Broadway can't produce plays this affecting, and Ladd, much to his regret, has had a front-row look at the performance that never ends on his 14,000-acre San Jose Ranch, located right on the international line west of Naco.
He has seen it all: federal bureaucratic bungling, finger-pointing and waste; the political pantomime that most of Arizona's elected leaders continue to perform; and of course, the stars of the show, the illegal immigrants and drug runners who keep busting the line with relative impunity.
Having the best seat in the house has allowed Ladd to watch it all up close, even though living here is a bit like occupying the Lincoln box at Ford's Theatre. He has suffered all the standard outrages that accompany living on our lawless border, including having a band of Mexican Federales draw guns on him.
But as formidable as these issues are, they're not Ladd's biggest worry. What really has him wrestling the mattress at night, the issue that most immediately threatens his ability to stay in business as a cattleman, is at the moment, right before his eyes.
It's the international border fence. Or more accurately, the holes, cuts, washouts and smuggler vehicle run-throughs that turn that fence into Swiss cheese.
Ladd, who has 10 1/2 miles of land abutting the Mexican line, is standing at a spot known as Gringo Draw. Floodwaters washed through here last summer, taking out a 100-foot-wide portion of the fence, and that yawning gap is still there. But there are many others. In a one-mile span, we counted 12 fence breaks along Ladd's borderland through which Mexican cattle can wander onto his property, mingling with his own stock.
The problem? If these intruder livestock happen to be diseased, they could infect his herd and ruin him. In fact, Ladd believes that disaster will befall him eventually.
"I'm 50, and in my lifetime, I expect that something is going to cross the line disease-wise that puts me out of business unless somebody does something," says Ladd, a former assistant football coach at Bisbee High School. "I know that's a pretty radical opinion. But a guy can come from South America and in 24 hours be at my fence. And foot-and-mouth disease is in South America. I've complained to everybody, but nobody does anything. It's really alarming."
Is Ladd hollering 911 unnecessarily? Is the threat he describes overblown? Not at all, says foreign animal disease expert Dr. Peder Cuneo, of the UA's Veterinary Diagnostic Lab. "His risk assessment is right on. It's pretty close to reality."
The threat exists at many places up and down the Arizona-Mexico line. At the 118,000-acre Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge near Sasabe, hundreds of illegals pour across the border every night, and Mexican cattle follow. At any given time, up to 100 trespassing cows graze on refuge property.
Manager Mitch Ellis says that in one section--5 1/2 miles wide and about a mile deep north of the border--Mexican cows have all but destroyed the habitat by over-grazing. Why not fix the fence? Because it's too dangerous. "By policy, I've restricted maintenance staff from going down there without an armed escort," says Ellis. "I don't want to say we've ceded the area to Mexico, but we just don't go there a lot. It's been so hammered by drug smugglers, human foot traffic and the Border Patrol, but mostly by Mexican livestock."
At Dan Bell's ranch, which has 8 miles of border west of Nogales, he returns to Mexico 100 cows a week. They wander north through fence cuts, and one of his cowboys runs them back. But that same night, invaders cut the fence again, and the same cattle return. Bell employs one cowboy whose only job is repairing the fence and returning cows to Mexico. Dealing with these undocumented animals, who enter the country through holes made by undocumented humans, costs Bell $100 a day.
But this problem affects more than border ranchers. It threatens the economic health of Arizona's $2 billion a year beef industry, and the nation's beef industry overall, which comprises an estimated 3-5 percent of the American economy. And it goes even deeper than that, according to Dr. Rick Willer, the Arizona Department of Agriculture's top vet and a recent president of the prestigious U.S. Animal Health Association.
He says an outbreak of the wrong foreign animal disease could significantly impact the whole American economy. "If we had a foot-and-mouth outbreak here, our entire beef export market would cease to exist overnight, and the effect would ripple through the economy," says Willer. "When I travel around, farmers and ranchers from New York, Indiana and all over ask me, 'What are you doing on the border to protect us?' They know that what's happening here is vital for the whole nation."
But wandering cattle might not be Arizona's biggest concern. They come only from Sonora, while the human foot traffic across our border includes people from around the world, many carrying food from their homeland. The foot-and-mouth virus, for example, can live for long periods in smoked and processed meats. FMD is fast-moving, highly contagious and can spread through contact with vehicles, on clothing, on manure on boots, even on the wind.
