TUCSON, Arizona - A cattle-ranching couple in southern Arizona hopes that dramatic hidden-camera video showing suspected drug or immigrant smugglers crossing their property will help persuade federal officials to shift resources southward to eliminate what they call a dangerous "no-man's land" along the border.
"It just confirmed what we already knew," Jim Chilton, who runs the 50,000-acre ranch with his wife, Sue, said of the video, which was filmed this spring by a border-security advocacy group. …"We have ceded to the cartels 20 miles, 30 miles inside the United States."
For years, the Chiltons have publicly complained — even testified before Congress -- that their ranch southwest of Tucson, which shares a 5-1/2-mile border with Mexico, has been flooded with smugglers. They've told of surprise encounters with groups of migrants - some of them armed -- break-ins at their home and finding piles of trash and clothing left by the trespassers.
But they hope the new video footage will help others understand what they are up against.
"The fear we have is running across a group coming across with an AK-47 dressed in camouflage garb and carpet shoes and small backpacks on their backs carrying meth, crack or heroin," said Jim Chilton.
With the Chiltons' permission, a border-security advocacy group placed hidden cameras on well-worn paths in March and April about 10 to 15 miles north of the international boundary with Mexico, which is marked on their ranch only by a four-strand barbed wire fence.
In June, the advocacy group, which posts its video on the website SecureBorderIntel.org, returned and recovered footage of suspected smugglers crossing the ranch in broad daylight.
Mark Potter / NBC News
Jim and Sue Chilton walk near the U.S. and Mexico border at their ranch in southern Arizona in November 2012.
Two of the groups carried large backpacks commonly used to hold bundles of marijuana.
Another group carrying smaller backpacks was dressed head-to-toe in camouflage. The man at the end of the line could be seen trying to sweep away their footprints in the sand.
The director of the SecureBorderIntel.org website asked not to be identified publicly, but provided NBC News with a statement explaining why his group posted the video:
"The United States government has failed to secure our land, air, and sea borders, despite the wishes of and responsibilities to the American people," it said. "Our effort to document the porous border between the United States of America and Mexico serves as date and time stamped evidence of this failure."
Critics take issue with a Border Patrol strategy in which it maintains only a moderate presence in rugged areas adjacent to the border in order to spread its resources farther, allowing agents to drive roads and man checkpoints miles north of the border. The agency calls this approach "defense in depth," comparable to a football game in which defensive backs are expected to stop smugglers who make it through the front lines.
But Anthony Coulson, a retired DEA special agent, said the strategy leaves border ranchers like the Chiltons vulnerable.
"The Chilton ranch is between the border and those (Border Patrol) checkpoints," he said. "In that buffer zone that we've surrendered, they're defenseless."
Mark Potter / NBC News
Anthony Coulson, former DEA assistant special agent in charge, visits the Chilton ranch on the U.S. and Mexico border in Arizona in 2012.
Sue Chilton said she used to freely cross the ranch alone, but now is afraid to travel without an escort.
"I'm careful not to go out and be where I think I'm going to interact with these folks," she said. "They are armed and they are cartel."
That fear is well-founded, said Coulson, noting that in recent years cartel smugglers have become more aggressive in protecting their loads. He said he feared another incident like the unsolved 2010 murder of Arizona rancher Rob Krentz. Authorities believe Krentz was shot to death on his own land by a smuggler.
In a statement to NBC News, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said it currently has more technology and more agents patrolling the Arizona border than at any time in history, dramatically reducing illegal immigration.
"Tucson Sector has rancher liaisons who are in constant contact with our stakeholders, including the Chilton family," it said. "As a result of previous conversations with the Chiltons, Tucson Sector has deployed additional resources at the Chilton ranch to include personnel and technology."
Meantime, the Chiltons said that since the video was shot, they have had other instances of smugglers crossing their land and fear there is no end in sight.
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"I'd like for people to get some sort of feeling for what it feels like to be here in the United States and yet seeing people coming through your land," said Jim Chilton. "From a national security point of view, it's just outrageous."
First published August 10 2014, 2:03 AM
Mark Potter is an NBC News correspondent based in Miami where he reports for "Nightly News," "TODAY," MSNBC and NBCNews.com. He joined NBC News as a correspondent in 2004.
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During his 40-year journalism career, Potter has reported from all over the United States, South America, Central America and the Caribbean, including Haiti and Cuba. He has also worked in NBC's London and Hong Kong Bureaus, and has reported from China, the South Pacific, the Philippines and Israel. Much of his career was spent with investigative units at both the national and regional levels, and he has reported on topics including politics, narcotics and immigrant smuggling, environmental issues, natural disasters, international conflicts and numerous high-profile court cases.
Among the stories he has covered are the Cuban Mariel boatlift, the Grenada invasion, the arrest and trial of Panama's General Manuel Noriega, the Mexican and Colombian drug wars, the Haitian immigration crisis, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Hezbollah-Israeli war, the 1980's Miami riots, the Theodore Bundy murder trial, the regime of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, scores of hurricanes, the Armero volcano disaster in Colombia, the Elian Gonzalez legal battle, several Papal trips, the right-to-die case of Terri Schiavo, the U.S. heroin epidemic, the Southwest border security debate and the U.S.-Cuban political opening.
For 15 years prior to working at NBC News, Potter was a correspondent for ABC News, reporting for "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings," "Nightline" and "Good Morning America." He also worked for CNN, where among other duties he served as contributing correspondent for the Emmy-Award winning magazine show, "CNN and Time."
Potter is the recipient of the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Award, Robert F. Kennedy Award, an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, National Headliner Awards, the 2011 national Emmy Award for "Mexico: The War Next Door," several national Emmy nominations, and six regional Emmy Awards.
He has often appeared as a guest lecturer in journalism classes at the University of Miami, the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas. His work is also featured in "Square Grouper," a 2011 documentary film about South Florida marijuana smugglers, and in "Cocaine Cowboys Reloaded," a 2014 documentary about drug-related violence in Miami and Colombia.
Potter was graduated from the University of Missouri's School of Journalism and then worked for three local television stations in Evansville, Ind., and Miami before joining network news in 1983.