alone, I might've tried to escape or resist."

The man talked incessantly in English with a Spanish accent. He said he had a mother and brother in L.A. and wanted to get north. He talked of walking all the way to Phoenix, 150 miles away. He said he'd spent 20 years in prison and vowed that he was never going back.

"He made multiple threats to kill us if we moved an inch," says the secretary. "His face would get all contorted and he’d be very scary. When I realized he was totally unpredictable, that’s when I got more frightened."

Says Sam, "I have a clear recollection of what a knife an inch from my nose looks like."

After two hours in the house, the man demanded to be driven to Nogales, the four of them traveling in the secretary's car. The man sat behind the secretary, who was driving, with Sam's double-barreled shotgun across his lap.

"I thought he might take us into Sonora and murder us or hold us for ransom," says Sam. The secretary thought the same thing and considered ramming another car and running to get help.

In Nogales, the man ordered the secretary to pull into a McDonald’s near the border crossing. But the parking lot lights were too bright and they drove to a nearby Burger King.

As the man was repacking his stolen stuff in a backpack, the secretary, seeing her opportunity, threw open the driver's door and dashed into the Burger King, hollering for someone to call 9/11. Sam and Mary threw open their previously locked doors and ran, too.

The man jumped from the car and bolted in the direction of the international border and seemingly vanished into Mexico. But three days later, a cop in Sahuarita, 45 miles north of Nogales, approached a man sitting atop a railroad car. Before running away, the man, likely the kidnapper, dropped a backpack containing the items stolen from the victims.

Six months passed before Sam and Mary learned that Santa Cruz County got a DNA match on a fellow who'd been arrested in L.A. on Dec. 13. The suspect, Ramon Francisco Florentino, is a Mexican national about 39 years old. He uses more aliases than can be listed here along with mulitiple dates of birth.

His rap sheet includes an arrest in L.A. in 1994, at 18, on a murder charge that was reduced to voluntary manslaughter. He got three years in prison. The suspect has also been arrested for loitering, disorderly conduct, and prostitution.

In 2002, he was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and got 13 years. The suspect was deported through San Ysidro, California, in 2015, and came back to land at Sam and Mary's ranch later that same year.

He has been deported three other times, in 1991, 1995, and again in 1996. His December arrest in L.A. was for allegedly attempting to kidnap a five-year-old boy to commit a sexual act. The boy escaped unharmed. 

Sheriff Estrada says his office is working to return the suspect to Santa Cruz County to stand trial. But he doesn't know when that will be. "It could take a while, but we don't want him to slip through the cracks," he says.

If you want to understand why borderland residents are looking over their shoulders, locking doors, working only in pairs, sometimes carrying weapons, and holding public meetings, this suspect is your poster boy.

As for Sam, he is ticked off at the pace of the county's investigation and that the sheriff is still holding his recovered guns and other possessions. And he has contempt for government officials who claim the border is secure when "felons can go back and forth like yoyos," a practice he believes has accelerated with the Obama Administration's turn-em-loose policies.

"I guess we can add this creep to the list of alien criminals who are released and come back to commit crimes against U.S. citizens," he says.

So why not pack up and move, eliminate the worry? In the Animas kidnapping, FBI investigators asked the victim: "Why do you live here?" The answer in both places is the same: It's our home, it's in our hearts, and we won't allow criminals to drive us out.

Sam and Mary are tough, resilient, and now, prepared. They've spent more than $5000 on security upgrades, including new doors, a driveway gate, a sophisticated burglar alarm with eight security cameras allowing them to see what's going on outside.

Sam has stashed pepper spray and pistols at multiple locations around the house, and Mary keeps a shotgun. In his office, Sam keeps a pistol in his desk drawer and a snubbed-nose revolver in his car. But their best protection might be their Springer Spaniel, who "has an absolute fit if anyone comes into the yard."

Says Sam, "If somebody kicked the door down, with the alarm and with the dog, I'd be able to get a shot at him pretty quickly."

Welcome to life behind the Tortilla Curtain.

Those who live close to the Mexican border in Arizona and New Mexico consistently express two sentiments. First, the number of illegals crossing the line has plunged from a flood to a trickle in most places. The feds and the political spinners love that because it allows them to say, with some truth, that the border is as secure as it's ever been.

But they leave out the second part. The worst of the worst, the drug smugglers, vagabond bad guys, and mulitiple deports who use the border as a turnstyle are still out there, as dangerous as ever, as plentiful as ever, if not more so.

Two kidnappings in six months late last year highlight the point.

The first took place in southwest New Mexico's boot heel on December 7, 2015. A worker for Elbrock Water Systems was working on the remote Gray Ranch when stranded drug smugglers commandeered his truck, loaded it with drugs and drove to Willcox, Arizona. They set the worker free there with a warning not to go to authorities. He did anyway and the FBI is investigating.

For weeks, the episode received no publicity. It stayed hidden behind the Tortillla Curtain. Everyone has heard the expression, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. A similar phenomenon occurs in the borderlands.

But boot heel residents, and their friends in southeast Arizona, decided it was important to pull back the curtain and tell the story. On March 10, they organized a gathering in Animas, New Mexico, that drew 500 farmers and ranchers, activists, state and federal bigwigs, and finally, considerable media.

The message: You have no idea what we face out here. You don't know what we see every day. You think the border is secure and it's not. Help us.