One of the main ways governments battling FMD prevent its spread is to forbid citizens from leaving their country with processed meats, sausage and some dairy products. Although Mexico is FMD free, an outbreak currently plagues Brazil, and that country has become a rich source of OTMs--Other Than Mexicans (a Border Patrol term)--who break into the country across our southern border.
According to statistics provided to the Weekly by an anonymous source, the Border Patrol in the first nine months of fiscal 2004 arrested 4,911 Brazilians along our southern border. Of those, 1,451 were apprehended in the Tucson sector and the Arizona office of the Yuma sector.
But those are just arrests. The number that got through could be five times higher. Also know that the Naco area, right on John Ladd's ranch, has been one of the busiest crossing points in the Tucson sector.
So how surprising would it be if Ladd's place became the point of entry for an accidental FMD outbreak?
Of course, an outbreak could be intentional, too. Bio-terrorism. Bad guys releasing a viral strain aimed at animals that could wreak economic and social havoc in America. It would be simple, especially with something as contagious as FMD.
"I don't want to give terrorists any ideas, but they could bring it in in a vial, or inoculate animals on the Mexican side that they know will stray across," says Willer, adding that even though the virus doesn't affect humans, it would still be a public welfare issue because of its destructive impact on the economy.
Cuneo says that a devastating FMD outbreak in the United Kingdom in 2001--likely caused by tainted sausage fed to pigs--and Sept. 11 here, convinced animal health officials that "what we all thought couldn't happen here, very well could happen." In Arizona, that realization led to the founding of a program, funded jointly by the state Legislature and the federal Department of Homeland Security, called ALIRT--the Arizona Livestock Incident Response Team.
It links ranchers, vets, government officials and others with the goal of getting fast diagnoses of unusual or catastrophic disease outbreaks. "You can't respond until you do the diagnostics and know what you're dealing with," says Cuneo, one of ALIRT's key organizers. "This program puts us in much better shape than only two years ago."
At the same time, Cuneo understands that he's rowing against the tide of illegals who keep pouring across the line, carrying whatever they want and plowing down fences wherever they choose. As every expert knows, a key to maintaining healthy livestock is to avoid the mingling of herds, which also includes keeping American cattle out of Mexico.
Without a livestock fence, however, Willer says it's almost impossible to protect an individual's herd, a state's herd or a nation's herd. "The fence is the foundation of our bio-security problem on the border," he says.
But if a fence is so essential, why has it been allowed to deteriorate so badly?
On Ladd's land, in addition to holes made by invaders, the old metal fence poles are rotting, and the barbed wire is so brittle it breaks in your hand. Everyone in government knows these things, because Ladd has been barking at them about it. "I've complained to USDA, the state vet, customs, the Boundary Commission, the Border Patrol, Kyl, McCain, Kolbe, Asa Hutchinson when he was a deputy at Homeland Security," says Ladd. "They all say, 'We don't care. It's not our fence, and it doesn't stop people anyway.' Nobody will take responsibility for it."
To understand how we've reached this point, start with a bit of history, and this important fact: The fence was never intended to stop people. It was built to stop livestock and protect American agriculture from disease.
Much of the earliest border fencing in Arizona was erected by big ranch outfits starting in the late 1800s. By the mid-1930s, responding to USDA's concerns about FMD in Mexico, Congress provided money to the International Boundary and Water Commission to build a fence along 675 miles of borderland from El Paso to the Pacific.
The job was never completed. But from 1939-1951, IBWC did build 234 miles of seven-strand barbed wire-fence, 145 miles in Arizona. After 1951, Congress cut off the money spigot and the work stopped, according to documents provided to the Weekly from that agency's headquarters in El Paso. Six years after that, the commission turned over 15 miles of its fence at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to the National Park Service. And in 1958, additional small sections of fence, near towns such as Naco and Nogales, were turned over to INS, which was Border Patrol.
But the commission was unable to unload the remaining 200 miles. In 1955, the federal Bureau of the Budget stated that because the fence was intended to control livestock movement, any future work on it should be done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency ultimately responsible for animal health in the country.
