Arizona Ranchers Share Experience with Border Security

Dan Bell on Border Security
As the debate on border security intensifies see how two Arizona ranch families view the issue of securing the border from the frontline. ( Wyatt Bechtel )

Note: The original version of this story ran online and in Drovers magazine during March 2018. The story has been updated to reflect recent debate on funding for a border wall.


The U.S. border with Mexico spans 1,954 miles, and ranchers are on the front lines for most of it.

For the past few decades, border enforcement and security has increased to halt illegal immigration and drug smuggling. In 1989, construction on the first major border fence began in San Diego, stretching 46 miles east.

President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act of 2006 on Oct. 26, 2006, adding nearly 700 miles of fencing structures and more enforcement officials.

More recently President Donald Trump campaigned on a platform of border security, much of it hinging on building a wall. From the start of his presidency, funding for a border wall has been under scrutiny. The debate finally reached its boiling point on Dec. 21, 2018, when Trump opted out of signing a bill that would fund the government because it lacked $5.7 billion to pay for a border wall.

During the standoff between Trump and Congress that has seen the government enter its longest shutdown, the debate has only intensified.

During his first primetime address from the Oval Office on Jan. 15, President Trump shared stories of how illegal immigration and drug smuggling have impacted the lives of American citizens.

“To those who refuse to compromise in the name of border security, I would ask: Imagine if it was your child, your husband, or your wife whose life was so cruelly shattered and totally broken?” Trump says.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) gave a response following the president’s speech.

“The fact is we all agree we need to secure our borders while honoring our values. We can build the infrastructure and roads at our ports of entry. We can install new technology to scan cars and trucks for drugs coming into our nation. We can hire the personnel we need to facilitate trade and immigration at the border. We can fund more innovation to detect unauthorized crossings,” Pelosi says.

While both Trump and Democratic leadership agree border security is needed, they still can’t come to a resolution, largely because of the debate on the wall. Originally the wall was intended to be made of concrete. The Administration had prototypes built at a testing area in California, with the wall sections 30 feet high and made of solid concrete. The vision of the wall has pivoted, with Trump saying a steel slat fence, similar to today’s current barrier fence along portions of the border, would be more ideal.

Border Fence Wall

There are 354 miles of primary pedestrian fence along the southern border, similar to this bollard-style fence near Nogales, Ariz. Secondary and tertiary fencing for pedestrian traffic totals 51 miles, and the remaining 300 miles of fence only halt vehicle traffic.

In Arizona, hundreds of miles of steel fencing were built, with the Secure Fence Act forcing traffic to more remote areas of the border. Some ranchers welcome the idea of building a wall, but they say it won’t do any good without boots on the ground. Here are perspectives from two ranchers on the Arizona border.

Roads First, Walls Later

Operation Hold the Line in Texas was a successful effort by Border Patrol to bring more enforcement and technology to the region starting in 1993. The following year Operation Gatekeeper in California began and illegal entries through San Diego were reduced by more than 75%. This was when ranchers like Dan Bell of Nogales, Ariz., started seeing an uptick in movement across the border.

“Border cities started to fortify and that forced a lot of traffic onto us,” Bell says. “We had always seen traffic from drug smugglers and aliens, but it compounded it as soon as they put in those border security measures.”

ZZ Cattle Corporation was established by Bell’s grandfather in 1938 and is now 35,000 acres. Most of the ranch is on U.S. Forest Service land west of Nogales and Interstate 19. Bell’s grazing allotments in the Coronado National Forest run along the border 10 miles past where Arizona’s border angles northwest.

Driving across Bell’s ranch takes less time than it did a few years ago because gravel roads have been built, widened and regularly maintained for Border Patrol agents. But it is still a rugged, hour-long drive to get from the ranch headquarters to the gate of the western pasture. 

Dan Bell

Dan Bell standing with some of his commercial Angus replacement heifers, just a few miles from the Mexican border.

“It takes quite a bit of time to get around out here,” Bell says. “That is the biggest misconception about securing the border.”

Even a Border Patrol agent with a mobile surveillance capable vehicle, says it’s difficult to get to an ideal area for reception due to the lack of roads.

Bell’s neighbors to the west are Jim and Sue Chilton from Arivaca, Ariz., who also graze land along the border and have an even worse road issue.

“Just to go from our ranch house on the north end of the ranch to the international boundary it takes an hour and a half,” Jim says.

“That’s about 19.5 miles. In other words it’s not a freeway, it’s a rough, ranch road,” Sue adds.

The Chiltons would like to see better roads in and around their 50,000- acre ranch so enforcement officials can access the border faster.

