The Krentz Bonfire

Will the murder of a respected Cochise County rancher change anything on our border?

This wooden bridge, at Black Draw on Geronimo Trail, is where trackers believe Rob Krentz's killer fled into Mexico.

A little more than a month has passed since the death of Cochise County rancher Rob Krentz, and the emotion generated by his murder, the pure shock of it, has ignited a bonfire that still burns across Arizona's borderlands—and all the way to Washington, D.C.

Now everyone is demanding troops. Now, with Gov. Jan Brewer's signature on a tough new illegal-immigration law, the nation is embroiled in a loud debate about racial profiling. Now everyone has a multi-point plan for bringing some control to a border so porous that anyone who wants to get into the country can eventually do so, as Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever last week told the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Will anything change now?

When the bonfire cools, will we be able to look back and say, as the heartbroken Krentz family hopes, that Rob's death wasn't in vain?

Last week, Rob's brother, Phil, described how surprised and heartened the family has been at the outpouring of support they've received from around the country.

"It has really woken people up to what's going on," he says. "But I don't know if anything will be done about it. It's too early to tell. Meantime, we're coping any way we can."

Rob's sister, Susan Pope, says, "This has really taken legs, and I think some things will change for the better. But I don't think it'll ever get to where we feel secure."

The Popes' home in the Chiricahua Mountains has been broken into three times. Susan works as a bus driver and teacher at the one-room Apache Elementary School, which has been hit so often that nothing of value remains inside.

"When was the last time you felt secure?" I asked.

Susan let out a joyless laugh and said, "I can't remember, honestly."

What has to be noted first is the inevitability of what happened. Something like the Krentz murder was coming, and everyone knew it.

Life in the Chiricahua Corridor north and east of Douglas, as the Tucson Weekly has been reporting for two years, has become a nightmare of break-ins, threats, intimidation and home invasions.

The stories residents told this newspaper, the frustration they feel trying to keep property and family safe in smuggler-occupied territory, were like a freight train in the night. Down the tracks, you see a faint light, coming closer and closer.

On March 27, in Cochise County's big country a mile west of Paramore Crater, the train arrived.

The aftershock has been so powerful, because the killing exploded the lie about a secure border that Washington, D.C., has been working hard to promote.

In the days and weeks before Krentz's murder, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, on TV and in speeches, had been telling the American people that conditions on the border had improved enough to proceed with amnesty.

"The security of the Southwest border has been transformed from where we were in 2007," she said. It was a sales job meant to push a political goal.

This is the same homeland security secretary who, in April 2009, told CNN it's not a crime, per se, to cross the border.

How committed can our government be to securing the border when the person charged with doing so—a former governor of Arizona, no less—doesn't know it's a federal misdemeanor to enter without inspection?

Now, back up a moment.

Yes, arrests are down across the Border Patrol's 262-mile-wide Tucson sector—from 378,239 in 2007, to 241,673 last year.

Welcome news. But understand that the people who got away outnumber arrests by about 3 to 1.

Yes, the feds have built fencing along the Southwest border, boasting that 628 miles are now in place.

But as Glenn Spencer of American Border Patrol notes, only 310 miles of that is people fence, and some of that is next to useless. The remainder—318 miles—consists of vehicle barriers that don't deter anybody on foot.

I've written before of the Tortilla Curtain, an invisible barrier that filters the facts about the border through various lenses—race, culture, civil rights, politics—so that by the time the information gets to the power centers in Washington and New York, it looks nothing like the truth.

The Tortilla Curtain's stoutest pillar is our own government, and no, it wasn't much different under George W. Bush.

But now, even big-media conservatives like Michael Barone and Charles Krauthammer, lost behind the Curtain, are trotting out arrest numbers and fence numbers, dutifully falling in line behind Napolitano.

These guys need to come to Arizona and get their suits dirty on the trails.

Around Nogales, where arrests are down 20 percent, Susie Morales—who lives 2 1/2 miles from the line in the national forest west of Interstate 19—has seen no letup in crossings.

As she cooks dinner in her kitchen, she can look out and see mules backpacking drugs on a trail 75 yards from her front door. Another trail runs 50 yards behind her house.

These trails are so close that when Susie spots incursions, she runs into her bathroom with her cell phone and shuts the door. She has to keep her voice down so the crossers can't hear her calling for help.

"There are more Border Patrol agents around, but the tide hasn't abated," says Morales. "It's amazing. They're still coming. We need active-duty military here, because we're just outnumbered."

She carries a .357 magnum everywhere she goes.

Foot traffic still pours over the Huachuca Mountains, south of Sierra Vista, to the tune of 1,500 a week, according to a citizen who places game cameras on trails there and counts crossings.

East of the Huachucas, John Ladd tells me that in the 18 days prior to April 10, he counted some 350 illegals on his San Jose Ranch. Every one had climbed the fence.

Ladd's property near Naco has been fenced since 2007, with the barriers ranging from 10 to 13 feet. But fencing just west of Ladd's, across the San Pedro River, stands 18 feet tall, so why would anyone bother with an 18-footer when you can walk east and climb a 10-footer?