Beginning in the 1950s, USDA did fence repair work using its Quarantine Enforcement inspectors, men who rode the line on horseback to make sure no diseased animals entered the country. In Arizona, these so-called Line Riders stayed on the job--helping to keep this crucial barrier intact--until USDA eliminated them from its budget in the early 1980s.
George Genoung, of Elfrida, worked as a USDA line rider for several years. "We were told the Boundary Commission was in charge of the border fence, but they had nobody to maintain it," says Genoung. "So our agency said, 'You guys are out there anyway, we'll give you barbed wire and tools, and you can go to work.' Keeping the fence up became part of our job, especially where there was livestock."
But since the early '80s, the feds have mostly forgotten about the livestock fence, leaving ranchers, acting out of self-interest, to fix it themselves. This worked reasonably well until the mid-1990s, when the flow of illegals across our border became a full-fledged invasion, totaling, by some estimates, 1.4 million people a year.
Ladd's land is ground zero in this massive illegal migration, and the story of his inability to get somebody in government to address the fence problem serves as a metaphor for the entire border crisis. Remember all the criticism of our bureaucracies for failing to react to Hurricane Katrina? Everyone knew what the problems were, because they were on TV. But government was paralyzed.
What Ladd has experienced is the Katrina response spread over nearly 10 years.
For a time in the mid-'90s, Ladd thought his fence problems might ease. With so many drug runners and people-smugglers driving through it, the Border Patrol chief in Naco at the time told Ladd that if he repaired the fence himself, the agency would repay him. On four occasions, Ladd billed the Border Patrol for his work, in amounts ranging from $80-$320.
Then the repayments suddenly stopped.
To learn why, Ladd called an agency lawyer, who said he denied the last claim because the fence doesn't belong to Ladd, and he committed fraud by submitting a bill on a fence that wasn't his. "Your chief in Naco told me to submit the bills," Ladd argued, "and I know it's not my fence. It's yours. It's on federal land, and you have jurisdiction."
Ladd's right. The fence sits along the so-called Roosevelt Reservation, a 60-foot easement back from the line that President Teddy Roosevelt created in 1907 to make it easier to guard against smuggling.
The lawyer responded, "Jurisdiction does not facilitate responsibility." Ladd hasn't been reimbursed since.
Using military labor, the feds have built security fencing for several miles east and west of the Naco port, but that's intended to secure areas close to town, not the outlying countryside. Lately, Ladd says, the Border Patrol's Naco station, trying to be good neighbors, has sent out a four-man crew to make fence fixes along his borderland, farther from town. It's not much help. The men often get called away to do the same work near Douglas, and the problem requires a much bigger commitment than four men.
But the Border Patrol is unlikely to provide it. After all, that agency's responsibility is stopping people, not ensuring animal health. The same is true of the Boundary Commission. They can act as an intermediary to bring together interested parties, as the agency did at a November meeting on the fence in Nogales. But their central mission is resolving boundary issues between the U.S. and Mexico.
What about the Arizona Department of Agriculture? Doesn't animal health fall under their umbrella? It does. But the reality of life on a border ranch, and the state's past budget woes, have conspired to overwhelm the system.
Most Arizona ranchers, when they find Mexican cattle on their land, simply push the animals back. It's fast and easy. It's also illegal. By law, strays automatically become state property and must be turned over to livestock inspectors for 30-day quarantine and testing. Once it has been determined the animals have no major disease, the state sells them at auction and reimburses the rancher for costs incurred in getting them to the sale barn. But it doesn't always work that way.
In the first place, turning cows over to the state makes for lousy cross-border relations. "It just isn't something neighbors do," says Bell. Every Arizona rancher who calls the state knows that the next time his cows wander into Mexico, they're probably gone for good. His Mexican counterpart will keep them in compensation for what he lost.
Since September 2003, Ladd has returned 350 trespassing cows to Mexico, and he does more than most in making sure the process follows some kind of official channel. Ladd calls a friend, a Mexican rancher and a dual citizen. This man calls the cattle inspector in Naco, Sonora, and together, they identify the owner. With a meeting set, Ladd meets the Mexican rancher on the line, where each man backs up to the fence, and the animals walk from one livestock trailer onto the other.
