Personal Boundaries: One Rancher Struggles With Drug Cartels As Ag Struggles with Farm Labor Shortage

By Neil Melancon, Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation

NEW ORLEANS - More than 50,000 acres of ranch land baking in the Arizona summer sun would be a tough challenge for anyone.

At 77 years old, it would seem like it for owner and rancher Jim Chilton.  He’s used to it by now, though, handling his horses and barbed wire fences with a spryness that belies his age. What he’s never gotten used to, however, is the drug cartels that cross his land daily.

“We do everything by horseback it’s 20 miles from one end of the ranch to the other end of the ranch,” Chilton told a crowd of Louisiana producers at the 95th Annual Convention of the Louisiana Farm Bureau here.  “The thing is, there are Sinaloa cartel scouts on our mountains. They’re guiding the drug packers through and we’re hoping they’re guiding the drug mules around us.  I mean, we’ve actually seen a group with an AK-47.” 

Arizona rancher Jim Chilton addressed the Louisiana Farm Bureau convention Friday, sharing his experiences of ranching on the Arizona-Mexico border.

Arizona rancher Jim Chilton addressed the Louisiana Farm Bureau convention Friday, sharing his experiences of ranching on the Arizona-Mexico border.

While it’s pretty far from one end to the other, his ranch is even further from the nearest border patrol station.

“Right now, the nearest base is 80 miles from the international boundary,” he said.  “It takes three hours for a border patrol to get to the international boundary, so they only come halfway out.”

That’s why Chilton sees the Trump Administration’s promise of a border wall as just a first step.

“Right now, our ranch is in a no-man’s land where the cartel scouts are really running the show,” Chilton said. “If they built a wall, put roads along the wall and forward operation bases to make sure the Border Patrol is there so that if anyone crawls over the wall, they nab them. 

“That would secure the international boundary,” he added.  “It’s easy because with the wall as a tool, border patrol have 27 agents per mile in my area.  So, if they had a forward operation base rather than being 80 miles away, they could secure the international boundary and then I could have the same rights as other citizens have.  I’d have equal protection under the law.”    

Despite his call for a border wall, Chilton is sympathetic with everyone crossing and even provides water for anyone who wants it.

“Well, I have 22 wells and 29 drinking fountains,” Chilton said.  Anybody—I don’t care if they’re drug packers, illegal immigrant or even a criminal—I want to make sure they have water because 2,600 people have died since 1999 in the Tucson sector.  That’s horrible, just horrible.  It’s horrible to find a body on your ranch.  So, at least I have water scattered out for people in need.  It’s a humanitarian issue as much as anything else.” 

Chilton is also sympathetic to the labor needs of his fellow agriculture producers across the U.S.  Thousands of farm jobs go unfilled each year and the caps of the H2-A and H2-B programs, which legally provide workers for those ag jobs, are rapidly filled each year.  Without the steady stream of migrant labor, farms would collapse and the price of food could likely skyrocket for many products—a fact Chilton is aware of.

“We have to have farm labor—everyone has to eat,” he said.  “So, we need to have farm labor and we need to have the H2-A program expanded.  We need to get people into the country legally, like they used to come in under the old Bracero Program before president Johnson and the Congress killed that program.” 

As it stands, neither an expansion of the H2A program or a border wall seems forthcoming any time soon.  Chilton is flying back home to that the only things he knows for sure—his cattle for his ranch, his water for the thirsty and his gun for everything else.  It’s a present and personal situation for him.

“I’ve had as many as 17 drug packers in my front yard,” Chilton said.  “It’s a dangerous situation.  I went out with my gun.  I said “Hola, agua, agua,” and I slithered around and turned on the hose.  Everybody got a drink and I said “adios!” and they went on.  However, how would you like to have 17 drug packers in your front yard?”