NM Bootheel residents question site of new Border Patrol substation
By Diana M. Alba
Posted: 09/26/2010 11:30:24 PM MDT

ANIMAS - The murder this spring of a southeastern Arizona rancher, possibly by a smuggler, triggered a renewed effort to build new U.S. Border Patrol substations here in New Mexico's Bootheel region.

The proposed stations, called forward operating bases, are aimed at stemming the flow of undocumented immigrants, human traffickers and drug smugglers by putting agents closer to the international boundary.

But a group of Hidalgo County ranchers and other residents is protesting the proposed location of one of the bases, planned for a site in the Animas Valley that's about 20 miles from the border. They submitted a 110-signature petition to the agency last week, contending it should be closer to give residents the most protection.

Prior to the shooting death of rancher Rob Krentz, the region, for several reasons, had become a hotspot for undocumented immigration. Security efforts had ramped up in adjacent border zones, including through the construction of fencing Deming and Santa Teresa that was aimed at deflecting traffickers to more remote areas. And the area sits at the boundary of two Border Patrol sectors that weren't coordinating their activities well - a problem that has since been fixed, officials said. In addition, the extreme ruggedness of the terrain and the relatively long distance between the agency's Lordsburg headquarters and the international border made patrolling difficult, officials said.

Too far

Indeed, 27 percent of the Border Patrol's El Paso sector's 268 miles of boundary that remains uncontrolled, by the agency's standards, is found in the Bootheel area, according to Randy Hill, chief agent in charge of the sector. The sector includes 180 New Mexico miles, as well as boundary in west Texas.

A big problem is that agents starting their day at the Lordsburg headquarters must drive 75 miles south simply to reach the border, a 90-minute drive at best, said Chris Mangusing, patrol agent in charge of the station. So three hours of an 8- to 12-hour workday are eaten up simply getting to and from the border, he said.

A second Border Patrol substation is being built in Antelope Wells, alongside a new port of entry facility, near the eastern part of the Bootheel.

Mangusing said the operating bases will improve the situation greatly because they'll serve as a mini-headquarters, complete with a living quarters for 16 agents, horse corrals, a fueling facility, a helipad and maybe an office. Agents will be stationed for short intervals there, meaning they'll start the workday much closer to the border, he said.

"With the establishment of this FOB, we feel that we should be able to get some sort of operational control in the Peloncillo and Guadalupe mountains," he said.

Not only will the increased presence by the Border Patrol deter immigrant traffic, Mangusing said, but agents will be able to spend more time patrolling rugged terrain.

Alternative site

The past few years, the Border Patrol had been looking into building a forward operating base in the Animas Valley, including on land owned by rancher Meira Gault, about 11 miles north of the border.

Gault said she agreed to lease the land to the agency on a short-term basis because she wanted a stronger Border Patrol presence in the valley. The understanding, she said, was that the agency would eventually take control of a U.S. Bureau of Land Management parcel, about 7 miles from the border, and move the base there.

But the agency's plan floundered, reportedly because of a lack of funding.

Following Krentz's death in late March, U.S. Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security, asking for a forward operating base. And they backed legislation that gave funding for the project.

The BLM site was reconsidered, but the Border Patrol is currently moving forward with plans to build on a privately owned site 20 miles from the border, off Horse Camp Drive.

Ranchers Levi Klump and Judy Keeler, who each live off Horse Camp Drive, are among those protesting the location. Both said they might get a personal advantage from the substation being nearby, possibly deterring traffic from their homes, but said they prefer the BLM parcel.

Klump said the 7-mile site is on a plain and would give agents a better view of their surroundings than Horse Camp Drive, which is in a draw. The BLM site also is near existing phone and utility lines.

"Maybe, maybe, maybe the smugglers would stay away from my headquarters," he said. "But the real issue is the smuggling of humans and drugs from Mexico and into the Unites States. The more presence you have, the more the drug trafficking will be discouraged."

Keeler said she's concerned immigrant traffic will continue to move through trails to the south of the Horse Camp Drive site, over the Peloncillo Mountains to the west and into the neighboring valley, possibly putting other residents there at risk.

Their concerns prompted a Sept. 9 at the Lordsburg Border Patrol station among a handful of ranchers, including Gault, Keeler, Klump and an owner of the sprawling Diamond A Ranch, which surrounds the BLM parcel and owns the acreage off Horse Camp Drive. Mangusing and representatives from Bingaman and Udall's offices also attended.

"The Border Patrol did say that there was no argument that the location on the BLM had advantages, but they also claimed they could achieve the same objective by having the FOB on Horse Camp Drive," Klump said.

Klump said the agency mentioned that the Diamond A Ranch had raised concerns about the ecological impact of placing the base on the BLM parcel and about the area being in a floodplain. And the Diamond A had offered to lease the Border Patrol land at alternative locations, one of which was the Horse Camp Drive site. He said the agency contended it would also result in cost savings, though analysis wasn't provided.

Last week, Mangusing acknowledged the Diamond A Ranch had expressed concerns about the ecological importance of the area where the BLM parcel sits, including that it supports a lot of wildlife.

"They gave some alternative options, we considered those options and we felt the Horse Camp location is extremely suitable for us," he said. "It meets all our criteria and it gives us exactly the same things we needed."

Hill mentioned that the BLM site would have to be raised because it's flood-prone, which would be costly. He said it also has better access to the nearby mountain range, which sees a lot of immigrant traffic. And he said it's only a short drive to the border from the location.

But Keeler said, if anything, she believes the Horse Camp Drive site is at risk for flooding, because it's in a draw. And she believes the BLM acreage would allow agents a better chance to intercept immigrants before they reach the mountains.

Bingaman spokeswoman Jude McCartin said it's not the senator's place to direct the Border Patrol about where to place the base, though his office will "facilitate discussions between the parties."

A representative from Udall's office had similar comments.

Hill said the agency is on track to begin work on the substation in about two months.

The Diamond A Ranch declined to comment for this article.

Ground gained

Last week, Hill said the construction of the substations - the agency will establish a temporary base at the Horse Camp Drive - will give the sector nearly 100 percent control, by the agency's border security standards.

Hidalgo County Commissioner Harold Kuenstler, who headed the Lordsburg Border Patrol station for years before retiring in 1997, attended the meeting two weeks ago. He said he's pleased the agency is building the base in the Animas Valley, but "I think it could be better if it was closer to the border."

"I hate to get into pointing fingers or anything like that," he said. "If your baseline is 20 miles from the border, and you have U.S. residents living a good deal closer, it just seems to me like you should be there for them."

Kuenstler said he left the meeting with the impression that the Border Patrol officials have already selected the Horse Camp Drive site.

Still, Kuenstler said he does believe the region is better off because of the added personnel, including the National Guard and more visibility by the Border Patrol, that have arrived since March.

"When someone gets killed, it puts a new light on things and people demand some type of action," he said. "The Border Patrol is responding in a positive way."