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Sunday, 11 April 1999

Rancher says he's a victim, not a vigilante

By Ignacio Ibarra

The Arizona Daily Star

DOUGLAS - Even from a moving truck, the trails are easy to spot. To rancher Roger Barnett, the trampled grass and a scrap of old carpeting draped over a barbed-wire fence are a sure sign: A large group of illegal entrants has crossed his land on the way north from the border.

Many trails wind through the mesquite and brush of his Cross Rail Ranch, about five miles northeast of the border town of Douglas. The paths are marked by footprints, plastic bottles, plastic bags, jackets, pants, used diapers and even women's panties. It was here, in the valley between the Pedregosa and the Perrilla mountains, that Barnett and his brothers - armed with handguns and equipped with high-powered binoculars, radios and police-style badges - captured a group of 27 illegal entrants a week ago today, marched them down a dirt road and turned them over to the Border Patrol. None of the illegal entrants reported being threatened or intimidated by the three men, whose pistols remained holstered throughout the confrontation, according to the Border Patrol. "I'm not a hero or a vigilante in this," Barnett said, "I'm a victim."

On a tour of his ranch Friday, he pointed out trails, litter and property damage that indicated at least three large groups of people had moved through his ranch overnight. Some people say the brothers are an example of a growing and dangerous vigilantism that will eventually lead to tragedy. But to many people in this rural area, the Barnetts were just protecting their property from an invading horde that the federal government is unable or unwilling to control.

Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., wrote U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner Thursday, warning that frustration over the rapidly increasing flow of illegal entrants here is "reaching a crisis point." He's asked her in the letter to consider the immediate allocation of additional agents and resources to the Tucson Sector. He also wants a meeting between INS Western Regional Director Johnny Williams and local citizens so they can discuss the problems and "steps that can be taken to relieve the intolerable situation which currently exists along the border."

Barnett was one of dozens of southeast Arizona ranchers and other residents who signed a March 10 proclamation warning of the potential for bloodshed if illegal immigration isn't brought under control. "When homes and loved ones are in jeopardy and government officials refuse to respond, we feel our only recourse may be to take matters into our own hands," the petition reads. "We know the results could be ugly. This is not our wish. We want to be protected by the law and order that our government is failing to provide us." That petition and Barnett's action have raised concerns among Mexican officials that their citizens risk being shot.

Mexican Consul Ecce Iei Mendoza, said Mexico's office of external affairs is monitoring the situation and has asked U.S. officials to take all steps necessary to reduce tensions. In Tucson, the Arizona Border Rights Project, a human rights advocacy group, is demanding "that the self-styled vigilantes at the border be investigated and prosecuted for conspiring to violate the civil rights of immigrants." The organization, which is also known as Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, has scheduled a press conference and rally at noon Wednesday in front of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tucson, at the corner of Church Avenue and Broadway.

Jose Matus, spokesman for the coalition, said Mexico's economy has been devastated by the North American Free Trade Agreement, forcing Mexico's poor to seek work in the United States. He blamed U.S. immigration policy and the inflammatory rhetoric of government leaders for creating a dangerous situation in which illegal entrants are endangered by the terrain, the elements and gun-toting ranchers and homeowners.

The Border Patrol has been attempting to seal off from illegal immigration cities along the border, compelling illegal entrants to seek more dangerous routes through isolated areas. "Congress has provoked this unfortunate environment which forces undocumented workers to take increasingly serious risks and vigilante groups to try to protect their property by taking the law into their own hands," said Matus. The damage and garbage that result from the Border Patrol's strategy of border walls and increased personnel are real, "but it doesn't give them the right to grab a gun and start picking people up," Matus said.

Barnett, a former Cochise County sheriff's deputy who now runs a propane business in Sierra Vista, said he understands the uproar over his so-called alien roundup. But he's not apologetic about what he and his brothers did. So far this year two of his cows have died from ingesting plastic left in the desert by illegal entrants. Water lines he's installed on his 22,000-acre ranch have been cut by illegal entrants trying to relieve their thirst after a six- to 12-mile walk from the border. An 8,000-gallon water tank has been drained so often that he installed a faucet on the line to accommodate the illegal immigrants. The tank was emptied again recently when the faucet was left open.

His ranch hand, Roger Abbey, said there are so many illegal entrants that cleaning up after them would be "An eight-hour-a-day job every day." "I know most of these people are just looking for jobs," Barnett said, "but they not only trash things up, they're doing damage, breaking into homes. . . . we even had a pickup truck stolen off the ranch." Barnett dismissed the notion that he and his brother were "hunting down" illegals. To a rancher, he said, a gun is a tool for protecting livestock and for self-defense. As for the badge, Barnett said, "Yes, I have a badge, it says 'Ranch Patrol' and I wear it occasionally. "It's not illegal. It's my land, and I'm the authority out here." That's one of the problems, according to several ranchers and other residents living along the border.

Too often, law-enforcement officials are far away. A call in Barnett's area can be answered in 15 to 20 minutes at the quickest; other calls can take a couple of hours or, for a low-priority call, a couple of days. The feeling of isolation only increased recently when residents demanding more protection received handouts from the Cochise County sheriff's office outlining the state law on self-defense and the use of deadly force. "Out here in this valley, we feel like we're unprotected," said another area rancher, Susan Krentz.

"It's difficult to get a sheriff's deputy to respond to a call. I don't know what would happen if we had some real trouble we couldn't handle ourselves." Sheriff Larry Dever admits his department, which has only 54 certified officers to patrol the 6,400 square miles of Cochise County, is stretched pretty thin. But the problem is too big for local law enforcement. "Obviously we're dealing with a situation that is unprecedented in this area, where there are more illegal aliens apprehended than in any other place in the nation. We've always had a stream, but it's become a flood," he said.

Dever said the increase in property crimes has been small relative to the rising numbers of illegal entrants, but the perception of a problem is the true danger. Tensions are rising, as are confrontations between citizens and illegal entrants and their smugglers, he said. Dever said he's spoken with Kolbe, Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, both R-Ariz., about the need for increased resources for the Border Patrol. He said local law enforcement agencies also need additional resources to deal with the increase in property crimes and other fallout from illegal immigration. Until then, Barnett and others say they'll keep doing what they have to do to take care of themselves and their property.