Turmoil in Hudspeth: Border violence, cartel violence ongoing problems for residents of 'twilight zone'

by Chris Roberts \ El Paso Times
Posted: 05/22/2011 12:00:00 AM MDT

FORT HANCOCK -- Jim Ed Miller grows Pima cotton and other crops on his family farm near Fort Hancock in what he calls "almost America."

Almost America, according to Miller, is a forsaken area in southern Hudspeth and El Paso counties. It is bordered on the south by Mexico and on the north, east and west by a ring of U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints.

The land has a rugged, prickly beauty. It is populated by cranes, Mexican burrowing owls, coyotes and myriad other desert creatures. But it is the two-legged mammals -- illegal border crossers and uniformed U.S. Border Patrol agents -- that give Miller heartburn.

Undocumented immigrants and drug smugglers walk through Miller's land, which his parents worked before him. The towering border fence abruptly stops on the south end of his property about a mile east of the Fort Hancock International Port of Entry, guiding illegal crossers onto his furrowed plots. A concrete-lined irrigation ditch with a flat bottom provides a trackless route to the main highway, making it impossible for Border Patrol agents to detect passage. Miller calls it the "Calle de Oro," or golden road.

He jokes about charging a toll.

Miller, a Hudspeth County commissioner, and other county residents use humor to take the edge off a feeling that they live in a twilight zone where Border Patrol agents are afraid to create an international incident and illegal crossers act with near impunity. Sometimes the realities are grim.

Until recently, it was commonm for victims of cartel violence in the area of El Porvenir, just across the border from Fort Hancock, to be transported through the port of entry to United States hospitals or to the local cemetery, which closed its gates to Mexican residents when space began running out, Miller said. Some also worried that violence would erupt at a U.S. burial, mirroring events in Mexico.
Border Patrol officials, who provided comment for this story by email, say that twilight zone is, in fact, what they call "defense-in-depth." Highly trained border agents, prepared for armed confrontations, watch the border directly and by using high-tech sensors. A second net is cast by the checkpoints.

"Our strategy is to address all violations within our border security mission and bring them to a successful law enforcement resolution," the email stated.

But Arvin West, Hudspeth County's flamboyant sheriff, says that the potential for violence remains high and that the Border Patrol provides little help.

In January, shots were fired in the direction of four highway workers on a project in Fort Quitman, a ghost town 25 miles east of Fort Hancock. None of the workers were injured. And, recently, sheriff's deputies searched a group of people running horses near Fort Hancock after receiving a report of someone brandishing an Uzi submachine gun from the window of a Black Chevy Tahoe with Chihuahua license plates. They found nothing.

"We do not live in fear," said Karen Miller, Jim Ed Miller's wife. But the possibility of violence remains in the back of their minds.

When President Barack Obama arrived in El Paso last week to declare the fence complete and the Southwest border safe, they say, he had not consulted Hudspeth County residents.

"Obama's full of s---," said West, requesting that he be quoted saying so. "He doesn't want to hear what we have to say. We're not going to tell him what he wants to hear; we're going to tell him the way it is."

West said he asked the president for a parley but has not heard back. He also asked former President George W. Bush and never heard from him either.

The sheriff has warned farmers and ranchers to arm themselves against the potential spillover of cartel violence. Despite the shooting of two Hispanic U.S. citizens last week by a property owner northwest of Sierra Blanca, he stands behind those words. That case is under investigation by the Texas Rangers, West said.

"What is the definition of spillover violence?" he asked. "Do you need to see blood and guts before it's spillover?"

West's definition of spillover is anything that affects life on U.S. soil.

"We're constantly sending ambulances and officers to pick up shooting victims" at the Fort Hancock port of entry, he said. "And there are people who tell us they have a kidnapped son or brother."

For nearly a year, deputies responded to an average of two or three of those calls a week, he said. In recent months, they have come less frequently.

"There's nobody (left) over there to kill," West said.

An increase in the number of Border Patrol agents has not helped much, say Miller and West, because federal policy ties their hands.

Adjacent to the Fort Hancock port of entry is a large compound protected by high walls crowned with barbed wire. Although it resembles a prison, the structure is a U.S. Border Patrol command center.

"If something breaks out on the border and (the agents) can make it to the compound, they'll be safe," Miller said, cracking a wry smile. "They're ordered not to do anything."

Residents speculate that the U.S. government does not want an embarrassing international incident with Mexico. And they are suspicious that agents have been ordered to back off because the Obama administration wants to claim a reduction in apprehensions as proof of its safe-border claim.

Not so, say Border Patrol officials.

Indeed there has been an increase in agents at the Fort Hancock station, they said, from 55 in 2005 to 172 last year.

That increase, the use of technology and defense-in-depth, has discouraged illegal border crossers, they said, which is a sign of success. Since 2006, apprehensions in the El Paso Sector -- which includes all of New Mexico, El Paso County and about a third of Hudspeth County, including Fort Hancock -- have decreased 90 percent to 12,251 in fiscal year 2010, "thus increasing the quality of life in the communities we serve," officials said.

Some residents between the border and the checkpoints have a different view.

Miller equipped some of his hired hands with walkie-talkies so he did not have to make regular rounds to ensure that tractors were running and tires were not flat. He figured that if something happened, including a run-in with smugglers, the workers could report it on the radio. But when one hand returned at the end of the day, he told Miller that the leader of a group of illegal crossers threatened his life if he used the radio.

The fact that the drug trade is immensely profitable makes problems inevitable, Miller said. He has analyzed the situation at length and believes there is a solution.

"If we legalize it, you take all the profit out of it," Miller said. He knows there is culturally ingrained resistance to such action. "But it wasn't a hippie that invented marijuana," he said, "and it wasn't a redneck that invented corn whiskey."

Terry Rose also farms cotton around Fort Hancock. He identifies himself as a conservative. Rose also supports legalization.

"The drug cartels already have invaded this country," Rose said, pointing to steady supply lines and healthy retail sales. "And along with it comes the violence."

Meanwhile, taxpayers in "almost America," are asked to pay more than their share of drug war costs, MIller said.

He again points to the ring of Border Patrol checkpoints, two of which are in Hudspeth County. When the amount of seized drugs is relatively small, he said, federal and state agents show no interest. Those cases, the large majority of which do not involve local residents, end up in county courts, he said.

"Hudspeth County has been drug through the brush over our criminal cases," Miller said.

On top of that, he said, Border Patrol agents sometimes run roughshod over planted fields, destroy fences and leave gates open behind them. Even the increase in Border Patrol agents has had unintended consequences, Miller said.

"Used to be, we knew the Border Patrol as individuals," he said. "Now, we don't even know each other."

Obama did not make a good impression on the locals either. Making light of Republicans' unwillingness to discuss immigration reform until the border is secure on their terms, Obama asked whether it would require an alligator-filled moat.

"For Obama to come here and make fun about it?" said Maria Carr, shaking her head in disapproval. Carr was born in El Porvenir and moved to Fort Hancock about 40 years ago. She is a waitress at Angie's, a popular Fort Hancock restaurant.

"I live right here on the border," Carr said. "When a dog barks, you don't know what's going on out there. ... I sleep a little better because of that fence."

Chris Roberts may be reached at chrisr@elpasotimes.com; 546-6136.