Illegal immigrants are creating havoc for ranchers all along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The problem is especially prevalent in remote regions of southern Arizona, where illegal border crossers surge through Cochise County every year by the thousands, leaving a trail of garbage and damaged property as they make their way through the desert.
For Sands Ranch, located more than 40 miles north of the border in Whetstone, illegal immigration traffic has been an overwhelming problem.
"Almost on a daily basis, we're picking up garbage, closing gates that have been left open, relocating cattle that have strayed into areas where they're not supposed to be, and repairing fences and water systems that have been damaged," said Les Shannon, who has managed the ranch for 10 years.
It's a problem that costs the ranch thousands of dollars a year, he said.
A lifelong rancher who has spent the majority of his career in Cochise County, Shannon said he's seen the illegal immigration problem in the county escalate dramatically in recent years, and he believes it's getting worse....
"People driving down the highway have no clue what's going on just a half mile off the main road," Shannon said as he turns off Highway 90 just north of the checkpoint area and heads east down a bumpy dirt road toward an inviting stand of mesquite trees. In the distance, the Dragoon Mountains make a striking backdrop against rugged country dotted with trees, ravines and desert shrubs.
As the truck lurches further down the road, debris starts to appear. Water bottles, clothing, plastic bags and paper products are strewn carelessly about the desert landscape.
"Believe it or not, I was just through here last week picking up garbage, and you can't even tell," Shannon said. "We haul truckloads out of here. It's ugly to look at and it's dangerous for our cattle. If they eat some of that plastic, it could kill them."
He approaches a group of mesquite trees. Beneath sprawling branches, the area is literally covered with hundreds of backpacks, water bottles, clothing, toothbrushes and empty tuna cans. Discarded paper products contribute to the clutter, as well as dirty baby diapers, socks, underwear and empty electrolyte bottles. Plastic bags caught by the wind are entangled in trees almost as far as the eye can see.
With a disgusted snort and frustrated wave of his arms, Shannon said, "We believe this is a pick-up point for coyotes (those who smuggle people into this country from Mexico). It's just one of many they use to skirt around the Border Patrol's checkpoint on the highway. Anyway, I'll clean this up, and this is what I come back to days later."...
"We can't get around fast enough to keep our gates closed," he said. "It's almost impossible for us to keep our grazing rotation system in effect because of this problem."
As he crosses the highway and heads west, evidence of campfires, along with more tell-tale garbage, serve as reminders of more illegal traffic. Another gate - the fourth one that day - must be closed. Standing before a deep ravine that he calls Dry Canyon, Shannon points to a deeply entrenched trail that cuts through the steep-sided gulch, down one side and up the other.
"My guess is this ravine is more than 100 feet deep," Shannon said. "Most of these people travel through here at night. I can't even imagine tackling that steep trail and 100-foot drop during the day, much less at night when you can't even see where you're going. These are desperate, desperate people."...
"The coyotes lie to these people," he said angrily. "They take their money, sometimes it's everything these people have, and they abandon them. They even leave women and children without water."
"I've talked to people from Brazil, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, all over South and Central America," he said. "I know this for a fact because I've asked them. They use Mexico as a corridor to get into Arizona and then into other parts of the country. I see this as a national threat. It makes me wonder how many other countries are getting through our border and escaping into the interior of the United States."
Border Patrol agents, Shannon said, are completely outnumbered. He said they're always responsive and appreciative when he notifies them about immigrants he finds on the ranch.
"I don't blame the Border Patrol for the breakdown in this system. The blame lies with our federal government," Shannon said....