Tuesday, November 1, 2011



Note: Make this background piece a "must read"
Also, in this story there is a point we have been making for a long
time now:
In Nogales, itself, crime dropped in all but one major category in
the same period. In addition to more than 60 of its own officers,
Police Chief Jeff Kirkham says the city is home to 800 working
federal agents, from the Drug Enforcement Administration, Border
Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other agencies. "We
have more law enforcement per capita than anywhere in the state,"
says Kirkham. "For the average citizen, the average person visiting,
Nogales is absolutely safer than Tucson."

Smugglers' Paradise
Perhaps Janet Napolitano should visit the Peck Canyon Corridor
outside of Nogales—with an armed escort
by Leo W. Banks

From the idyllic shelter of Peck Canyon outside of Nogales, Edith
Lowell reflects on what it's like to share her beloved ranch with
violent drug-smugglers, illegal aliens and automatic-weapon-toting

Her opinion might surprise.
"We actually feel safe here at the house, I guess because anybody who
is a bad egg has always gone on by, and we hope they keep doing it,"
she says. "But we know we have to keep our eyes open. We've been
lucky. Poor Mr. Krentz wasn't so lucky."

For borderland residents living with the spillover from the Mexican
drug wars, luck is a necessity, a commodity to be prized above all
others, because it can spell the difference between a good day in
paradise and a very bad one.

Rob Krentz was working on his ranch near Douglas in Cochise County on
March 27 when he ran into the wrong person and was shot to death. The
killer, his identity and motive unknown, is still at large.

Krentz lived in an area, the Chiricahua Corridor, that has been
pounded by illegal aliens and drug-smugglers for years. The crossers
are growing ever more aggressive, with break-ins, home invasions and
late-night phone calls threatening retaliation against citizens
fighting to shut down drug routes on their land. The federal
government was ineffective, even condescending—until finally, shots
were heard around the country.

Something eerily similar is happening in another part of Arizona's
border, the place Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says
is "largely secure."

Call this increasingly dangerous smuggling route the Peck Canyon

It begins west of Nogales, at border-crossing points stretching from
the Pajarito Mountains and the Pajarita Wilderness all the way east
to Cobre Ridge. It crosses Ruby Road and climbs into the Atascosa
Mountains. From there, at more than 6,000 feet, the corridor follows
the drainages down into Peck Canyon, which divides the Atascosas from
the Tumacacori Mountains. Virtually all of this is Coronado National
Forest land, where Americans go to hike, hunt and camp.

But for David and Edith Lowell, the land is home. Since 1975, they've
lived on the Atascosa Ranch headquartered in Peck Canyon, 11 miles
from the Mexican border.
"As far as I'm concerned, what Napolitano is saying is a flagrant
lie," says David, 82, an explorer and geologist. "We have the
misfortune of living on a very active smuggling route, and in the
past year, we've had five shootings on my ranch, including a Border
Patrolman. It annoys me the government can't stop these crimes from
happening right under their nose. I'd say it's gotten significantly
worse for us, rather than better."

Jason Kane, who lives on the edge of the forest four miles south of
the Lowells, says the situation at his house, in Agua Fria Canyon,
has calmed down since August. But from January through July this
year, he heard gunfire coming from the national forest on a regular
basis, some of which could've been hunters.

But on at least four occasions, Kane has heard what he's sure were
gunfights involving one fully-automatic weapon firing, and another
pumping back return fire. He has also seen ultra-light airplanes
swooping over the mountains at night to drop drug loads, and he calls
law enforcement often enough to keep the phone numbers of the Border
Patrol and the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office affixed to the
family refrigerator.

Like the Lowells, Kane says he feels generally safe right around his
home—although his wife, Clair, does not—but the children aren't
allowed to play in the yard unless one parent is watching. Kane added
he felt compelled to speak up in spite of possible danger, because
the public needs to know, and other Tucson media have shown no interest.

