The location of the Border Patrol FOB has been in the forefront of news.
New Mexico Bootheel residents want Border Patrol base to move
ANIMAS, N.M. -- A caravan of vehicles wound its way along the ranchland dirt roads of Southern New Mexico's Bootheel region, stirring up clouds of dust amid desert grasslands and otherwise clear turquoise sky.
The dirt routes aren't usually as well-traveled. But on this recent day, a convoy of curious and concerned Borderland residents -- a few of whom traveled two or three hours to arrive -- were on a mission to see firsthand the source of an ongoing border controversy.
The debate revolves around where exactly to build a new U.S. Border Patrol substation of sorts -- called a forward operating base --Êsomewhere in the Animas Valley. The project, which gained serious momentum after the 2010 murder of a southeastern Arizona rancher, is aimed at curbing illegal immigration, including drug and human traffickers, that was pushed to the remote area, as border security has tightened in adjacent sections.
The two sites at the heart of the commotion are just 13 miles apart, as the crow flies.
But to a vocal group of ranchers and other Hidalgo County residents, there's a world of difference.
The tour -- spearheaded by a few ranchers who live closest to the proposed locations -- headed first to the spot that's favored by the U.S. Border Patrol.
South from Animas on County Road 001, with the low horizon of the Peloncillo Mountains to the right and the towering Animas Peak to the left, the pavement ended. But the 20 vehicles continued on, past yuccas and desert scrub, through a few verdant washes, finally turning west at a lonely sign marking the entrance to the Klump Ranch and onto Horse Camp Drive, a dirt track that wound west into a broad, dry wash.
The caravan of vehicles eventually stopped at parcel just west of land that's part of Levi Klump's ranch, and people filed out. Just past a barbed-wire fence, small plastic surveying flags mark the 10 acres identified as the "preferred alternative" in a draft environmental review released in July. The site is located on land owned by the Diamond "A" Ranch, a major landholder in southern Hidalgo County. The Border Patrol would lease land from the ranch, if the site is selected.
Klump pointed out a concern he's cited previously: that the preferred site is in a draw, which is fed by two other arroyos. He said each can carry significant amounts of water during a storm. And though he's never seen both flow at the same time, it's a possibility, he said.
Border residents are quick to point out the locale is not as visible as the second location under consideration, located seven miles from the border off Battalion Road, another dirt path.
"There are specific items material to the placement of the FOB that have not been adequately considered," he said.
Border Patrol officials have said the base is needed because now, agents must drive about two hours, one-way, from the nearest Border Patrol headquarters in Lordsburg to reach the border, which cuts into their daily patrol time.
The base, regardless of which site is selected, will hold a heliport, horse corrals and modular buildings capable of housing up to 16 federal agents, who'll stay for short-term spans, according to the environmental review.
Back on the tour, participants filed back into their vehicles for a trip farther south to Cloverdale, a border community from the history books that's now marked by a single dilapidated schoolhouse. The path of a Mexican highway, which parallels the border, and its cut through a mountain range were visible in the distance to the southeast. A few miles north was the second proposed site, located on federal land at the base of a small peak. It overlooked a broad plain, which ranchers said makes it ideal as an outlook spot. It's also visible to traffickers and would act as a deterrent, they said.
Despite other differences between the two locations, the biggest is the proximity of the Battalion Road site to the international boundary, said Meria Gault, a rancher who lives in the area.
"The most important thing to us is to be close to the border," she said. "Because there's no way that people from the other side will not see them."
Border Patrol spokesman Demetrio Guerra said last week that the agency will issue a decision on the placement of the forward operating base once two agency officials sign off on a document, called a "finding of no significant impact," that's part of the environmental review.
"The public's comments are currently being reviewed and compiled to formulate a decision," he said in an email. "Once the final (environmental assessment) has been signed, it reflects that Customs and Border Protection has made a final decision on the preferred site."
Continued Guerra: "As a result, the public will receive responses to their comments at the same time that CBP issues its decision in the final (environmental assessment)."
Klump said the Border Patrol to date doesn't seem to have given residents' concerns much weight. But he noted that a public comment period on the environmental document just wrapped up.
"We're very hopeful those comments will be considered," he said.
Residents said they've been told by the Border Patrol that a final decision on the placement will be made at the El Paso Sector level. The sector covers two west Texas counties and all of New Mexico's border.
The Border Patrol refused to release statistics about immigrant apprehensions and drug seizures to date this year in New Mexico. The trend in the sector has been declining numbers from year to year, which officials have said is due to more manpower and better technology.