Building a wall or any permanent fencing first requires roads for construction crews to reach the border. At the minimum a road needs to be built to run along the border to better patrol illegal crossings.

Courtesy of Chilton Ranch Jim Chilton at Border

Jim Chilton walking the four-strand, barbed-wire fence that goes along his ranch’s southern border with Mexico.

“No Man’s Land”

Much of the traffic across the Tucson Corridor of the border is controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel. Jim and Sue estimate more than 200 trails go through their ranch and all are under the rule of the Sinaloa Cartel.

“About 20 miles into the U.S. is controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel. That’s where our ranch is, it’s in no man’s land,” Jim says.

Trail cameras are set up along three paths to help the Chiltons monitor activity on their ranch. They aren’t catching pictures of wildlife—mostly smugglers carrying large bundles of drugs. Last year 360 images of drug packers were captured.

Courtesy of Chilton Ranch  Drugpacking

Drug traffickers are spotted moving across the Chilton Ranch via a trail camera placed along one of an estimated 200 trails on the property.

Jim and Sue want more officers at the border. They have proposed leasing 10 acres of their property in the Forest Service allotments to the Border Patrol to set up forward operating bases. Their rental fee: $1 per year.

“The offer was made five years ago, and they are still studying it. If you can’t find the dollar, I’ll lend it to you,” Jim adds.

The next neighbor to the west made a similar offer, they add, and nothing has happened.

“Bottom line, the Tucson station is located 80 miles from the international boundary,” Jim says.

To check out a gun and be briefed, it might be an hour before an officer leaves the office. It then takes three hours to get to the border where multiple Cartel backpacker trails cross, leaving little time for the job.

Impacts on Ranching

Having unwanted visitors at their ranches on a regular basis has presented some interesting challenges for the Arizona ranchers.

The Bells and Chiltons have installed drinking fountains at their water sites for migrants. Prior to this, cattle waterers would be broken routinely, draining stock tanks, as migrants searched for water. Even now, plastic piping is cut open when groups can’t quickly locate a tank.

Another problem is the trash left behind. In some cases, cattle have eaten plastic bags while grazing.

“It stuffs up their digestive system and they die a horrible, cruel death. There is nothing you can do for them,” Jim says.

Fixing Fence

Dan Bell has to regularly fix the barbed-wire fence along the international border of his ranch. Most of the damage is from drug smugglers.

Wildfires started by those crossing illegally are also a problem. In 2011, three-quarters of Bell’s grazing allotments burned from 13 separate fires and only one wasn’t man-made. He attributes the majority of the fires to illegal immigrants warming themselves with a fire or drug smugglers trying to evade authorities.

After fires, the Bells and the Chiltons have to change their grazing programs because the Forest Service doesn’t want cattle grazing burned pasture, sometimes for two years.

Then, the cost of putting out fires is often passed to tax payers. Jim estimates at least $2 million was spent on firefighting on his ranch in 2017 because of fires started by smugglers and migrants.

“If you took out the cost to the Forest Service just from fighting Arizona border fires of recent years, you’d find that the border wall would pay for itself,” Jim adds.

“No Silver Bullet”

A solid wall can be seen in very few parts of Nogales. The border around the metro-area is primarily bollard-style fence at least 18' tall made from 4"-square tubing or drill-stem pipe. This is a preferred design because agents can see through the other side, and it is difficult to climb. It was built through the Secure Fence Act prior to the Trump administration.

The Bells have 2 miles of bollard fence running from the western edge of Nogales until it hits a steep hill and turns into a four wire fence with a Normandy-style fence in a water gap to prevent vehicle traffic.

The bollard fence has made a big impact on Bell’s ranch management.

“Before, we had a lot of problems with the fence being let down, almost on a nightly basis,” he says.

The neighbor’s cattle would cross from Mexico and graze his Forest Service allotments. “It really made an improvement when the bollard fence went in, and we could see the change from one growing season to the next.”

Border Security

Accessing the border with roads is the most pressing issue to help secure remote areas. Another problem is communication and surveillance; truck-mounted mobile sensors are making a difference.

On the western half of the Bells’ ranch, the border is just a four-strand, barbed-wire fence. It continues west about 25 miles past the Chilton Ranch and a few others.

“We definitely need a wall. We definitely need roads, forward operating bases and better communications at the international boundary,” Jim says.

Jim and Sue believe a wall of some sort is necessary, but they understand a bollard fence might be the best route because agents can see who might be coming from Mexico. It should also be cheaper.

Feasibility and practicality is a concern for Bell when it comes building a wall. “There is no real silver bullet to solving the border security issue,” Bell says. “It is going to take man power, aerial assets and technology. My main big push is accessing the border with roads.”



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