Armed Escorts to Accompany New Mexico Livestock Inspectors

When inspectors in New Mexico begin surveying 32 livestock scales along the increasingly dangerous Mexican border later this month, they'll have armed escorts at their sides.

It will mark the first time armed deputies will travel with New Mexico Department of Agriculture inspectors, who certify the scales used to weigh livestock, Luna County Sheriff Raymond Cobos said.

"These scales that the ranchers use to ship their cattle are in isolated areas," Cobos told "And the administration decided since those inspectors and personnel are not armed, they wanted to be able to concentrate on their work without worrying about their security."

Cobos said that beginning on July 26, deputies will accompany inspectors to the scales in a corridor that stretches southwest from Interstate 10 at Las Cruces to the New Mexico-Arizona border, along Luna, Hidalgo and Grant counties.

"It also helps the deputies become more familiar with the ranches and their particular layouts," Cobos said. "It's a benefit to all of us."

Cobos, who will coordinate deputies from the three counties, said the deputies will work overtime to accompany the inspectors and will be paid via federal assistance from Operation Stonegarden, a Department of Homeland Security program that gives 14 states along the border flexibility to use grant funding to enhance coordination among state and federal law enforcement agencies.

"It's a safe way of providing their personnel with protection so they don't encounter a situation that would imperil the equipment or their lives," Cobos said. "It's a relatively small cost to prevent a tragedy."

Illegal activity, such as human and drug trafficking, has "pretty much been shut down" in Luna County since 2005, Cobos said, but he acknowledged the "big potential for violence" at any time.

Caren Cowan, executive director of the New Mexico Cattlegrowers Association, said overall safety concerns for ranchers was the "primary" topic during a May 27 meeting, exactly two months after the highly-publicized murder of Arizona rancher Robert Krentz.

"The Krentz murder woke a lot of people up to the dangers we've been dealing with down there all along," Cowan said. "In actuality, the danger down there is no greater than it was last year, but it's been brought into strong focus now. Because there's no cell service down there, inspectors are saying, 'Wait a minute, we're in harm's way.'"

If those inspectors cannot get secure access to the scales, ranchers "can't do business," Cowan said, adding the alternative would be to ship cattle to be weighed in less remote areas, resulting in a loss of up to five percent in overall weight.

Calves, which are typically sold in the fall, can reach up to 700 pounds, but "when you load 'em up, they get agitated, get stressed and lose water weight," Cowan said. "With ranchers, your payday is once a year, and it's based on what those calves weigh."

Inspectors are required by law to test all commercial weighing devices at least once a year in New Mexico. According to New Mexico Department of Agriculture statistics, total cash receipts from livestock products in 2008 were $2.4 billion, the second-highest cash commodity in the state.

Joe Gomez, division director of the New Mexico Department of Agriculture's Standards and Consumer Services Division, said the move to provide armed deputies for inspectors is based on "safety concerns that have escalated" over the past few years.

"Our concern is if we interrupt any [illegal] activity," Gomez said. "I really care about [the inspectors]. I don't want anything to happen to them."

Gomez said the move is a "proactive" approach designed to assuage concerns of inspectors who find themselves in very remote areas without cell service. He now wants armed escorts to accompany them for the foreseeable future.

"We're pushing for it so that it's not going to be just this year," he said. "We'd like to see it until activity settles down a little bit along the border area."

Grant County Sheriff Raul Villanueva said deputies in his jurisdiction will likely accompany inspectors, but he said his department was still working out details.

"It's just a safety precaution, that's the way I look at it," Villanueva said. "We want to make sure our inspectors are safe out there, that's why we're doing this."

Meanwhile, Judy Keller, who owns a 27,000-acre ranch in Luna County just five miles from the border, said she welcomed the added layer of protection, but she questioned what she saw as mixed messages from state and federal authorities.

"I don't think you can be too careful, but I think it's a little hypocritical," Keller told "In Washington, D.C., the Obama administration is telling us the border is more secure than it's ever been, yet the state agencies feel the need for more protection to come down here. So, it is safe or isn't it safe?"