"I'm on the phone to Border Patrol on average three times a day, seven days a week, to report groups," Ladd says. "I don't know what normal is anymore. I've become cynical, untrusting and pissed off."

East of Ladd's at Douglas, drug-laden ultra-light aircraft fly up from Mexico—right over Border Patrol headquarters, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters, every night of the week.

Arrests in Douglas are up 25 percent this year, and the danger has never been greater.

As one resident told me, "We're under the gun all the time. There are people watching us all the time. The smugglers have scouts on hills, watching us, watching customs, watching Border Patrol. They're terrorists, very militaristic, and they get a high out of it. As long as they can get away with it, it's OK. That's their mentality."

Do you think DHS changed its song after Krentz's death?

On April 4, The New York Times quoted DHS spokesman Matthew Chandler saying the agency "will continue to ensure that we are doing everything necessary to keep communities along the Southwest border safe."

Continue to ensure? If our border communities were safe, Krentz would be alive. Continue to ensure. Imagine having the cojones to say that after Krentz's murder?

They spun before Krentz's murder, and they're spinning now. And word out of Washington is that President Obama plans to push ahead soon with comprehensive immigration reform.

The sense of abandonment in the Corridor is palpable, and no one expressed it better than Roland Snure, a doctor who grew up in the area and knew Krentz well.

"I cannot understand how a government that takes, and takes, and takes, could not provide the only thing it has to do—protect its citizens," he said.

If you want to talk transformation, life in Southeast Arizona has been transformed over the past month. But not in the way Napolitano claims.

Now, when men go out to work at their corrals, sometimes miles from the house, wives follow along, afraid to be home alone.

Up in Rodeo, N.M., Tess Shultis no longer allows her two boys to play outside the house.

"Not unless me or their dad is with them," says Shultis, a clerk at the market in Rodeo. "It's too dangerous."


The most dangerous thing you can do on the border now? Reach for your cell phone. Forget you even own one. Keep your hands visible. No sudden moves.

If you encounter the wrong guy, and he thinks you're calling Border Patrol, he might start shooting. That's likely what happened to Krentz.

It's supposition, but his killer probably has a criminal record, and rather than get arrested for it, he opened fire. For good measure, he shot Rob's cow dog, too, breaking its back. The animal had to be put down later.

The killer's tracks led to Mexico along Black Draw, a heavily used smuggler trail through the San Bernardino National Wildlife Refuge. The shooter is still at large.

The Cochise County sheriff has released a photo of a person wanted for questioning in robberies around Portal, in the Chiricahua Mountains. Some suspect a connection to the Krentz murder.

The man, Alejandro Chavez-Vasquez, was arrested in Southern Arizona's Santa Cruz County in early May 2004; the following month, he was charged with felony re-entry after deportation, according to federal court records. To earn that charge, he'd likely been caught crossing the border multiple times. In a plea agreement, he got 36 months of supervised release and a fine of $100.

Cochise County sheriff's spokesperson Carol Capas says Chavez-Vasquez also has convictions in this country for theft, sexual assault, motor-vehicle theft and narcotics possession, and has used multiple birthdates in dealing with police. Capas said some of his crimes occurred in Nevada, but she could not name other states in which he might've been active.

Krentz's killer, whoever it is, might've been jacked up on something. Many smugglers take meth or some form of speed to keep moving.

Anna Magoffin, who lives along Geronimo Trail, finds needles and discarded steroid vials on her horseback rides across the borderlands. "These guys aren't just walking," she says. "They're bumped up on something."

Not surprisingly, sympathy for illegal crossers has cratered.

"I've detected a hardening of hearts," says Lynn Kartchner, who co-owns a gun shop in Douglas. "People who used to give them water and a sandwich and let them sleep in the shade, now they're going to run them off at gunpoint."

In the days since the murder, Kartchner's business has boomed. Some of his new customers are bird-watching lefties from Portal who've suddenly become sudden Second Amendment converts, now that grim reality has hit them, too.

And what of our government's talk of comprehensive immigration reform? Of amnesty? It has made the crisis worse.

The words have been all over Mexican TV and radio, and the result is a rush to the border, same as it ever was, says Magoffin.

During the Bush years, she could look south from her house to a highway in Mexico and see big white buses unloading people. They'd line up single file and march into the country.

"It was like a long snake of people walking through the desert," Magoffin says. "The amnesty talk today has the big loads going through again."


But the polite border-crossing worker—some are still out there—has given way to the bad hombre. In the Tucson sector, 17 percent of those arrested by the Border Patrol have criminal records in the United States.

The most alarming reality is the takeover of people-smuggling operations by the drug cartels. Now, a group of 15 from, say, Chiapas, Mexico, with jobs lined up in Chicago, can't get into the country without dealing with the drug operations that own the trails.

To cross around Douglas, the going rate is up to $2,500 per person. When the Chiapas guys say they don't have it, the coyote hands them his drugs and says, "Carry this, and you can come in for free, and we'll guide you"—and up they come.

The coyote is accompanied by another fellow, also armed, who serves as muscle to make sure the workers turned mules don't drop the product and bolt.

If Border Patrol happens to jump the group, a few of the workers might get rounded up while the coyote and his muscle disappear into the mountains, armed and dangerous—and good luck finding them.

They know the trails like their own faces in the mirror, because they make those runs over and over again.

When I visited Ladd recently, he uttered a chilling remark that Dever echoed in his testimony in Washington last week: "I guarantee that every group coming across that border today has a gun behind it."

We can have a discussion about open labor markets, about legalizing drugs, about our insatiable demand for drugs, about the skill of the cartels at getting their junk into the country and how that creates more demand than there otherwise would be.

But that's for another time. The immediate issue: How do we protect American citizens from this imminent danger?

The worst thought of all is that maybe the federal government is incapable of doing it. Maybe the bureaucracy is too big to do much of ... anything.

The communications issue inspires zero confidence.

Susan Pope's husband, Louie, has worked closely with the Border Patrol, even volunteering to show young agents how to work the terrain and the trails. He likes some of what he sees.

"They're good kids, and they damn sure want to work," says Pope.

But he has also watched the agency regularly put two men on a trail to track a group of 20, without maps, night-vision equipment or radios.

Veterinarian Gary Thrasher tells of being flagged down on an isolated ranch road at night by an agent left there to track a group alone—again, with no radio.

If he needed backup, the agent was told to use his personal cell phone. But the battery had gone dead, and he asked to borrow Thrasher's cell.

For years, at every meeting with the Border Patrol, residents of the Chiricahua Corridor have pleaded with Border Patrol to fix its communication problems.

The corridor runs along a seam between the agency's Douglas and Lordsburg sectors, and the two sectors have been unable to communicate with each other.

Border Patrol agents stationed at forward operating bases out on Geronimo Trail, east of Douglas, can't radio back to headquarters in town.

Residents along Geronimo Trail can't call the forward operating base. Rancher Bill McDonald says if trouble brews at his place, he has to drive to the base, 5 miles away on dirt roads.

After Krentz was shot, Border Patrol agents and sheriff's deputies worked the area looking for clues, but they couldn't communicate with each other.

Close observers say Krentz's killer was likely back in Mexico well before Rob's body was located, so bad communications probably didn't play a role in his escape.

Within days of the murder, after Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords contacted DHS about the sorry state of communications in the corridor, satellite GPS radios arrived.

But it took a death, and a congresswoman raising hell, to get the bureaucracy to finally move.

Another loud plea, widely heard, is that the Border Patrol needs to be on the border itself, not tracking people five miles north of the line, or 30 miles north.

Thrasher, who travels the borderlands daily in his work, has made this his signature issue, and his view reflects the cynicism some feel toward the Border Patrol. He says the fall-back strategy cedes American land to the gangs and puts citizens at risk.

"There is no interest among the higher-up in stopping this at the border," says Thrasher. "Instead of being preventative, they're reactionary, because then they can show all the wonderful things they're doing. Look at how many arrests we made. Look at all the pot we caught.

"The border should be our line in the sand. That's where we need to stop them before they get to any citizens."

In fairness, Border Patrol has always said they don't have enough manpower to form a blockade at the border, and backing up allows more time to make arrests. They make a similar argument with fencing, saying it pushes illegals out into remote areas and gives agents days rather than hours to make arrests.

But that bothers Thrasher, too. Stop them at the line, and nobody dies in the backcountry.

"We push them way out and give them a two-day head start, then run them down," says Thrasher, who played football for Woody Hayes at Ohio State. "Rob's murder was terrible, and the danger everybody faces is terrible. But all of us out here are sick of seeing the bodies (of illegals), too."

The one that haunts him the most, oddly, was one he never saw. But a rancher in the Chiricahuas told Thrasher the story.

A woman had died up in the mesquite and had been there long enough for the coyotes to get to her. When searchers went out to bag the body parts, they found her head here, some guts over there, a scatter of limbs.

When the rancher picked up an arm, he noticed the Timex watch on the woman's wrist still ticking.

The idea of ceding American ground to the cartels is the pulse point of this crisis, because fundamentally, this is a fight for land. It's going on in this country and on ranches in northern Mexico, where a lot of good folks there have it even worse than we do.

Every trail on our border is either bought or won through blood. The profits are great, and no gang that controls valuable land is going to give it up willingly.

As John Ladd says, "Nobody has tried to stop them yet. But if we do, it's going to be a battle."

Do we have the political will to take it on now, after Krentz?

A telling sign will be the rules of engagement under which troops, should the president decide to send them, will operate. Giffords and Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl have called for the immediate deployment National Guard troops.

Will they be allowed to stand their ground if challenged? Will they have bullets in their guns?

Remember back in January 2007, when unidentified armed men approached a National Guard outpost on the border near Sasabe, southwest of Tucson, and the soldiers followed orders and fled?

All across that section of the border, you could hear residents wailing, "No! Protect us! Why are you here if not to protect us?!"

If that was a probe by the cartels to see if the gringos were finally serious, they got their answer.

We can't do that again.

As Susan Pope says, "If we don't stop it now, God help us, because He's the only one who'll be able to. It'll send a message to the cartels, 'Hey, it's a free for all. Come on up.'"