SANTA ELENA — Elizabeth Burns pulled up to the gate to her family’s ranch in a scratched-up Toyota Land Cruiser.
Discarded plastic bottles lay in the sand beside the entrance. Welded steel fence posts protruded toward the outside of the gate — an attempt to slow down the smugglers who have rammed their vehicles onto her property before.
Those living in South Texas know the ranchlands north of the Rio Grande Valley are some of the roughest terrain in the state.
Out here, the family raises livestock on the hardscrabble monte, dotted with black-eyed Susan wildflowers, groves of huisache and mesquite trees — alongside tanker trucks and natural gas rigs. The land sits west of the Border Patrol’s Falfurrias checkpoint on U.S. 281 — well-worn territory for human and drug smugglers who have trespassed on the ranch for decades.
“Wait. Let me grab a pistola,” she said as she hopped out of the vehicle, tucking a small black handgun into her jeans before investigating footprints crossing a sandy ranch path.
“Someone has been through here.”
A native of Cincinnati, the 44-year-old Burns first came to Texas to study journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. She met her husband, Stephen, while studying for a graduate degree in Laredo.
That kept her in South Texas, where the Burns family has owned their ranch since 1935. That was the same year the rights to the oil and natural gas — known as the McGill lease — sold on the land.
Farm-to-Market Road 755 cuts through the Burns’ ranch, a 38,000-acre swath of Brooks, Hidalgo, Starr and Jim Hogg counties dotted by wild turkeys, deer, unique plants and fossil fuel-drilling equipment.
Companies have drilled here ever since, building paved roads for tanker trucks to access the fuel operations. The roads provide a perfect route for smugglers, who blend in with the other traffic as they use their own trucks to transport drugs and people through the region.
Burns’ family lived in Alice until moving to the ranch about five years ago. They took up residence here in one of the original houses, situated on a 10-acre plot surrounded by a 10-foot-high electrified fence.
Besides Burns’ passion for her family — she home-schools her two sons — she is engaged in a protracted legal battle with the oil companies, who she said improperly abandoned their drilling operations, allowing poisonous chemicals like benzene to leach into the groundwater.
Burns began shooting video of what she says are faulty rigs and has chronicled her legal fight on a blog, RanchoLosMalulos.com.
In May 2009, she encountered a young Honduran national making his way across the ranch, and she turned her camera to a new focus.
The 18-year-old said he was dropped off alone by his coyote along Farm-to-Market Road 755 and was told to head north.
He looked thin, weak and said he was hungry, Burns said. She gave him a Red Bull and some orange soda while they talked.
“He was such a sweet kid,” she recalled. “He didn’t want to go into the monte.”
The “pilgrim” — Burns says the term fits better than “immigrant” — had planned to go to New York to get a job and live with relatives.
But he’d had enough. After riding freight trains through Mexico to reach the border, he was kidnapped and held at a Reynosa stash house for two months before his family could pay the $3,000 ransom, at which point he was dumped on the range.
Now he just wanted to go home.
Burns had already called Border Patrol agents in to pick him up. She said she sympathizes with the pilgrims, but she also believes in the rule of law.
“It’s just complicated,” she said. “I don’t believe in illegal immigration. But I feel for the people.”
Intrigued by the story the young Honduran shared with her, Burns interviewed more people she found wandering on her ranch.
She got better camera equipment. She clipped a small microphone to an orange spatula and used it during the interviews — something of a trademark of a journalist housewife.
Burns always called Border Patrol to pick the people up, but sometimes agents would not make it to her ranch for several hours. So the pilgrims would wander off, deciding to try their luck in the brush.
Law enforcement officers don’t regularly patrol the ranch property.
And energy company workers here generally ignore the drug or human smugglers that pass by, according to a retired investigator who worked as a guard on the ranch before quitting in frustration.
“They stick to their business,” he said in an interview, refusing to give his name out of fear for his safety. “That’s the way it’s always been. They don’t really care.”
Affidavits filed alongside one of Burns’ lawsuits against one of the energy companies shed light on the situation.
Urbino Martinez, chief deputy of the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office, said in court documents that smugglers charge as much as $10,000 to move drugs or people through the property.
It’s easy for smugglers to blend in — using tanker trucks or other construction vehicles — and local authorities lack the manpower to patrol the area.
The sheriff’s office only has two deputies on duty at any given time of the day to cover all of Brooks County — an area roughly the same size as Cameron County but with just 1/50th its population, Martinez said.
“We do not have the funding nor do we have the training to pursue suspects in tank batteries, compressor batteries, gas plants, refineries and other areas with flammable materials stored,” Martinez said in court documents. “We do not have any coordination with any of the oilfield operators so we do not know the roads, the locations of the facilities and the particulars of the operations.”
Furthermore, the closest backup is at the Falfurrias Border Patrol Station — 45 miles away.
In March 2008, Burns’ ranch was the site of the largest wildfire in the region in recent memory. The blaze eventually spread across a three-county area.
The fire consumed an area as large as McAllen. What went unreported, however, was the natural gas and oil production tanks that exploded as the flames spread, Burns said.
The constant movement of the oilfield trucks, the expansion of drilling operations and the immigrant and drug-smuggler traffic pushed Burns over the edge.
She and her sons are settling in to their new life, in McAllen.
What will be missed on the ranch — the quiet, the sunsets and spending time exploring the diverse rangeland — seem to outweigh the risks of remaining there, on their own, Burns said.
But seeing as how illegal immigration and drug smuggling have become an industry unto itself, whether it’s the smugglers, the northbound migrants who slipped across the border or the federal agents hired to try to stop them all — Burns thinks it will only get worse.
“The cat-and-mouse game is so costly,” she said. “If illegal immigration stopped, our local economy would end.
“People really don’t care about a couple of ranchers and cows.”
September 19, 2010