Posted: Sunday, March 10, 2013 5:12 am

By Philip Franchine

While the international border is secure in some places, more drugs than ever are being smuggled, attracting ruthless bandits and forcing drug-runners to carry guns. That’s what the Arizona Game and Fish Commission heard in Sahuarita on Friday from ranchers and Border Patrol Tucson station chief Roger San Martin.

Although families in Arizona border cities think nothing of strolling outside at night, and mayors report residents feel secure, there is trouble out in the desert.

Dan Bell, whose 35,000-acre ZZ Cattle Ranch lies along the border west of Nogales and south of Arivaca, said, “Some say the border has never been more secure and it’s true in some places, but in areas without infrastructure and a long way from roads it’s ramping up.”

“The number of drugs we have seen has shot through the roof,” said Sarah King, who ranches 38 miles north of the border in the Altar Valley.

Border Patrol agents recently recovered three AK 47s, a shotgun and a pistol just south of King’s ranch, and San Martin said that was not an isolated instance.

“We’re seeing more armed individuals” than in the past as gangs compete for drugs after they are across the border, he said.

Though arrests are down, marijuana trafficking is up, San Martin said.

The station chief said gangs of bandits living permanently in the United States, whether legal or illegal, “come from Phoenix with the best camping gear, with AK 47s” and shoot drug “mules” on sight and steal their drug loads, apparently without giving them a chance to surrender.

“They are ruthless. They kill them and take the load. It’s not like (they say) ‘Drop the load.’ It’s just ‘Boom. Boom. Boom.’ So now the cartels are arming the mules. It’s a game between those two,” San Martin said.

In the past “the Border Patrol were great trackers. We lost that with camera and (high-tech) sensors,” the station chief said.

Smugglers are dressing groups of people they are taking across with slip-on booties that are hard to track and camouflage clothes to minimize their detection.

Bell said he sees armed people and those carrying drugs every day on his ranch, which runs along the border for 10 miles west of Nogales.

“We say ‘Good morning,’ and politely go on about or business.” He said he, his cousin and two employees rarely carry weapons unless they are going to a very remote area because “the last thing we want to do is seem confrontational.”

Amid the endless cat-and-mouse game and escalation of technology, Bell said he has put gates in his fence along the border to allow smugglers to get through without cutting his fence. When Homeland Security installed high-tech sensors, the smugglers started cutting the fence 50 yards from the gates to avoid the sensors.

Extra costs

Bell said the construction of two miles of border wall has finally allowed him to keep two pastures along the border empty so they could re-grow. For years, fence cuts by smugglers allowed cattle in from Bell’s other pastures and neighboring ranches, including some in Mexico, plus smugglers and Border Patrol agents pursing them constantly trampled the pastures. Then two miles of wall went up and “by the next growing season, the pastures were healed and recovered,” he said.

Bell said the extra costs of ranching along the border, including cattle lost because of fence cuts, are estimated at $15 per 100 pounds of cattle, or $75 to $105 per animal brought to market.

Bell said border crossing has ramped up lately, partly because of the time of year, and possibly because of the discussion of immigration reform and sequestration, which could mean cutbacks for the Border Patrol.

San Martin said some ranchers and officials of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge outside Arivaca tell him they feel more secure now than years ago, but he still hopes that more roads will be built along the border in his territory so agents can get into the mountainous terrain.

“I don’t have border access to 16 of the 23 miles of the border,” San Martin said. “I have to fall back three or four miles north of the border.”

Border Patrol outl.ines ruthless gangs, acts along border - Green Valley News: Local News