The second kidnapping happened two months earlier, on October 5, on a ranch outside Nogales. This event, too, has received no publicity. But it's an important story for Americans who want to understand life on the border.

From the beginning, especially with the perpetrator still at large, the Nogales victims have been reluctant to go public. Even today, with Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada confirming they have a DNA hit on a suspect being held in the L.A. County jail, the victims don't want their real names used.

We'll call them Sam and Mary. They're both in their 80s. Also taken that day was Sam's secretary. The ranch is located in the mountains west of Nogales along a notorious smuggling corridor. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was murdered not far away in 2010.

The episode began about 5:10 p.m. that day. Sam was working in his office, a separate building alongside the house, when his secretary walked in. She was being hustled along by a man holding two knives at her back. He said, "Do what I say or I'll kill you both."

The man was filthy, disheveled, and wild-eyed, suggesting he'd been walking the backcountry for a while. He marched Sam and his secretary over to the house and forced Mary to cook him supper. He helped himself to a beer from the fridge and stood while devouring four hamburgers. He waved one knife at the three of them while using the other knife as a utensil.

He went around the house pulling out drawers searching for valuables. He found a shotgun and a two rifles in a closet. He forced the secretary to hand over her two rings and demanded Mary's 60th wedding anniversary diamond ring. The secretary says that when Mary struggled to remove it, the man stepped closer waving the knife and threatening to cut off her finger.

Says Sam, "I considered a couple of escape or 911 scenarios. But one or all of us might've been stabbed. If I'd been alone, I might've tried to escape or resist."

The man talked incessantly in English with a Spanish accent. He said he had a mother and brother in L.A. and wanted to get north. He talked of walking all the way to Phoenix, 150 miles away. He said he'd spent 20 years in prison and vowed that he was never going back.

"He made multiple threats to kill us if we moved an inch," says the secretary. "His face would get all contorted and he’d be very scary. When I realized he was totally unpredictable, that’s when I got more frightened."

Says Sam, "I have a clear recollection of what a knife an inch from my nose looks like."

After two hours in the house, the man demanded to be driven to Nogales, the four of them traveling in the secretary's car. The man sat behind the secretary, who was driving, with Sam's double-barreled shotgun across his lap.

"I thought he might take us into Sonora and murder us or hold us for ransom," says Sam. The secretary thought the same thing and considered ramming another car and running to get help.

In Nogales, the man ordered the secretary to pull into a McDonald’s near the border crossing. But the parking lot lights were too bright and they drove to a nearby Burger King.

As the man was repacking his stolen stuff in a backpack, the secretary, seeing her opportunity, threw open the driver's door and dashed into the Burger King, hollering for someone to call 9/11. Sam and Mary threw open their previously locked doors and ran, too.

The man jumped from the car and bolted in the direction of the international border and seemingly vanished into Mexico. But three days later, a cop in Sahuarita, 45 miles north of Nogales, approached a man sitting atop a railroad car. Before running away, the man, likely the kidnapper, dropped a backpack containing the items stolen from the victims.

Six months passed before Sam and Mary learned that Santa Cruz County got a DNA match on a fellow who'd been arrested in L.A. on Dec. 13. The suspect, Ramon Francisco Florentino, is a Mexican national about 39 years old. He uses more aliases than can be listed here along with mulitiple dates of birth.

His rap sheet includes an arrest in L.A. in 1994, at 18, on a murder charge that was reduced to voluntary manslaughter. He got three years in prison. The suspect has also been arrested for loitering, disorderly conduct, and prostitution.

In 2002, he was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and got 13 years. The suspect was deported through San Ysidro, California, in 2015, and came back to land at Sam and Mary's ranch later that same year.

He has been deported three other times, in 1991, 1995, and again in 1996. His December arrest in L.A. was for allegedly attempting to kidnap a five-year-old boy to commit a sexual act. The boy escaped unharmed. 

Sheriff Estrada says his office is working to return the suspect to Santa Cruz County to stand trial. But he doesn't know when that will be. "It could take a while, but we don't want him to slip through the cracks," he says.

If you want to understand why borderland residents are looking over their shoulders, locking doors, working only in pairs, sometimes carrying weapons, and holding public meetings, this suspect is your poster boy.

As for Sam, he is ticked off at the pace of the county's investigation and that the sheriff is still holding his recovered guns and other possessions. And he has contempt for government officials who claim the border is secure when "felons can go back and forth like yoyos," a practice he believes has accelerated with the Obama Administration's turn-em-loose policies.

"I guess we can add this creep to the list of alien criminals who are released and come back to commit crimes against U.S. citizens," he says.

So why not pack up and move, eliminate the worry? In the Animas kidnapping, FBI investigators asked the victim: "Why do you live here?" The answer in both places is the same: It's our home, it's in our hearts, and we won't allow criminals to drive us out.

Sam and Mary are tough, resilient, and now, prepared. They've spent more than $5000 on security upgrades, including new doors, a driveway gate, a sophisticated burglar alarm with eight security cameras allowing them to see what's going on outside.

Sam has stashed pepper spray and pistols at multiple locations around the house, and Mary keeps a shotgun. In his office, Sam keeps a pistol in his desk drawer and a snubbed-nose revolver in his car. But their best protection might be their Springer Spaniel, who "has an absolute fit if anyone comes into the yard."

Says Sam, "If somebody kicked the door down, with the alarm and with the dog, I'd be able to get a shot at him pretty quickly."

Welcome to life behind the Tortilla Curtain.