TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — Southern Arizona ranchers who often encounter drug smugglers and other dangers have a new way to get help in emergencies: sheriff-issued radios usually reserved for police that connect them directly to 911 dispatchers.
So far 31 ranchers along the Arizona-Mexico border have taken the new handheld radios issued by the Cochise County Sheriff's Office.
Sheriff Mark Dannels obtained them through private funding in an effort to improve safety along the rural areas that often lack strong cell phone coverage. He said the 2010 murder of rancher Rob Krentz led to increased security and more communication between ranchers and authorities. Authorities believe Krentz was fatally shot by drug smugglers.
"I don't think there's a better form of community policing out there than having them have a form of communication with us in their time of need," