Border Battle: Drugs and bodies piling up on ranch

November 3, 2011

Written by
Will Ripley

FALFURRIAS, Texas - Seventy miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, you'll find a small county with a population of fewer than 8,000 - and a staggering body count.

"We've probably had close to 500 bodies found [since 2005]," Dr. Michael Vickers, a rancher in Brooks County, said.

The bodies are illegal immigrants who didn't make it. Some died from exhaustion or dehydration. Many others fall victim to violent crime, often at the hands of their smugglers, known as "coyotes."

"Rape, murder," Vickers said. "This is the kind of stuff that happens out here."

Vickers is a veterinarian, but on the evening we met him he was dressed in military fatigues and carrying a sidearm.

Vickers runs the Texas Border Volunteers, a group that looks for illegal activity on private ranch lands and reports it to law enforcement.

"It's just a way of life having to deal with smugglers," Vickers said. "This is what we do. We monitor the traffic on these trails."

Vickers considers the brush his battleground. He and other Texas ranchers say they're fighting a war to protect their homes, and yours, from the people and drugs heading north.

Vickers believes these ranch lands, far removed from the Rio Grande but located along a key smuggling route, the last line of defense. From here, the illegal activity moves north through Texas towards Colorado.

Hidden cameras capture an endless flow of illegal immigrants and drugs on the ranch lands.

"They're just pouring in here," Vickers said.

The number of apprehensions by the border patrol is down in recent years, from a peak of nearly 1.7 million in fiscal year 2000 to less than half-a-million in fiscal year 2010.

Vickers says he has seen a dramatic surge in illegal immigrants lately, which he attributes to a policy change in Washington.

The Obama Administration ordered Homeland Security to prioritize the deportations of convicted criminals, people who pose a national security threat, and repeat immigration offenders who cross the border more than once. Government statistics show 55 percent of those deported last year were convicted criminals, which is the highest percentage in a decade, according to USA Today.

Vickers has encountered everything from armed gang members to young children.

"I can't count the number of kids anywhere from 2 years old to 9 years old left out here," Vickers said.

There's a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint a few miles away. Smugglers get around it by going deep into the brush and right into Linda Vickers' backyard.

"When I walk out the door, I put my pistol and cell phone on," Linda Vickers said.

Her pets have found dead bodies.

"That was rather grotesque having your dogs bring up a skull," Linda Vickers said.

This summer's record heat wave and drought made things worse.

"They can't find their way out, can't find water, and they ultimately end up dying," Michael Vickers said.

The Vickers have found the bodies of dozens of women, many of them rape and murdered.

"It's a sad thing when that happens," Brooks County Chief Deputy Benny Martinez said.

In his office, there is a missing persons book with the names and pictures of those who've gone missing, nearly 50 so far this year, reported by family members from all over the country.

Martinez says they are never found alive.

Many bodies cannot be identified. They end up in a small corner of the cemetery, reserved for the unknowns. Small plastic or metal grave markers read "Unknown Male," "Unknown Female," even "Skeletal Remains."

A tattered American flag in the dirt is a reminder that this is where the American dream dies.

"They're going somewhere for a reason. They're looking for a better future. They're either sons or daughters or dads or uncles. They're human beings," Martinez said.

Vickers says he feels for those who die while making their journey north. But when ranchers like him are faced with expensive and nearly continuous property damage, violent crimes on their property, and dangerous cartel members smuggling drugs on private roads, he feels they have no option but to take a stand.

"We're not going anywhere. We're gonna stay here and fight this thing or die doing it," Vickers said.