As for venturing beyond his property onto the national forest west
and north of his home, Kane won't do it, and he advises hikers and
hunters to stay away. "I grew up riding all over this country," says
Kane. "I've gone back into places most people will never know about.
But I'd never go there again by myself. Only with a group, and only
if I was armed. That's flat-out. I mean, this craziness of the border
being secure is a joke."

The Nogales International newspaper (which, like the Tucson Weekly,
is owned by Wick Communications) has been ably chronicling the
disturbing violence occurring in the Santa Cruz County backcountry,
usually by assailants carrying automatic weapons and wearing black or
camouflage. On June 18, the paper reported there had been more than
50 borderland robberies, assaults and shootings since April 10, 2008,
including nearly a dozen people shot, with three killed.

But the number has risen since June. Including all of 2008 and going
through mid-November of 2010, there have been almost 70 such episodes
reported to the county, says Lt. Raoul Rodriguez, head of criminal
investigations for the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office. "There are
probably many more out there that go unreported," says Rodriguez.

It should be noted that while these incidents occur in the Santa Cruz
boondocks, the settled areas of the county haven't experienced a
major uptick in crime. In most categories, crime in the county
between 2008 and 2009 either stayed the same or dropped, according to
FBI statistics. A notable increase came in violent crimes, the number
of episodes rising from 5 in 2008 to 18 in 2009.

The figure for 2010 is expected to be down, says Rodriguez—in spite
of the Oct. 18 discovery of a body in a shallow grave on a ranch near
Tubac. Javier Adan Mendez-Celaya, an illegal alien from Sonora, had
been shot multiple times in what investigators believe is a drug
murder. No arrests have been made.

In Nogales, itself, crime dropped in all but one major category in
the same period. In addition to more than 60 of its own officers,
Police Chief Jeff Kirkham says the city is home to 800 working
federal agents, from the Drug Enforcement Administration, Border
Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other agencies. "We
have more law enforcement per capita than anywhere in the state,"
says Kirkham. "For the average citizen, the average person visiting,
Nogales is absolutely safer than Tucson."

But in the remote areas east and west of the city, the much-feared
spillover from the Mexican drug wars is occurring. Most troubling is
the willingness of gangs to use lethal force against lawmen. Since
late 2009, there have been at least five episodes in which Border
Patrol has taken fire, and the Nogales police have faced similar danger.

In early June, at Kino Springs east of the city, two off-duty
policemen on horseback captured two drug loads in the same week,
resulting in a threat against city police to "look the other way, or
be targeted by snipers or by other means." As a result, Kirkham says
his department is giving assault and ambush training to officers, and
he has advised them to wear bulletproof vests if they ride horses at
Kino Springs.

But the majority of the trouble is occurring west of the city along
the Peck Canyon Corridor, which parallels Interstate 19 on the west,
the same land Rep. Raúl Grijalva has proposed turning into a federal

What's going on? Can the violence be stopped before we have another
borderlands tragedy involving an American citizen or a lawman?

The episodes are clearly fallout from the relentless traffic in human
beings and drugs across our border. But after that, answers are
elusive, because no one has been arrested for any of these crimes.
Sheriff's deputies, often called to the scene hours after the fact,
find victims terrified and exhausted after running long distances
over remote terrain to escape, and are frequently unable to say
exactly where the crime occurred. And victims rarely provide good
descriptions of assailants; the incidents often happen at night, and
victims sometimes tell investigators they didn't look at the suspects
for fear of being shot.

The witnesses could be lying, too. "Someone who is robbed is never
going to admit they brought in drugs themselves," says Santa Cruz
County Sheriff Tony Estrada.

Rodriguez describes these episodes as crimes of opportunity likely
committed by competing drug cartels that find it easier to steal a
load after it has been brought across the border, rather than
bringing it across themselves. These bandits—known as bajadores—
sometimes work so close to the border that they can "cross easily
back into Mexico without having to worry about our response time,"
says Rodriguez, and they keep watch over smuggling routes. When a
group of illegals or drug mules enters the country, they follow and
set an ambush, stealing whatever valuables they can.