However, federal officials acknowledged a year ago that the southwest corner of New Mexico was the weakest point in the state's border security. And the forward operating base, along with another in Antelope Wells, was meant to address that.
Hidalgo County Commissioner Ed Kerr, who attended the tour, said he doesn't like the Border Patrol's preferred location.
"It's an obvious, no-brainer for me that the site should be on Battalion Road, for access, for safety to citizens, for a long-term, projected outlook," he said. "The other, Horse Camp Road site is a hidden cove in a flood-prone area. It's almost like we're trying to hide from the enemy."
Diana M. Alba may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; 575-541-5443
Border Patrol FOB Meeting
Community Push for FOB Choice
by Dawn Newman
More than 120 folks, from ranchers to firemen, met Friday, Oct. 14 to push for a Forward Operating Base (FOB) which they believe would best tackle border agency goals and security-savvy strategies. Over the past year, public consensus has been building for the Cloverdale site - an area 7 miles north of the U.S.Mexico fence-line which features higher, dry-ground vantage, existing utilities, and a 'visible presence' that folks believe can act as deterrent.
On Friday, Congressman Steve Pearce, along with aide, Tim Keithley and reps from Senator Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall's office arrived at the Animas Community Center. They along with U.S. Border Patrol Agents - Michael Przybyl (Sector Chief, El Paso) and Chrisopher Mangusing, (Lordsburg Station) listened intently as the community delivered a feisty mix of public concern, respectful suggestion, and local advice.
"We know this has been a hotly contested issue for people who live here," said Congressman Pearce in opening remarks. "We've had a lot of calls to our office, and think this conversation (about the proposed sites) is a good one to have." But politics aside, it seemed quite evident that seasoned officials were fairly impressed with residents who held fast to their beliefs, and in their tenacity to see 'government gets it right.'
For newcomers, this meeting follows two citizen petitions and a rancher-organized tour of the two locations that produced the agenda at hand: A last-ditch effort by locals to have the new FOB site constructed 7 miles from the border, visible to trespassers, on ready-to-build BLM land. At best, this was a troublesome stand-off between what you might call 'small-town wisdom' versus big-guy government. At worst - it was another prime example of how government thinks it knows best and always gets its way.
On the opposing side of the debate are border officials armed with a pending decision and a 13-matrix scorecard. "We want a location that meets 13 criteria," said Mr. Przybyl of the two competing locations. "This has not been decided yet, but we want a site that is geared to activity not just coming straight at us -- but what we need to look at from our flanks, from Arizona and elsewhere." This was, added Przybyl -- a simple matter of criteria and what was best for the overall border mission.
That said, it was clear that the 'scorecard' had led (quite frankly) north -- 19 miles from the border, towards a 20-year lease on privately-held lands, (minus visual deterrence) on Horsecamp Road. Pearce, who is known for his long-time support of public debate was clearly in favor of this meeting. And unlike previous gatherings, it was his intent to provide the venue for public opinion and experience to be heard, in what has become an era of government-prone decisions.
"I'm here to make sure that the Border Patrol listens to 'the people here,' said Pearce of the agenda. "Had agencies and government learned to work with local people on issues like this, Congress wouldn't have to fix these things going on in D.C." That said, dozens of comments took center stage as citizens began to express their views (one by one) with questions that ranged from an appeal for the final release of environmental assessments, to other issues which were about to emerge about 'hidden taxpayer costs' for road improvements, public utilities and of course, work on predictable flood plains.
"I'd really like a common sense answer to a common sense issue as to why the border patrol would want this Forward Operating Base further away from the border, rather than closer to it?" asked Hidalgo Co Commissioner, Darr Shannon in opening moments. "At one point, we, (the public) were asked about our reasoning for wanting a close-to-the border site," said Shannon, "The question was asked, "'Do you really want our border officers to be in a jeopardized position near the border?"
To that comment, agent Mangusing clarified - "I really don't see either site being better or worse for the agents who will man the FOB. We are going to build it in such a way as to maximize security. But this FOB site is just a place for agents to reside, to patrol from. They need a place to bring packs in for sleeping quarters. So of course, we'll have security in place." He and agent Maese, said there was no disrespect meant when it came to this particular question put to residents - as security would be there.
But that wasn't the end of the matter as other residents stepped forward to talk about concerns over flood potential along Horsecamp Road, and a site that many believed, offered little to no real advantage in deterrence and with 'keeping the bad guys at bay.'
