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Living on the front lines of the Mexico border

Posted at 10:09 PM, Nov 02, 2016
and last updated 2017-09-22 18:26:03-04

His father, his grandfather, and his great grandfather all were ranchers in the Southwest -- and in 1987, Jim Chilton decided to put on his hat and follow suit. Ever since then, he's lived on a 50,000 acre ranch in Arivaca, Arizona.

His 50,000 acres extend up into parts of Pima County, into parts of Santa Cruz County, and all the way down to the International Boundary, separating the United States from Mexico. This last aspect puts Chilton in a small group of ranchers who all have a unique living situation. Because he lives on the front lines of the America-Mexico border, he's had his fair share of experiences most American citizens will never have.

The 2015 Drug Enforcement Administration's National Drug Threat Assessment Summary explains a large portion of the drug smuggling activity from Mexico into the United States comes between the official ports of entry. More specifically, "in remote, inhospitable desert valleys separated by rugged mountainous terrain."

What that describes? Most of the land on Mr. Chilton's property.

"I live in a foreign, occupied country," Chilton said. "I live in a no man's land, where really, the Sinaloa Cartel scouts are in charge."

According to both Chilton and that 2015 DEA report -- the Cartel does, in fact, have scouts guiding smugglers perched on mountains throughout the Southern Arizona region. Chilton explained scouts stay on some of the mountains on his property.

Because of this, Chilton installed multiple motion-activated cameras on several trails throughout his property. He's captured tons of footage of drug smugglers, dressed in camouflage, hiking through his land with enormous backpacks. 

Chilton explained it is very easy for people to cross the international border on his property -- because it isn't well protected or marked. Unlike in many of the border towns where there is a large fence consistently monitored by Border Patrol agents, the majority of his border is a four string, barbed wire fence. 

With such an easy way in and out, he's had multiple run in's with armed drug smugglers.

"We've seen these cartel drug packers with AK-47's," he said. "It's pretty scary."

On top of that, Chilton said he's discovered "sixty to seventy pound" bales of marijuana throughout his property a few times, which he explains can create a very dangerous situation.

"A rancher was killed the day after he reported a load," Chilton said. "So it's pretty dangerous. When I found this one load, I laid low for about three months."

He said he's never seen a Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Deputy make it out to his property. However, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada explained there isn't much they can do for Chilton and many of the other border ranchers living with similar, unique circumstances. It would take one of his deputies about two and a half hours to get to Chilton.

"By the time we get there, or law enforcement gets there, these people are long gone," Sheriff Estrada said. "They're long gone, so it's a very difficult situation for them, and it's a difficult situation for us."

These living conditions have forced many ranchers to pack up and leave -- sell their property, according to Chilton. However, he is sure of one thing: he's not going anywhere. 

And despite people crossing the international border illegally -- some smuggling drugs and others just trying to find a new life in America -- Chilton is serious when he says he doesn't want anybody to die on his ranch. So in order to help out, he's installed water fountains in various locations throughout his 50,000 acres.

"No person needs to die because of a lack of water," Chilton said. "It's horrible to find a body out here. It's just a humanitarian crisis."

Living on the front lines of the border, Chilton wants to see change. A change that will benefit both sides; ending his ranching struggles, and solving what he believes is a serious, humanitarian crisis.


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