The assailants could also be from this country, gunmen from Tucson or
Phoenix who work with the cartels, or independent thugs making money
ripping off illegals and drug loads. Investigators can't rule
anything out. "These individuals usually wear some type of bandana or
ski mask and dark clothes," says Rodriguez. "There's nothing to help
us identify them as either Americans or Mexican nationals."

Border Patrol spokesperson Colleen Agle says those who cross into
that "very remote region become easy prey for somebody looking to
exploit the situation." Estrada says smugglers use the forest west of
Interstate 19 because they're trying to get around Border Patrol's
checkpoint at kilometer 42. He adds his department has five deputies
per shift to cover 1,200 square miles, and doesn't "have the luxury
of patrolling the mountains and canyons."

"If we get calls from out there, we respond," says Estrada. "But
patrolling that area is up to Border Patrol. Drugs and aliens
crossing the border is their responsibility."

The borderlands north and west of Nogales have always been wild.
During the Apache Wars, renegades used that country to raid the
United States and escape untouched back to the Mexican Sierra Madre.

Peck Canyon gets its name from rancher Al Peck. His wife, daughter
and a ranch hand were brutally murdered by Geronimo and his band when
they stormed through the canyon on April 27, 1886, his last raid in
Arizona before surrendering that September. David Lowell's
grandfather sat on the coroner's jury for Geronimo's killings.

The area today is still extremely remote, largely unpopulated and
federally managed. Countless smuggling trails cross the terrain, many
leading into the mostly road-less Atascosas. Estrada says these
mountains are so rough that on some occasions, his investigators,
unable to reach areas by ATV or even horseback, have had to be
dropped in by helicopter. The terrain puts law enforcement in a
reactive mode.

"Once smugglers hit that country, you have no capability of knowing
where they're going, and they have days to move a load through," says
Keith Graves, who worked for 10 years as Nogales district ranger for
the Coronado National Forest. He is now a liaison between the Forest
Service and the Secure Border Initiative. "Even if they trip a
sensor, there are only certain things Border Patrol can do. They
usually have to wait until the smugglers come out."

Peck Canyon is a hot spot, because it offers an easy exit route from
the Atascosas to Interstate 19, three miles east of the canyon
entrance near Rio Rico.

Based on descriptions he has received and his own deduction, David
Lowell believes the three sniper-style shootings that have occurred
in Peck Canyon—on Nov. 21, 2009, and June 11 and July 2, 2010—have
all been in a very narrow area about 3/4 of a mile long and less than
a mile behind his house. "Shooting a high-powered rifle at a man in
the open at less than 100 yards is a fish-in-a-barrel shot," says
Lowell, adding that he believes it's no coincidence that most were
shot in the arm or leg. "I think it's a message that 'this is our
corridor,' belonging to ABC cartel or whatever, 'and go no further.'"

Edith says thieves have been robbing illegals crossing the mountains
for some time. "But now we have bandits shooting at them, and that's
something new," she says.

Jim Cuming, who lives near the Lowells, saw the result on Nov. 21,
2009, when David Luna Zapata, the victim of a sniper shooting, showed
up at his driveway about 10 p.m. Responding to his barking dogs,
Cuming went out and found Zapata bleeding profusely from bullet
wounds in the thigh and ankle.

"I got him a chair and sat him down," says Cuming. "He was in obvious
pain. The light was not bright, but I could see his pant leg was
soaked in blood."

Before his family stopped ranching in 2000, Cuming, a landscaper,
says it was rare to see even a footprint in those mountains. Today,
he says the Peck Corridor is marked by 2-foot-wide trails.

"With the economy like it is, the majority coming now aren't looking
for work," says Cuming. "I think they're part of the drug industry."

That trend is evident in other areas of Arizona's borderlands, where
residents report seeing fewer workers and more drug activity. In the
Chiricahua Corridor above Douglas, scene of the Krentz murder, drug-
trafficking continues, says Don Kimble, who lives on the corridor's
eastern border in the Peloncillo Mountains, a hot spot. "If I sit
outside on still nights, I can hear mules talking at my well west of
my house," says Kimble. "Drug-smuggling might've gone down a little
since Rob's murder, but not much. When they need to send a load, it's
going to go. They still cross at will."

