Journal Southern Bureau
Las Cruces, New Mexico — Ranchers along the Arizona-New Mexico border with Mexico have long become accustomed to trespassing and property damage caused by illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.
But the weekend slaying of an Arizona rancher by a suspect who apparently fled to Mexico was the looming threat that always caused the most fear.
"I think everybody just feels like they've been hit in the stomach," said bootheel rancher Judy Keeler, a friend of rancher Robert Krentz, who was tending his Cochise County ranch Saturday when he was fatally shot by an unknown assailant.
"A lot of us have been going to (border security) task force meetings for years and we've been warning about this, and now it's happened," Keeler said.
Krentz's body, and his badly injured dog, were discovered shortly before midnight Saturday by a helicopter search crew after he failed to show up at a prearranged meeting with his brother. No suspect has been identified, but footprints tracked by Border Patrol agents, deputies and Arizona Department of Corrections dog chase teams led 20 miles south to the Mexican border.
Border Patrol spokesmen said they could not recall a similar case in Arizona or New Mexico in which a civilian had been killed by an illegal crosser on the border. In late January, an elderly couple in Portal, Ariz., just across the state line from Rodeo in the bootheel, were tied up by two illegal immigrants who stole the couple's pickup, but neither was seriously harmed.
"Scared is the wrong word," said another bootheel resident, Levi Klump, of his reaction to Krentz's slaying. "Our worst fears have come to pass."
New Mexico Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, along with Rep. Harry Teague, on Monday urged Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Arizona's former governor, to increase the Border Patrol's presence in southern Hidalgo County, which abuts Cochise County where the slaying occurred.
They also pushed Homeland Security to establish a permanent "forward operating base" so that Border Patrol agents based in Lordsburg, about 75 miles north of the border, can spend more time patrolling than traveling to and from headquarters.
"We are deeply concerned about the security threats border ranchers are facing and believe it is critical that DHS enhance its capabilities in this region," the letter from the New Mexico delegation said.
Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., called Krentz's killing an "atrocity."
"All options should be on the table, including sending more Border Patrol agents to the area and deploying the National Guard," she said.
Krentz, the father of three adult children, was part of a family that has worked the ranch since 1907, before Arizona achieved statehood. The 35,000-acre ranch is off of State Road 80 about 25 miles northeast of Douglas.
Krentz previously served as president of the Cochise-Graham Cattlegrowers Association and, one year ago last Sunday, the Krentz Ranch and family were inducted into the Arizona Farming and Ranching Hall of Fame. He was also a member of the New Mexico Cattle Growers' Association, said Caren Cowan, who knew Krentz from her youth in Tombstone, Ariz.
While many ranchers in Arizona grew furious about property damage and trash left behind by illegal immigrants who crossed through the state's southeast corner on the way north, Krentz, several people said, was still willing to help those in need.
"He's a kind and gentle man. He's the last person who would ever be confrontational," Cowan said. "If someone needed help, he would go help them. All he wanted was to raise his family and raise his livestock and have a peaceful life."
Robert Krentz and his brother were working separately on their ranch early Saturday when the brother received a garbled message on a radio phone. The only words the victim's brother could make out were "illegal alien" and "hurt," said Carol Capas, spokeswoman for the Cochise County Sheriff's Office.
It was not clear, Capas said, whether Robert Krentz was saying that he or an illegal immigrant was hurt. When the brother could not make further contact with Krentz by phone, and he did not appear at a predetermined noon rendezvous, family members searched for him until contacting the sheriff's department about 6:20 p.m. Saturday.
New Mexico boosts law enforcement on border
New Mexico public safety officials will coordinate an increased law enforcement presence along the state's border with Mexico while police in Arizona investigate the shooting death of a rancher in the remote region.
Gov. Bill Richardson's office said the New Mexico State Police and county sheriff's departments have increased patrols along the border, and the U.S. Border Patrol has also boosted its presence.
Richardson said Tuesday officials "must continue to be on guard against drug-related violence on the Mexican side of the border."
In 2005, Richardson declared a state of emergency along the New Mexico-Mexico boundary because of border-related violence.