Sunday, October 30, 2005

PLAYAS VALLEY, N.M. — For the 100 years that Robert Been’s family has been grazing cattle and raising horses on this isolated, scrub-brush desert in New Mexico’s southwestern corner, illegal aliens have been crossing into the United States.

Mr. Been, whose 2,500-acre ranch straddles a long-established immigration corridor, recalls his parents giving illegals food, water and clothing to guard against the cold desert nights. It was “just a way of life here.”

“They were respectful of us, and we returned that respect.”

But things have changed in this remote desert valley and the adjoining Animus Canyon.

“The alien smugglers and drug dealers we now face don’t care about anything or anybody. They are ruthless” and the “aliens are much different,” said Mr. Been, 48.

“They’re tearing down our fences, destroying our water tanks, breaking into our homes, slaughtering our cattle, stealing our horses and threatening our families,” he said as he prepared his horse for a daylong patrol along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Outraged by the escalating violence and vandalism and puzzled by the government’s inability to confront the problem, Mr. Been has organized the Rough Riders, a group of ranchers and locals who patrol the region on horseback searching for signs of aliens headed north.

“I don’t know why our government can’t do something to help us,” said Mr. Been. “We have told our elected officials what’s going on here, but they just turn their backs on us.

“I doubt the government would ignore the problem if these illegals and dope dealers were crossing President Bush’s ranch in Texas,” he said. “We should get no less concern.”

Mr. Been’s group has joined with the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, which began civilian patrols along the 1,940-mile U.S.-Mexico border Oct. 1 to protest what it perceives as the government’s lax immigration-enforcement policies. More than 160 Minuteman volunteers from across the country signed up to participate in the New Mexico vigil.

“We need to keep the pressure on Washington by continuing these border vigils until the government acts to help people like Mr. Been and the others down here fighting this immigration battle alone,” said Gary Cole, a Minuteman organizer from Washington state.

Mr. Cole helped organize the Minuteman’s 30-day Arizona vigil in April that shut down a 23-mile stretch of the Mexican border to illegal aliens and drug smugglers.

The Playas Valley and nearby Animus Canyon have become increasingly popular immigration and drug-smuggling corridors since U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) beefed up efforts along the Arizona border. More than 200 illegal aliens are apprehended in this area every day by the U.S. Border Patrol, and additional agents recently were moved into the area from El Paso, Texas.

In August, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson declared a state of emergency in four counties along the Mexican border, including Hidalgo, where the Playas Valley sits, saying the region had been “devastated by the ravages and terror of human smuggling, drug smuggling, kidnapping, murder, destruction of property and the death of livestock.”

Mr. Richardson’s action made $750,000 in state emergency funds available to Dona Ana, Luna, Grant and Hidalgo counties so officials could hire additional law-enforcement personnel and pay officers overtime. He has pledged an additional $1 million.

Mr. Been said he formed the Rough Riders in early spring with the goal of spotting illegal aliens and drug smugglers and reporting them to the Border Patrol. Although the Rough Riders are armed, he said no effort is made to detain the intruders.

“They have broken into our houses and taken our food, clothes, jewelry and guns,” said Mr. Been, adding that the patrols have assisted the Border Patrol in 315 apprehensions since May. “We’re tired of it, and we will not stop these patrols until something is done.”

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