Arrest numbers in Border Patrol's Tucson Sector indicate that
crossings in general have dropped in the past few years. In fiscal
year 2007, agents arrested 378,000 people in the sector. By 2009, the
number had dropped to 241,000, and in 2010, the arrest number was
212,000. It sounds like good news, but caution is in order, says
Brandon Judd, president of the local chapter of the National Border
Patrol Council, the agents' union.

He says the Obama administration, desperate to pass comprehensive
immigration reform, wants to convince the public that the border is
secure, so they deliberately under-staff remote mountainous and
desert areas to keep arrests down, allowing Napolitano and others to
claim their security efforts are slashing crossings.

Judd says better enforcement has indeed made the border more secure
in some areas—such as right behind the new fencing east and west of
Nogales, where most of the new agents have been placed. But staffing
hasn't been increased in remote regions, including the mountains west
of Nogales. "The border in those areas is as wide open as it has ever
been," says Judd.

Certainly, the woeful economy is another big factor in the drop in
arrests. But bigger still, at least in some areas, is the spectacular
drug violence in Mexico. As cartels fight each other to control land
in northern Mexico, and very profitable routes on American soil,
normal life, including migrant traffic, has changed dramatically.

In Sasabe, 45 miles south of Three Points, Alice Knagge says the gang
that controls Sasabe, Sonora, right across the line, has frightened
everyone so badly that everyday commerce has virtually stopped.
"People don't come across to shop here anymore," Knagge says. "My
business is down 40 percent in a year and a half." The crowds of
illegals who once rushed across the surrounding Altar Valley—as many
as 4,000 every 24 hours—have diminished as well, some diverted by
fencing and additional agents in the Baboquivari Mountains.

Life has also changed to the east, at Jim Chilton's ranch outside
Arivaca, the eastern border of which abuts the Peck Canyon Corridor.
He has ended his "very friendly" practice of offering water to
passing illegals. Now, with the gangster threat, if he sees a group
coming over a hill, he quickly turns and rides away on his horse.

And he no longer carries a cell phone when he rides. Chilton says
Border Patrol has warned him not to, saying he could be shot if
traffickers see him on the phone. "We have a policy of not reporting
to Border Patrol anything we see for fear of the cartels taking us
out," Chilton says. "We have to ride our border fence three times a
week, and we're highly concerned about running into a drug intrusion
and being attacked.

"The fact is, every time I ride, I go out knowing I might be shot,"
Chilton continues. "But I have to decide if I'm a cowboy or a wimp. I
live in this area. This is my home, and I am not running from it. I
am prepared."

Chilton's neighbor, Tom Kay, says Border Patrol agents have warned
him not to go to the southern part of his ranch bordering Mexico
unless absolutely necessary. They say cartel scouts, who set up
observation posts on hilltops to guide loads north, are now carrying
rifles, as well as infrared binoculars and satellite radios.

"I have to go down there to work, or give up my ranch. I have no
choice," says Kay, adding he's always armed and usually accompanied
by a cowboy. He says illegal crossings of his land have plunged from
as many as 1,500 a day four years ago to about 25 now. A big drop
followed the July 1 gunfight between rival cartels at Tubutama,
Mexico, leaving a reported 21 dead. The battle occurred 12 miles
south of Kay's ranch.

"They're not coming our way, because they're afraid of being shot,"
says Kay. "Our ranch is almost normal in that respect, the best since
we've been here. Border Patrol is much stronger than ever, going by
our house both ways, all day. But it's also much more dangerous than
ever. The Border Patrol, going to the southern part of my ranch, now
carries rifles, too. They consider it extremely dangerous there, even
for them."

While Napolitano boasts to the country that the border is "largely
secure," some ground agents in her employ, and the residents they
work hard to protect, describe something entirely different.