Even this informal, cattle-return system is breaking the law, and Ladd knows it. But he says Arizona makes it difficult to follow the law. "The state used to maintain corrals here to hold Mexican cattle, but they closed them, and the closest cattle inspector is 100 miles away in Willcox," he says. "She's the only inspector in all of Cochise County and too busy to come here for some Mexican cows."
Last winter, Ladd called this inspector and asked her to pick up eight Mexican cows that had been drifting back and forth onto his land for two years, and he couldn't identify the owner. But the Willcox inspector wouldn't take them. She acted surprised, asking Ladd, "What do you want me to do with them?"
So Ladd called Assistant State Vet Phil Blair, and he advised Ladd to go ahead and take the animals to Willcox, and Blair promised reimbursement for his work. It took two trips to transport the animals. They had to be dragged kicking and fighting into the trailer. Even with hired cowboys helping, the job took three weeks. Ladd billed the state only for gas and $100 a day for his cowboys.
"I did all that, and then somebody in the state decided it wasn't their problem, and they weren't going to pay me," says Ladd. "Then they changed their minds, and after seven months paid me all but $100 of what they owed. Doc Blair really helped me out."
But Ladd had to pull every string he could find, and make follow-up phone calls, to get the state to follow the law, and even then they stiffed him for the $100.
Willer explains that in the budget crunch of four years ago, the state Legislature downsized his department "tremendously," leaving it with only 18 full-time inspectors. There used to be 45. New Mexico currently has 65. Says Willer, "We have gaps in the services we provide, and one of those gaps is the border area."
But while the Arizona Department of Agriculture, as well as individual ranchers, certainly have an interest in an effective border livestock fence, the USDA is the agency with final responsibility for animal health in the U.S., and therefore final responsibility for the fence.
Is USDA planning to bring back the Line Riders, or begin some new initiative for fence repair or replacement? The answer is no. "I'll be frank with you. We don't have the money," says Teresa Howes, western regional spokesman for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a division of the USDA.
While acknowledging the importance of the fence, she says the USDA relies on other means to ensure animal health. Howes points out that it's the state's job to round up illegal cattle, not the USDA's, and when the state does that, "We work with them to make sure those animals are healthy."
Not true, according to Willer. He says the state only stepped forward to take care of Mexican cattle because the feds didn't have the resources to do it. "We've tried to plug the hole, but international strays are a federal responsibility," he says.
A second safeguard: Howes says the USDA maintains close ties with local vets to monitor animal health on the border. But even this fails in reality, say experts. So many large-animal practitioners have left that veterinary specialty the past 10 years that the USDA can't possibly have the contacts to know what's going on.
Excluding those who devote time exclusively to horses, there might be 24 large-animal vets in all of Arizona, says Willer. He adds that ALIRT helps out by paying cattle vets to travel to remote areas to investigate possible outbreaks. "But it's not enough," Willer says. "We still need needed more practitioners."
Around and around it goes. Amid the finger-pointing, cries of poverty and unclaimed responsibilities, homeland security suffers.
With no cavalry coming, Ladd has had to repair the fence himself. Until five years ago, he set aside one day a month and started at the east end of his property and worked west, restringing wire and pounding posts along his 10 1/2 miles. The work took eight hours and cost him $3,000 a year.
But beginning six months after Sept. 11, the number of illegal crossings became, in his words, "unbearable." One night in 2003, the Border Patrol arrested 700 illegals on Ladd's land, and for several years, the agency averaged 300 arrests a night. Illegals were everywhere. Early one morning, Ladd got up and went to his living room and found a Oaxacan Indian girl on his couch. She'd walked in Ladd's front door and gone to sleep.
With rising numbers came rising destruction. The illegals stopped spreading the wires along his fence to crawl through and began cutting them instead. In February 2003, Ladd saw smoke coming from a border wash near his home. A wire across the wash had been rigged with wooden pallets to keep Mexican cows from crossing. When rainwater rushed through, it lifted the pallets, and when the water subsided, they lowered.
But coyotes decided the pallets were too much of a barrier to their criminal enterprise and set fire to them.
