Ranchers Jim and Sue Chilton Carl Schultz
Jim and Sue Chilton deal with farm labor and drug cartel issues on their ranch near Arivaca, Ariz.

Rancher struggles with drug cartels as agriculture deals with labor shortage

“We need to get people into the country legally like they used to come in under the old Bracero Program before President Johnson and Congress killed the program,” says Arizona rancher Jim Chilton

More than 50,000 acres of ranch land baking in the Arizona summer sun would be a tough challenge for anyone.

At 77 years old, it would seem like it for owner and rancher Jim Chilton. He’s used to it by now, though, handling his horses and barbed wire fences with a spryness that belies his age. What he’s never gotten used to, however, is the drug cartels that cross his land daily.

“We do everything by horseback. It’s 20 miles from one end of the ranch to the other end,” Chilton told a crowd of Louisiana producers at the 95th annual convention of the Louisiana Farm Bureau in New Orleans, La.

“The thing is, there are Sinaloa cartel scouts on our mountains. They’re guiding the drug packers through and we’re hoping they’re guiding the drug mules around us. I mean, we’ve actually seen a group with an AK-47.” 

While it’s pretty far from one end to the other, his ranch is even further from the nearest border patrol station.

“Right now, the nearest base is 80 miles from the international boundary,” he said. “It takes three hours for a border patrol to get to the international boundary so they only come halfway out.”

That’s why Chilton sees the Trump administration’s promise of a border wall as a first step.

“Right now, our ranch is in a no-man’s land where the cartel scouts are really running the show,” Chilton said. “If they built a wall, put roads along the wall and forward operation bases to make sure the Border Patrol is there so that if anyone crawls over the wall they nab them. 

“That would secure the international boundary,” he added. “It’s easy because with the wall as a tool border patrol have 27 agents per mile in my area. So, if they had a forward operation base rather than being 80 miles away they could secure the international boundary and then I could have the same rights as other citizens have. I’d have equal protection under the law.”   

Despite his call for a border wall, Chilton is sympathetic with everyone crossing and even provides water for anyone who wants it.

“I have 22 wells and 29 drinking fountains,” Chilton said. “Anybody, I don’t care if they’re drug packers, illegal immigrant, or even a criminal I want to make sure they have water because 2,600 people have died since 1999 in the Tucson sector.”

Chilton added, “It’s horrible to find a body on your ranch. So, at least I have water scattered out for people in need. It’s a humanitarian issue as much as anything else.” 

Chilton is also sympathetic to the labor needs of his fellow agriculture producers across the U.S.  Thousands of farm jobs go unfilled each year and the caps of the H2-A and H2-B programs which legally provide workers for those agricultural jobs are rapidly filled each year. Without the steady stream of migrant labor farms would collapse and the price of food could likely skyrocket for many products - a fact Chilton is aware.

“We have to have farm labor - everyone has to eat,” he said. “We need to have farm labor and we need to have the H2-A program expanded.”

Chilton added, “We need to get people into the country legally like they used to come in under the old Bracero Program before President Johnson and Congress killed the program.” 

As it stands, neither an expansion of the H2-A program or a border wall seems forthcoming any time soon. Chilton is flying back home to that the only things he knows for sure - his cattle for his ranch, his water for the thirsty, and his gun for everything else. It’s a present and personal situation for him.

“I’ve had as many as 17 drug packers in my front yard,” Chilton said. “It’s a dangerous situation. I went out with my gun. I said “Hola, agua, agua,” and I slithered around and turned on the hose.  Everybody got a drink and I said “adios” and they went on.  However, how would you like to have 17 drug packers in your front yard?”

(Editor’s note: The writer of this article - Neil Melancon - works in public relations with the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation.)

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