April 14, 2011 - When Richard Garza-Ray, a rancher and Vietnam veteran, started ranching in Starr County near the Texas-Mexico border, he envisioned a quiet and peaceful life of hard work and simple rewards. Instead, he found himself in a situation more reminiscent of Vietnam than any home on the range.
As part of his regular ranch duties, Garza-Rey checks the fences daily to see if his fences have been cut or knocked down to make way for smugglers and illegal immigrants. He cleans the trash left behind -- backpacks, clothing, bottles, cans and the like -- and stays on guard. Once he was shot at; he's prepared to shoot back the next time.
"I don't do any work without a gun," he said.
While Garza-Ray has no plans to leave his ranch, Joe Aguilar sold his family farm recently because of the increasing threat of drug violence from Mexico. His family has raised vegetables on the land for three generations but after seeing either Mexican soldiers or drug cartel members dressed as Mexican soldiers on his land twice, he decided to sell his holdings and move on.
"It's getting very, very dangerous," Aguilar said. "Either you're going to join them or you're going to adjust to something different so I decided to quit and just move on. Either you move on or it's dangerous for your family, and I don't want to put them through that."
Garza-Ray and Aguilar's stories are two of several that are posted to a new Texas Department of Agriculture website called ProtectYourTexasBorders.com. The site, which can be accessed through the TDA website, includes night vision videos and interviews with a Texas Ranger, a special agent from the Texas and Southwest Cattle Raisers Association and others.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said the site is intended as a way to make the federal government pay attention to border security issues that threaten the livelihood and safety of South Texas farmers and ranchers and to give those people and others a chance to speak out on border security issues in the state.
"Drug crimes are terrorizing our farmers and ranchers," Staples said in a statement. "It is chilling in its brazenness and disturbing in its escalation. This is a crisis that demands a much greater federal response."
Initial responses to a public forum link included calls for armed vigilante groups, land mines, booby traps and ambush tactics. Those comments have been removed from the site and its content is now monitored to screen hate speech and calls for vigilante justice.
More than 35,000 people have been killed during the last five years following a crackdown by the Mexican government on the drug cartels. The violence has spread across the U.S. border into Texas, Arizona and California; an Arizona rancher was killed by suspected cartel members last year.
Staples, in announcing the web site, said that farmers and ranchers along the Rio Grande are trapped in a war that threatens national security and the country's food supply.
"The war against terrorism not only takes place abroad, but also here at home," Staples said. "It's time for the federal government to respond to the call of duty and provide adequate protection for our citizens and resources."
Texas Farm Bureau President Kenneth Dierschke said the current level of crime and violence in the Rio Grande Valley is a major concern for the bureau.
"Any disruption of agricultural production in the Valley could cause problems when some products are already in short supply," he said.
According to the USDA, the 15 counties along the Texas border with Mexico generates more than $700 million in sales annually and produces more than 479 million pounds of grapefruit and 320,000 cattle that's turned into 250 million pounds of beef. The area accounts for nearly half of the state's fruit and vegetable production and nearly four percent of the state's total agriculture income.
Bryan Black, deputy commissioner of the TDA, said many of the farmers and ranchers along the border are from families that have worked the land for generation, such as Aguilar, but that the threat of violence from the drug cartels is doing what droughts, floods, freezes, and the marketplace have not done - it is driving them off the land. He said the area needs a greater federal response.
"After generations of working that land, they are at the point where they are having guns waved in their faces while they're being threatened," Black said.
Homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano said during a recent speech in El Paso that the city was among the safest in the country, despite being on the border with Mexico, and that the Mexican border is safer than most people think.
"There is a perception that the border is worse now than it ever has been. That is wrong. The border is better now than it ever has been," she said.
Bryan Black, deputy commissioner with TDA, said that the problem along the border is hardly limited to border cities. "There are a lot of places like Brooks County where there isn't a border fence," he said. "We would like the folks in the Obama administration to come down here and take a look for themselves and talk to some of these farmers and ranchers who are being threatened."
Black said that response to the website has been "overwhelming.
"Farmers and ranchers are excited that for once somebody is looking into what's going on along the border," he said. "Many of them are reluctant to talk about it because they're scared that there will be retributions against them, their families or employees. We're shining a light on the issue to say that we need more reinforcement from the federal government down here. It's a war, and the farmers and ranchers are caught right in the middle of it."