"Two years ago, I said, 'Screw it; from now on, I'm only fixing gaping holes," says Ladd. "The destruction got to be so great, I couldn't keep up with it myself. It's a full-time job for three people over 10 1/2 miles. I'd never do anything else."
Here's the kicker to Ladd's story: At the Douglas Port of Entry, the USDA operates a station where inspectors check Mexican cattle prior to clearing them for legal entry into the U.S. The process is meticulous, involving a blizzard of paperwork and rigorous inspections to make sure diseased animals don't make it across.
But 25 miles west, on Ladd's ranch, illegal Mexican cattle stray into the country by the dozens. And they do so by the hundreds at Bell's ranch, a few miles from a similar USDA checkpoint in Nogales--all while the USDA says it has no money to fix the fence.
inding a place for this issue on the public's radar has proven difficult. So few people today are associated with agriculture, and our food supply system has always operated so efficiently, that it's taken for granted. "People think food comes from Safeway, and there's no reason to expect it won't be there tomorrow," says Cuneo. "But we can see a situation where the supply system could easily be disrupted, and the consequences could be catastrophic. Everybody eats."
What diseases pose the biggest threat? FMD is the one professionals worry most about. In 2002, scientists from the Harvard School of Public Health used a computer model to determine what would happen if terrorists released FMD in five locations around the U.S. The result? Within two weeks, it would overrun the country, spreading to all but six states and requiring the destruction of 50 million animals.
The U.S. has had nine FMD outbreaks, according to vets at Texas A&M University, the last, occurring in 1929 in California. It was caused by meat from South America that was removed from a cruise ship and fed to livestock. Mexico had an outbreak in 1946 requiring the slaughter of almost a million animals, and major help from the U.S. in eradicating it.
Another worrisome disease: hog cholera. This virus is particularly hardy, and can be carried by animals and people, and survive in meat, soil and feces. It has caused tremendous production losses in parts of southern Mexico, and Central and South America, and has the potential to do the same here. The hog industry in Arizona is small, but nationally, it represents big business, says Willer, adding, "We have a pathway of entry right up through our border."
Dr. Gary Thrasher, a large animal vet in Hereford, near Sierra Vista, hesitates to name one disease, because there are so many. "I can give you a whole book full," he says. "The thing I'm worried about is confusion in identifying them quickly, because so many of these diseases look alike."
Thrasher, 61, has been sounding the alarm about our vulnerability for years, with some authority. In addition to his Arizona practice, for 13 years, he ran a business in northern Mexico specializing in keeping cows healthy prior to export to the U.S. He argues that America's livestock population has been so well-protected for so long it has become "immunologically naïve." By controlling various diseases, we've lost resistance to them, adding that an outbreak would hit here harder and faster than in, say, England, which hasn't been as protected.
Through the 1960s, bad roads in Mexico and long travel times also helped us maintain animal health. So have effective health practices in the northern Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua, where Thrasher says ranchers and inspectors do a good job of maintaining their herds. But that's not true in the central and southern states.
"With transportation as fast as it is today, you can ship cattle from the Mexican-Guatemalan border to our border in 2 1/2 days," says Thrasher. "And illegal immigrants can get from Central and South America to our border, carrying anything on them, faster than that. The isolation that protected us for so long doesn't exist anymore."
All this presents big problems if an outbreak occurs and health officials try to trace it back to its origins. If an outbreak occurs in legal cattle, experts need to determine where the animal was born, what it was fed, what other animals might have been exposed and a host of other things. But that process is made much more difficult in illegal cattle, and if the exposure came from foot traffic--say, an illegal carrying bad meat--it becomes almost impossible.
"If you have a disease showing up in livestock in Chicago, and try to trace it backwards to count exposures, you can't do it," says Thrasher. "Even if you know the person came through the Phoenix airport, how can you say how many exposures there were? You can't do epidemiological studies on people who sneak over the border."
One of Thrasher's biggest worries is a spot just west of Ladd's land, where the San Pedro River crosses the Mexican border. This so-called water gap is supposed to be fenced. But smugglers often cut the wire, or floodwaters wash it away, leaving a Trojan Horse-sized hole, at least 50 feet across. Thrasher says there are usually at least a dozen Mexican cattle roaming north along the river, contacting one American herd after another on the way.
