Badlands

From Ground Zero of the Immigration Crisis Along the Mexican Border

To them, the immigration problem is a nagging part of everyday life — and they are profoundly frustrated with the U.S. government's continued inability to improve their situation.

For some residents, it's about an unrelenting fear of who may be tucked away in the arroyos on their land or who may be breaking into their homes.

The fear didn't start with Rob Krentz's murder — though the tragedy exacerbated the sense of doom that many ranchers and other border residents were feeling, discussing, and praying about for years.

Janet Napolitano: "The border is as secure as it's ever been."
Janet Napolitano: "The border is as secure as it's ever been."
Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever at the fence near Naco: "There are good people coming over here looking for jobs, I understand that. But bad guys are coming in and will continue to come in."
Paul Rubin
Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever at the fence near Naco: "There are good people coming over here looking for jobs, I understand that. But bad guys are coming in and will continue to come in."

"I'm always looking, and I always carry a rifle," says Rich Winkler, a cattle rancher who lives with his wife, Mary, at the base of the forbidding Peloncillo Mountains on the Arizona/New Mexico line, about 20 miles north of the Mexico border.

"There could be someone in the barn or behind a rock. You can't get sloppy with it. That's when they'll get you."

Winkler, a former Cochise County Superior Court judge and (a long time ago) a star running back at Yale University, isn't overstating the case.

Well-worn drug- and people-smuggling paths zigzag like worker-ant trails across their spread, which sits between major Border Patrol stations in Douglas and Lordsburg, New Mexico.

Seldom does a week pass without the Winklers coming upon illegal aliens on their ranch, occasionally carrying loads of marijuana in backpacks.

Rich compares their situation to a scene in the movie No Country for Old Men, in which dire consequences await the poor souls who cross paths with drug smugglers.

"When a rancher happens onto a load of dope on his property, he'll usually just leave it alone," Winkler says.

"There are [drug] scouts watching us, seeing where we are and what we're doing, and we don't want them to think we're an issue. The brazenness is what gets me. The illegals trample our land, leave their garbage behind, smuggle their poison in, and change the way we live our lives."

The Winklers' home has been broken into twice (in one day, actually), and their cabin in another part of their expansive ranch has been burglarized so many times they've lost count. They now leave the remote cabin unlocked and empty to keep property losses at a minimum.

"They broke out a bedroom window and burgled our house around noon — we weren't there," Winkler recalls of the two late-2008 break-ins of his main residence.

"They took a lot, including 20 pounds of shrimp from the freezer. At night, after I got back home I was in my jammies in my bedroom and noticed a light on that shouldn't have been. I grabbed a pistol and slowly stepped out. There were people inside my house! Maybe they were coming back for the cocktail sauce; I don't know. I was very scared. Luckily, they ran out. This is my home, goddamn it! I shouldn't have to put up with this."

Mary Winkler seems somewhat less cautious than her husband of 47 years. Raised in the border town of Douglas, she says she's dealing with the "invasion," as she calls it, the same way as she did with a recent, very difficult bout with cancer.

"I was not going to let [the disease] interrupt my lifestyle, if at all possible," she says, "and I'm not going to let the illegals do it either."

If Mary bumps into a group of illegal aliens on her property while on horseback — a not-uncommon occurrence — she smiles, turns around, and heads the other way.

Rich Winkler says, to his knowledge, authorities have never arrested anyone for any of the crimes committed on his property.

Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever has just learned of Janet Napolitano's take on the state of border safety.

"More secure than ever, huh?" the sheriff mocks, leaning against his pickup truck at the heralded fence along the border east of Naco and surveying the open expanse.

"Why doesn't she try to tell that to the ranchers and other citizens near the border who live in a state of constant alert, or fear?

"Why doesn't she let the bad guys know how safe it is while she's at it? They'll appreciate the info. You know, those guys who smuggle in vast amounts of dope and people through our county and might just terrorize or hurt people who get in their way? They'll like hearing that things are 'secure.'"

The sheriff ends his riff with, "Why doesn't Janet just tell Rob Krentz's family how safe it is while she's at it?"

Dever, a native of St. David, near Interstate 10 and Benson, is a savvy guy who quotes poet e.e. cummings off the top of his head, despite occasional attempts to cast himself as a dumb country boy to out-of-towners.

One week before Janet Napolitano spoke to the senators on Capitol Hill, Sheriff Dever made his own nearly annual 2,000-mile trek to Washington, D.C.

Since shortly after first winning election in 1996, the sheriff has been saying the same thing to whomever will allow him a forum.

"Violence associated with drug and people smuggling is increasing," he told a Senate committee on the morning of April 20.

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