Does criminal activity inside the Peck Corridor make that land unsafe
for recreation? Shane Lyman, acting district ranger in Nogales,
referred the Weekly's questions to Heidi Schewel, spokeswoman for the
Coronado National Forest. Schewel said she'd call back to talk about
the safety of American public land but failed to do so.

But Keith Graves says he's worked the area, often alone, for 12 years
with no problem, and that the Coronado has had no complaints from
people who've been accosted. "As long as you're not stupid, it's safe
to go in there," says Graves. "But take precautions. It's like
camping out in Montana without managing for grizzly bears."

He says if you see backpacks or packages wrapped in burlap, leave
them alone. If you see a group that doesn't fit the surroundings and
doesn't look like a hiking club, go the other way.

Graves' biggest fear is vigilantes announcing they're going into an
area to stop drug-smugglers, putting hunters in danger. "A bandit
won't know if I'm a deer hunter or if I'm out to find him," says Graves.

Those who live inside or on the edge of the Peck Corridor are more
wary. Nogales native Ramiro Molina, who has a home in Agua Fria
Canyon, says he'd probably still hunt the Atascosa Mountains. "But I
wouldn't feel comfortable camping there with my kids, that's for
sure," says Molina. "I'd get in the car and go somewhere else."

A rancher at the southern end of the corridor, who asked for
anonymity, says drug-smugglers try to move through quickly and stay
away from campers. "But if you're in the wrong place, and suddenly
they're there, it can be dangerous. The smugglers get braver and
braver all the time. They've infiltrated this whole area and think
they own it."

Rancher Dan Bell agrees that it's a crapshoot. "You never know what
you might run across, and you don't know what those guys might think
when they see you," he says. "Rob Krentz was out checking waters when
he was killed. You just don't know anymore. If you're going to go, go
in a group. Don't go alone."

David Lowell, who believes the shooters are coming from across the
line, says, "My advice is to stay out until our government pulls
itself together and does more to exclude these Mexican criminals." He
and Edith used to go on a once-a-year family camping trip in Peck
Canyon. But they've stopped, "feeling we might be robbed or assaulted
with so many of these people crawling around in there. So we're no
longer willing to camp on our own ranch."

As Edith says, "These shootings from ambush are very sobering. When I
have a guest who wants to hike, I no longer tell them, 'Great, just
walk out into Peck Canyon by yourself.'" But she says day-hikers or
picnickers who go in groups, stay alert and don't confront people
will likely have no problem.

It might be different, though, for hunters who camp in the mountains
for days at a time. Edith says her dermatologist, who has hunted the
area for years, stopped doing so after an encounter with drug mules
escorted by men carrying rifles. The gunmen told the hunters they
were working with Border Patrol. The hunters pretended to believe
them, and the groups parted without incident. "That kind of thing
doesn't happen all the time, and with luck, it won't happen at all,"
Edith says.

But the Lowells don't rely much on luck. They've installed even more
security at their home, in the form of perimeter motion lights, some
linked to sirens, and they're hyper-alert to the barking of their
loyal springer spaniel, Ginger. They also regularly clear the thick
brush at the end of their driveway, where four active drug trails

The smugglers, oblivious to Janet Napolitano's "largely secure"
border, use that brush to hide their drug loads until someone comes
to haul them north.

The following is a partial list of episodes that have occurred in the
Peck Canyon Corridor in the past year. Except for two incidents
involving the Border Patrol, all information comes from incident
reports reviewed by the Tucson Weekly at the Santa Cruz County
Sheriff's Office:

• Nov. 21, 2009. Men dressed in black fire at eight illegals in Peck
Canyon with automatic weapons, wounding David Luna Zapata. He runs
through the mountains for an hour before reaching Jim Cuming's house
and calling for help.

• Nov. 27, 2009. A hunter in Fresno Canyon, two miles north of Peck
Canyon, finds the body of a Hispanic male, shot to death. When Border
Patrol backtracked, they spotted "four scouts in a cave and attempted
to apprehend the subjects." The agents also "spotted three subjects
walking on the same route with seven subjects approximately 10
minutes behind." The men are believed to be drug mules.