"I know they've gone as far as 15 miles north, but there's nothing stopping them from getting all the way up to St. David, which is 50 miles," says Thrasher. In the event of an outbreak, the first step is a quarantine. But an outbreak in an area that big makes effective quarantine almost impossible.
"It's a freeway running through there, and animals, vehicles and people are using it," says Thrasher of the water gap, part of the Bureau of Land Management's San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area. "Now, maybe we shouldn't tell people the river is open from the border all the way up for 50 miles, but it is open."
BLM's information officer in Tucson did not return a phone call on the matter.
By Thrasher's reckoning, the Arizona border between Douglas and Sasabe has 50 miles of fence that need replacement, and 100 miles requiring serious repair. "With the fence down, and all these OTMs coming across, the situation is critical, and I think we're headed for a wreck," says Thrasher. "We're sitting ducks for serious trouble if somebody accidentally brings something nasty across. But it sure could be intentional, too."
s a young man, Ladd took a detour to Phoenix. He was born on the San Jose Ranch, which had been in his family since 1896. Then the lure of money drew him to the big city, and he made a ton of it working as a construction supervisor on high-rise buildings. But he wasn't happy. His dream was ranching, and in 1989, he came home to join his dad, Jack, in running daily operations at the San Jose.
His timing was terrible. Within six years, the ranch he recalled from his youth would cease to exist. The illegal invasion was about to remake life on the San Jose into a daily fight for survival, with the livestock fence--or lack of one--today representing his biggest threat.
"When I was growing up, having a Mexican cow on your land was a big deal," says Ladd. "Now it's an everyday event. Sometimes, I can't believe this is happening. It's the damn government's fence. Why don't they take care of it? You've got everybody talking about bio-terrorism and all this horseshit. How serious are they? I want somebody to step up and say, 'It's our job, our fence, and we're going to fix it.'"
But for 10 years, all he has gotten is legal mumbo-jumbo, the bureaucratic two-steps and grandiose political theater.
The most egregious act in this long-running drama occurred on March 14, 2003. On that date, Asa Hutchinson, then an undersecretary at Homeland Security, visited the ranch to see the crisis up close. Accompanying him were Congressmen Jim Kolbe and Raul Grijalva, and Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl.
These men and their entourage planned to ride from Naco west to Ladd's place to picnic under a windmill and talk. The 11-car procession, dogged by protesters and reporters, stretched for a half-mile along the bumpy dirt road paralleling the border.
But David Aguilar, then head of the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, had the whole show carefully staged in a manner worthy of Cecil B. DeMille. He'd stationed Border Patrol trucks every 200 yards along the route and had four helicopters buzzing the sky; he made sure that several crews were hard at work repairing the fence.
Seeing all this, Ladd--riding in a van with Aguilar and these pols (except Grijalva)--quickly figured out that he was being used as a pawn in a political game, and his temper rose. But the smoke really started pouring out of his ears when Kyl asked Aguilar if this overwhelming law enforcement presence was standard, and Aguilar said yes.
"That's bullshit!" Ladd shouted. "You're just blowing smoke up people!" And off Ladd went, colorfully educating the delegation on the real story of living on the line.
The situation didn't change as a result of that day, with one exception: Aguilar vowed to reporters that he was bringing illegal immigration under control in the Tucson sector, and this prediction proved so wrong he was promoted. He now heads the entire Border Patrol out of Washington, D.C.
Actually, for Ladd, the situation did change. It worsened. "I know I could be putting myself in political jeopardy, depending who I antagonize by going public on this, but I'm so pissed off I don't care anymore," says Ladd. "I'm tired of living this way. I've got a great life; I'm proud of it, and I cherish it, but this crap is driving me nuts.
"I feel cheated by my government, the country I love. They're telling me to go screw myself. Whether it's the federal government, or the Border Patrol, they've created what's happening here. They closed the border at San Diego and El Paso and dumped these people onto the place with the fewest votes, and that's here in Arizona."
Thrasher agrees, saying the border issue boils down to political power. "What do you suppose would happen if there was a poodle plague coming across the border, and all the poodles in Scottsdale were dying?" Thrasher says. "How long do you think that would last? Cattle ranchers used to be powerful in the state, but they're not anymore, because there are so few left. It's all a matter of numbers."