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Hidden Cameras Capture Smugglers Crossing Border 'No-Man's Land'

Image: A cactus grows on Jim and Sue Chilton's ranch on the U.S. and Mexico border in Arizona.

A cactus grows on Jim and Sue Chilton's ranch on the U.S. and Mexico border in Arizona.Mark Potter / NBC News

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.

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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.

Image: Jim and Sue Chilton walk near the U.S. and Mexico border at the Chilton's ranch.
Jim and Sue Chilton walk near the U.S. and Mexico border at their ranch in southern Arizona in November 2012.Mark Potter / NBC News

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."

Image: Anthony Coulson, former DEA ASAC, visits the Chilton ranch on the U.S. and Mexico border in Arizona.
Anthony Coulson, former DEA assistant special agent in charge, visits the Chilton ranch on the U.S. and Mexico border in Arizona in 2012.Mark Potter / NBC News

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."

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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."