• Dec. 27, 2009. A sniper shoots a Border Patrol agent in the ankle
in Ramanote Canyon, on the Lowells' ranch, about two miles southwest
of their home. Two agents had entered the canyon after spotting a
subject "possibly carrying a marijuana bundle."

• June 11, 2010. Two men wearing camouflage and masks fire on seven
illegals near Ramanote Wells, on the Lowells' ranch. As the illegals
flee, they meet two more masked men, who also fire "multiple rounds
at them." Manuel Esquer Gomez, wounded in the arm, says that as he
and the other illegals flee, they stumble across a decomposing body
with the head and hands missing, "possibly due to animal activity."
The body is 200 yards from the Lowells' home. Pima County's Medical
Examiner tells the Weekly the dead man is too "heavily skeletonized"
to determine a cause of death.

• July 2, 2010. Hilltop gunmen fire at 10 illegals, likely in Peck
Canyon (based on descriptions). Two aliens say they couldn't see the
assailants, but bullets hit the ground around them. One man, running
"as fast as he could down the canyon," is hit in the back. The
illegals admit entering the U.S. three days earlier to find work in

• July 7, 2010. Based on a reliable intelligence source, Immigration
and Customs Enforcement warns that a bounty has been placed on
Nogales Border Patrol agents. The alert says 20 to 25 snipers,
possibly from the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel, are headed to Nogales,
Sonora, to shoot agents. The alert says snipers would be paid $5,000
for each person shot and cautions agents "to remain vigilant,
maintain awareness of their surroundings, and utilize body armor and
long arms as appropriate."

• Aug. 28, 2010. Two men in camouflage carrying handguns approach two
Hispanic males between Peck Canyon and Negro Canyon. The gunmen ask
"in Spanish for the marijuana." The men say they don't have marijuana
and flee. The incident occurs a mile from the Lowells' home, on the
north side of Peck Canyon.

• Sept. 5, 2010. Snipers fire multiple shots, probably with a high-
caliber rifle, at Border Patrol agents in Bellota Canyon, north of
Peña Blanca Lake. An agent returns fire; no one is hit. Border Patrol
agents also took fire inside the Peck Corridor on Aug. 9, 2009, near
the town of Ruby, and on June 21, 2010, west of DeConcini port of
entry in Nogales.

• Sept. 12, 2010. Three men carrying rifles and wearing bandana masks
fire at two illegals in the Walker Canyon area, northeast of Peña
Blanca Lake. No one is hit. One of the illegals says the assailants
were in a "very green" area and "suspects they were growing
marijuana." The victims entered the U.S. west of the border wall and
walked through a large hole in the barbed wire fence, "big enough
where ATVs have been passing through." They'd followed the ATV tracks
for an hour when attacked.

• Sept. 14, 2010. Seven illegals report being assaulted near Atascosa
Lookout, six miles west of Agua Fria Canyon. Jesus Enrique Perez-
Mercado says the gunmen stole $200 from him and assaulted him when he
balked at giving up his rosary beads. Perez-Mercado says the gunmen
spoke English to each other but Spanish to their victims.

• Oct. 21, 2010. A man in a hooded jacket and carrying a cuerno de
chivo, slang for AK-47, attacks nine illegals—five men and four women—
in the Pajarito Mountains south of Peña Blanca Lake. He robs them,
kicking some of the men in the stomach. He tells the women to strip
and penetrates them with his fingers. He separates out one woman and
rapes her, never removing his hood or relinquishing his weapon.

• Nov. 11, 2010. Three men wearing masks rob an illegal at gunpoint
on Wise Mesa, in the national forest between Peck Canyon and Agua
Fria Canyon. The assailants tell the man to leave the area and not

• Nov. 16, 2010. Border Patrolmen on horseback encounter 12 illegals
two miles northwest of Peña Blanca Lake. An agent shoots one of the
illegals in the stomach after the illegal reportedly threatens him
with a rock.

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