Written by Sally Moore

Nothing remains static for long on the border. In response to shifting tides of government policies and rising cartel influence in Mexico, individual county sheriff departments tasked with maintaining law and order face a big job. While armed with superior knowledge of the local terrain, local law enforcement teams are hamstrung by the enormity of the task to be accomplished with limited manpower and funding. Necessity, the mother of invention, has forced creative development- at the county level -to meet the needs of their citizenry most at risk: Those who live and work in close proximity to the international border. 

Returning to Cochise County, located 100 miles Southeast of Tucson; Blessings Through Action (BTA) sat down at their headquarters in Bisbee with three of the four members of Cochise County Sheriff’s Ranch Patrol, Monday, July 15. 

Detective Sgt. Tim Williams joined Deputy Sheriffs, Mike Magoffin and Jake Kartchner for a frank discussion of their service in Cochise County.  Kartchner and Magoffin occupy a unique position as members of the SABRE team, a sharp-sounding acronym for the multi-agency, Southeastern Arizona Border Region Enforcement Team involving participants from the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the U.S. Border Patrol (USBP).

Arising in the aftermath of rancher Rob Krentz’s shocking murder in 2010, a specialized investigative unit, the Ranch Patrol program was created by CCSO Sheriff Mark Dannels to calm a vulnerable, rural demographic with a proactive, cooperative law enforcement outreach. Far from easily patrolled municipalities, the Ranch Patrol monitors extremely rough, desert backcountry using trucks, UTV’s, horses, and sometimes afoot as they patrol cattle country.

Sgt. Tim Williams, 41, a 16 year veteran with the CCSO, heads the unique Ranch Patrol team working with, and coordinating closely with local ranchers along the border and throughout Cochise County. Asked if there truly is a border crisis, Sgt. Williams nodded, “It is a crisis. In this time frame, with the huge wave of illegal human smuggling. It is affecting everybody in our county, and especially along the southern border. We are seeing a big increase.”  

Jake Kartchner, 37, has been with the CCSO for 15 years and is also a Search and Rescue team member. He expanded on the Cochise County’s slice of the crisis, “We are seeing a lot of (illegals) them jumping the fence, and going into the mountains. Leaving a lot of trash and having their own medical emergencies out there.”

According to Williams, the past several years have seen significant increases in human smuggling. As he tells it, their role in the greater crisis is a wide-ranging one to aid area ranchers, “We work with our SABRE team to deploy assets with the service team, and to monitor the surveillance equipment for a coordinated response.” He adds that their work centers on livestock and rancher issues, especially for those at greatest risk -with property right on the international border. “International Crime,” he said, “is what we concentrate on.”

As we heard from neighboring rancher, John Ladd in a recent interview, the CCSO confirmed that during the Clinton administration in the 1990’s, specific fencing directives shifted the bulk of illegal traffic away from Port of Entry points right into open, rough country where Border Patrol would have more time to surveil and round up illegal migrants- Open country owned and occupied by area cattlemen. 

In 2016 the Obama Administration eased restrictions for Central American asylum seeking families. Compounded by the declining economic opportunities which come with the ongoing political unrest in Central America the problem on the Southern border has surged.

Williams doesn’t comment on the counter-intuitive logic of the Federal government decisions which directed illegal trafficking toward the rancher’s isolated property. He works only with facts. “The reasoning,” he posited, “was that they could detect and have days to apprehend illegals- rather than them all being funneled right into populated areas.” In populated areas, migrants disappear quickly.

Remote, local ranches, he concludes soberly, “Really took the brunt of this development on their properties. They are feeling the effects of that government program. We are trying to address those issues which they face.”

Unlike the caravans of families and children highlighted in recent mainstream media reports. “In Cochise County we are seeing young men in their 20’s to 30’s, in large groups.”

Nothing stays the same for long, and there is an ebb and flow in both drug and human trafficking. “We’ve apprehended a lot,” he says. “There are lots of drug issues…quite a few. It is always evolving in our county.”

“Several years ago we were intercepting, drugs and people, several a week-marijuana smuggling.  Then it shifted from 50 to 60 up to 450 or more a month of illegals. Now, it’s a mix of both again,” he states. “It is constantly evolving. None of this is good for the country.  All of it has its problems.”

Unlike El Paso and California, Williams notes, ”We aren’t seeing 1000’s of people jumping the fence and sitting down to give up (and ask for asylum).” The lawman adds, “We are seeing males dressed in camouflage, head-to-toe, actively trying not to get caught.”

