Posted: Oct 20, 2011 11:49 AM
Updated: Dec 2, 2011 3:11 PM
BROOKS COUNTY - Rancher Stephen Burns dreamed of a quiet life on his family's South Texas ranch. The cartels took that dream away.
Drug and human smuggling has forced the family to barricade themselves inside their home, which is surrounded by an 8-foot electric fence and has security cameras.
"It's basically a compound and we have to stay there at night. And most times during the day," Burns said.
Twelve-year-old Finn Burns remembers when a man broke into the laundry room. His mother held the man at gunpoint until help arrived.
"I like living here, but it's getting dangerous," Finn said.
The Burns' 38,000-acre ranch is about 60 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border along FM 755. The road runs from Tamaulipas, Mexico, through Starr, Northern Hidalgo and Brooks counties to US Highway 281.
It's described by law enforcement in court documents obtained by CHANNEL 5 NEWS as a "main smuggling corridor" where the "criminal climate (has) become more violent and organized in recent years."
Brooks County Chief Deputy Urbino Martinez said the cartels roam almost without resistance in the area because his county only has two deputies to cover an area roughly 20 times the size of McAllen.
"They know our limitations," he said. "They know where we're at half the time. They have their scouts."
He also said deputies can easily find themselves outnumbered and outgunned.
"You can get in danger pretty quick," Martinez said.
Complicating the situation, the oil and gas companies have free run of the ranch lands. Cartel members often disguise their trucks to blend in with oilfield traffic.
"It feels like we are, you know, a border town because all the action comes right here," said David Vela, a Brooks County Deputy.
The oil companies paved miles of ranch roads, which are not usually patrolled by law enforcement. The roads are ideal for smuggling massive loads of drugs past the Border Patrol checkpoints in Falfurrias and Hebbronville with little risk of detection.
In addition to drug and human smuggling, deputies have also reported assaults, kidnappings and rapes on private ranch lands. Sometimes the Burns family hears gunfire in the brush at night.
"We decided to leave because we don't have any control over the activity that goes on out here," Burns said. "Because I feel that my family is in danger, we have to move. And yes, it's crushing."