"I think you really need to look at the community as stakeholders in this whole process," said rancher Steven Gault of protection and taxpayer-funded issues on the line. "The viewers of this pasture (FOB site) have nothing at all at stake here. Fortunately, we still have a democracy at work." Gault, who spoke about archeological clearance and easements for power lines added, "We do have clearances to build on the BLM land. Now if the FOB ends up on Horsecamp Road, you need to understand that bad decisions can have lasting effects."
Meanwhile, Darr Shannon again questioned the reasoning for building an FOB in a sheltered area that she believed could not deliver any valid deterrence to drug-or human trafficking activity. "We know that the County may or may not have easements for necessary power lines at the Horsecamp site - And, of course, there may also be some costly issues with flooding issues and road-access improvements there."
What's Going On?
What's On Your Mind?
U.S. Border Patrol To Build Station
In New Mexico's Bootheel
ANIMAS, N.M. -- The U.S. Border Patrol Friday announced it is building an outpost in New Mexico's Bootheel, one of the last unguarded regions between the United States and Mexico.
It's an unforgiving terrain where Geronimo made his last stand. Today, it remains largely isolated with no cell service, few unpaved roads but growing lawlessness as drug dealers and human smugglers increasingly look for alternatives to more traveled routes.
There are tales of drug traffickers breaking into homes and high speed chases that sometimes force school buses off dirt roads. One rancher even stumbled upon 19 lost and starving Chinese immigrants who had illegally entered from Mexico on their way to New York City.
Border officials say the new station in the Animas Valley will give the region 24-hour monitoring for the first time in its history, and will allow border patrol agents to quickly respond to illegal activities. Until now, agents had to drive an hour and a half each way from the nearest Border Patrol station in Lordsburg, N.M., to patrol the area.
El Paso Sector Chief Patrol Agent Scott Luck, who is responsible for the New Mexico border, announced the new outpost at a community meeting of ranchers and residents in Animas, N.M. ,following months of deliberation and debate on where to locate the site. "Operationally and tactically, it was the best choice," said Luck, who made his final decision to sign a lease with a private land owner earlier this week. "It's a win-win situation for all of us."
Luck said he made his choice after listening to agents on the ground and considering which site could quickly dispatch agents to troubled spots. The new outpost will hold a heliport, horse corrals and modular buildings capable of housing up to 15 to 20 federal agents, who'll stay for short-term spans.
Construction will begin immediately and is expected to take four to six months. Luck said the agency will lease the land from the Diamond A Ranch, but declined to give details and did not know how about final estimated cost in building the facility.
According to border officials, the outpost -- also known as a forward operating base -- was needed because the isolated region has seen higher levels of illegal immigration and drug trafficking in recent years due to beefed up enforcement around El Paso, Texas, and the rest of New Mexico, although overall arrests in state have been declining for the last five years.
Last year, the agency reported 6,900 arrests along the New Mexico-Mexico border, with a large portion coming from the state's Bootheel.
In addition, Border officials say the Bootheel had around 1,500 known illegal entries in 2011.
"I see foot tracks all the time when I'm out on the land," said Levi Klump, a cattle rancher who's operated since 1989. "It's been getting worse."
But while the border patrol and area elected officials praised the announcement, Klump and other residents expressed disappointment that Luck did not choose another proposed site on U.S. Bureau of Land Management lot that is only seven miles from the border.
"The BLM site would have served as a deterrent to drug traffickers because it would have been visible," said Meira Gault, 62, who along with her husband, Stephen, 71, operates a 20,000 acre ranch just north of the border. "It had access to all the important roads and agents could see everything."
Stephen Gault said for years illegal immigrants and drug smugglers have been camping out on a mountain known as "Black Point, a mountain visible from the BLM land but not the chosen site. "There they are in plain site," he said. "They would have has easy access."
The Border Patrol say the site they chose is more strategically located to areas where they have seen the heaviest illegal traffic.
The Gaults and other ranchers had organized petition drives, written letters to elected officials and held community meetings in an attempt to pressure the U.S. Border Patrol to select the BLM proposal since it was already under federal control
After Friday's announcement, disappointed residents said they weren't sure if they had any other option but to accept the Border Patrol's selection. "I don't know what else we can do. We've done everything we've can," said Judy Keeler, the outgoing president of the Hidalgo County Cattle Growers Association. "I think their minds were already made up."
