Drug Cartels on the New Mexico Border

This week, the Albuquerque Journal is publishing a six-part investigative series called “The Cartels Next Door.” The series outlines how Mexican drug cartels use Southwest New Mexico as a pathway for transporting illegal drugs into the United States. This was not surprising – it’s been occurring for years.

Last year, I traveled to Southwest New Mexico, to meet and hear from New Mexicans that are in the drug import corridor. I met Judy and Maurice at the end of the paved county road and start of the dirt road that leads to their ranch, 25 miles from the Mexican border. A few miles in, we met Levi, who was repairing his fences and water tank. Our conversation started the same way as it does in every part of the state: the weather, the drought, the economy. But here, our talk ended on quite a different note.

“You see the surrounding mountains,” Levi said. “The drug cartels maintain spotters on those mountains who watch what goes on, to ensure their drug mules avoid the border patrol agents and us.”

It is unsettling to be watched, even if it is to avoid a chance encounter with the drug cartel. But more powerful than the unsettling feeling is anger: we are losing part of our state and nation’s territory to the drug cartels – just as Mexico has.

We left Levi and drove the last five miles to Maurice and Judy’s ranch house. I expected to see a ranch house similar to “The High Chaparral.” What I found was a simple, no nonsense stone home, similar to Henry David Thoreau’s home on Walden Pond, nestled in a small ravine with a few trees and barn. We were greeted outside by a couple of Australian Blue Healers (for the cattle), and inside by their Chihuahua (for rattlers).

We sat down with a pot of coffee. I asked a few questions. Mostly, I listened. Turns out their Chihuahua wasn’t for rattlers; his job was to hear rattles after the lights go out. The rattling comes from drug mules passing by their home, checking to see if anyone is home and awake. I can attest that their Chihuahua is stands ready to start yipping.

Over the next couple of hours, I learned that even though the Border Patrol has a forward operating base, they do not patrol the last 25 miles of our state and our country. The Border Patrol stays on county paved roads. The county roads are being damaged by the heavy border patrol traffic. The county is unable to maintain the county paved roads because of the high traffic. The Border Patrol has neither the manpower nor the desire to check when the electronic sensors on the surrounding hilltops are tripped.

It did not need to be said: “If trouble comes, you are on your own. Because help is too far away.”

I was planning to drive to Las Cruces to stay the night. It came time for me to head out. Judy and Maurice asked if I would like to stay for dinner. It was getting dark, there was no cell service for 25 miles, and I had no sidearm. (That has changed.) I thanked them for their offer, headed out, and kept moving until I was way clear of the border. When I finally was able to get cell service, I called my wife and told her how our country has failed Judy and Maurice and folks like them. Marion responded that no one in our country should live like that. I agreed, and pledged to do whatever it takes to take back our country and provide relief to those who live near the border.

A month later, I saw a photo of Martin Heinrich as he leaned over a map unfolded across a kitchen table with Judy and Levi. It was a typical political photograph, with Martin Heinrich surveying the situation and looking concerned. According to the email chain that sprung from the published photo, Martin Heinrich witnessed firsthand the challenges New Mexico ranchers faced near the border, but told them there was not much he could do for them. Martin Heinrich made it clear: as long as he is the U.S. Senator from New Mexico, help is not on the way.