“Each part of the border, even within our county, is unique in how, when and where they are coming in,” contributes Deputy Kartchner. “We see those that would be refused- those with a criminal history or issues- are getting through and into the rough country without detection.  That’s what we are trying to intercept.”

Their team receives tips from ranchers or Intel from Border Patrol on evidence of new smuggling trails or tripped ground sensors. Specific launches on specific intelligence are matched with regular patrols to cover as much territory, for as many ranchers, as they can manage.

A man of few words, Magoffin explains the SABRE/ranch patrol process, “We coordinate response with the Border Patrol, detain and figure out what to do with them. If they have only crossed over, then we will probably just pass them off to Border Patrol. If they committed a crime we can prosecute then we keep them.”   A ten year veteran with the CCSO, Mike Magoffin grew up on a border ranch near Douglas and relates to the tangled illegal immigration problem in a personal way.   

Regardless of their dedication, the odds are not in their favor. Cochise County incorporates 83 miles of international border. With only half of that mileage fenced in any way. Expanding on the problem, William’s outlined, “Our County is really large, with 6400 square miles.  We try to address smuggling all through the county. Smuggling issues are happening 75 or 80 miles away. We are trying to work the whole county and make things safe for the entire county.”

The reality is fraught with problems and seems to support the U.S. President’s advocacy for a “Big, Beautiful Wall.” Williams is reticent to address any political debate and tiptoes carefully around the issue. “The opinion is that there needs to be more than barbed wire, so that you know if you have crossed a border and not just another rancher’s property line.  The border needs to be clearly defined. In my opinion, it’s got to be different (than it is now.)” He emphasized, “There needs to be something letting people know that they have crossed an international border.”

The Ranch Patrol won’t admit to fears or safety considerations they may find in the uncertain terrain: It goes with the badge. Deputy Magoffin, with a philosophical shrug observed that ranch patrols, “Are still law enforcement. We have to always be in reactionary mode. Let them set the tempo for how that’s going. It’s the same type of cop work we see in other areas.  When you contact people (we) are always alert for anything. You still have to apprehend and detain people.”

Personal considerations aside, the CCSO Ranch Patrol is concerned for their ranching neighbor’s safety. 

“One rancher I know told me just last week,” reported Williams. “If he hears a noise, he goes out armed to check the barn because they are likely to find 10 to15 illegals there.” 

With a shake of his head, he adds, “You have to have a gun now to go around your place!  This has changed in the past decade. You should be able to do what you want to do, and go where you want to go in and around your own property!  Law enforcement should be able to fix that. To make things safe.” Williams’ frustration was evident.

Other frustrations also gnaw on Sgt. William’s. “One of the big things, just to show the difference…All your life you have lived in an area and gone to places- gone camping or used hiking trails, that sort of thing. We can’t go there anymore. It isn’t safe. Ten years ago they were safe. This is personal to me.”  He takes a breath and continues. ”It irritates me that law enforcement can’t make those areas safe. We should be able to access our National Parks and not be afraid.” He doesn’t beat around the bush, declaring, ”That’s not the case right now. There is smuggling there every day — It is not safe.”

“We are required to do something about this border crisis.”  SABRE, along with the collaborative ranch patrols are working to just that. “We are tasked to do that, and to make our community safer. Ranches happen to be where these people are passing.  There really is no difference, we are all part of the same concept…we just go out and do it, patrolling rural areas.”

Border crossing, the team confirms, is an immigration issue better left to the Border Patrol. “It’s when these people commit a crime, break in or assault someone…something where we can prosecute them on a state level- The objective is to make ranchers safer- That’s where we step in,” Williams defined.

Enjoying the full support of Sheriff Dannels, the CCSO Ranch Patrol claims to have the freedom and latitude to do whatever is needed in the exercise of their duties.  However, the math just doesn’t add up or equate to ultimate victory. While Illegal crossings and drug traffic have increased in a non-linear way, the Cochise County Ranch Patrol now has only four remaining members on staff.

Solutions won’t be found in Cochise County or any other local jurisdiction. Permanent solutions must be crafted in Washington. 

“The biggest thing to tell the American people,” he adds soberly, ”is that we are trying to do the best we can with the limited resources we do have.” He seems undaunted by the big job they have been given.  “The big question is why the increase? Why are we seeing the influx?”  Williams estimated a staggering 400% increase in human traffic breaching the border. 

“Our country as a whole: We need to stand together. Even those in Iowa and Minnesota- everybody. The fix has to come from everyone.”