Keeler said regardless she hopes that federal authorities can finally get control of the region. She said her ranch had been burglarized and nearby state Highway 80 has become a favorite for Mexican cartel drug runners who manage to navigate out of the Peloncillo Mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico border.
During a recent afternoon along state highway 80 and Interstate 10, trash of bottle waters and abandon backpacks were visible under the freeways. Keeler said they is where illegal immigrants and drug traffickers wait for others to pick them up to continue their journey.
Meira Gault said whatever the U.S. Border Patrol has planned for the outpost, she hopes she sees the effects soon since residents are tired of the trafficking. "I'm from Israel and I remember the 1967 war," she said. "If I wanted to die over a border, I could have stayed there."
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Still others, like long-time ranchers Judy Keeler and Levi Klump confirmed that Horsecamp was definitely prone to flood in the troublesome terrain. "You really need to have a hydrologist come in to assess that site, before you start any building there," said Keeler of the process. "It will flood and you'll regret what you've done ." Likewise, Levi Klump pointed to the potential cost for road-realignments on curves to prevent vehicle safety hazards.
Tom Nelson, Hatchita Fire Chief, describes both proposed sites as dangerous and unpredictable: "I don't necessarily care where you put the FOB site. But I do want to see that border sealed." Nelson who shared his own first-hand experience with border security issues pointed to the connection between wildfires minus -- necessary border patrol presence.
"We spent the summer fighting wildfires and dealing with people running through ranges with backpacks and guns," explained Nelson of the mayhem. "It's just not fair for firefighters to have to deal with situations like that. Somebody has to get a handle on it."For others, a lack of timely and consistent public information was at issue. "We've been waiting patiently for final reports, from the Corps of Engineers, from (EPA) Environmental Assessment and soil tests," said Meira Gault of her work with site criteria and study. "I think this kind of conflicting information means more time is taken, more money is being spent." According to Chief Przybyl, the 13-point criteria was being followed and that environmental or and cultural (archeological) study was only part of the final decision and recommendation.
"What we've done is create a working matrix of criteria...these issues are all part of a scorecard with a point system that rates things like acreage size, location, accessibility, power sources and so forth, then we put all of this information together," said Przybyl of the process. "We look at it operationally -- in our ability to respond to calls and activity, how the traffic comes at us from the front, and from the flanks." Nevertheless, Agent Mangusing said of the scorecard, sites were not designed as a deterrent.
Operationally, there were questions from Pearce as well as from a persistent audience. "If you're too far back, (away from the border) and the traffickers make their way into the Mountains, you'll never catch them," said Keeler of the northern site and the legendary get-a ways of folks like Geronimo. "You'll need to have mounted horse patrols in there -- And you won't be able to find them from the roadways - you'll see foot traffic in all directions.
Crystal Brown, one of the last questioners thought that the public and law enforcement should'nt look to the past when dealing with today's issues. "In the old days, no one tried to get here using UAV's or drug tunnels - they didn't drive SUV's and use cell phones," said Brown of outdated strategies. "I think the border patrol is kind of between a rock and a hard place - you just don't have the authority or force to stop people, or even the political will to do it. And, in the old days, we didn't have drug cartels running governments."
According to Przybyl, there are lots of issues at stake for citizens and enforcement to weigh - economic growth, infrastructure, technology is all key to a growing the economy here -- alongside ensuring border security. "Our apprehensions are down 66 percent since 2008 and we have a 91 % effective rating," said Przybyl. "In my career, I've always relied on the experience of the residents and ranchers who know this area, who know the terrain," said Przybyl. "So I will absolutely be taking your comments and insights into account here."
Unfortunately, according to Pearce the street sales of drugs tells a different story than optimistic apprehension/confiscation reports show. "We know that the prices (of various drugs) haven't gone up on the streets. So, it doesn't look like the supply has changed much - that's about the best indicator for actual reductions in flow we've had."
Meanwhile, one of the more vocal residents at the meeting, Di Massey, clearly hit a chord with words that rang all too true for folks standing on both sides of the decision. "If you're saying that the proposed site isn't really meant to be a deterrent ...Then, I have to ask you, why isn't it being considered, and, if the drug traffickers can see you, know you're there and stay away -- why wouldn't you want that to happen?"
Before any firm response could be found, Massey had the final say. "You know, I have two little boys that can't run along the fence line any longer... Are you willing to make the right decision for the safety of this Valley?" For now at least, the FOB decision is still pending.