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Risk of violence keeps ranchers on alert

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Rancher Jim Chilton inspects a fence. "We realize that we are all vulnerable," he says, referring to the unsolved shooting death of a Cochise County rancher about five years ago. Robert Krentz was killed while working in a remote part of his land, something Chilton regularly does, too.

ARIVACA - On the Chilton ranch near the U.S.-Mexico border, there's no debating what cowboys are supposed to do when they see smugglers - turn around and get outta there.

Jim Chilton, his brother and the three cowboys who work for him avoid encounters with drug- or people-smugglers, even if it means falling behind on work on the 50,000-acre cattle ranch south of Arivaca in the Coronado National Forest. They work in tandem now, and they no longer carry cellphones.

"The Border Patrol tells us that if we pull out a cellphone when we see someone, we're liable to get shot," Chilton said.

A fifth-generation Arizona rancher, 72-year-old Chilton has owned his border ranch since 1987. Since the mid-1990s, his land - rugged, remote and near the border - has been a prime corridor for people- and drug-smugglers.

The still-unsolved killing of Cochise County rancher Robert Krentz in March 2010 and the recent upsurge in violence in Mexico among groups that smuggle people and drugs through Arizona has forced ranchers to re-evaluate how they work.

Though the Krentz killing is the only known murder of a Southern Arizona rancher, it shook most ranchers profoundly.

"We realize that we are all vulnerable," Chilton said.

The massive increase in Border Patrol agents over the last decade offers little solace to ranchers who work miles from where most agents patrol. It takes agents about three hours to drive from the Tucson station to a dirt road about five miles north of the border on the Chilton ranch, which is as far south as they usually go, Chilton said.

Border cities brimming with federal agents and protected by towering steel border fences are safer than ever today, but ranchers don't feel the same security.

The buildup of border enforcement has pushed most of the smuggling away from urban areas and into the remote areas where ranchers live and work.

Remote cabins nested in the hills have been taken over and destroyed by smugglers. Some ranchers work only in tandem and carry semi-automatic rifles designed for soldiers.

For ranching families who homesteaded pristine outposts of Southern Arizona more than a century ago, it's a sad reality.

When Chilton and his wife, Sue, bought their ranch in 1987, they wanted a place where they could expand the family's cattle operations.

"I rode the border and there was no threat, no concern, there was no problem," Chilton said.

Sue Chilton used to hike alone throughout the ranch, collecting biological samples and measuring grass growth.

Even in the early 2000s - at the height of illegal immigration through Arizona, when thousands came through the state daily - Chilton felt no fear.

"They had just started their trip into the U.S. and just wanted to get through," he said.

To prevent deaths, Chilton installed drinking fountains on 19 water troughs on his ranch.

On Christmas Eve 2009, the Chiltons gave food, water and blankets to an illegal border crosser who hobbled to their doorstep. The man had not eaten in seven days; his ankles were so badly sprained he could hardly move. His friend had died after falling over a cliff while being chased by Border Patrol agents.

But drug smugglers are different, and Chilton fears the new generation of drug runners are more brazen than ever, having come of age during the deadly Mexican drug wars.

Chilton began avoiding smugglers altogether about three years ago when he learned that drug groups now control the movement of people as well as drugs across the border.

"Everything," he said, "seems to have changed."

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or

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