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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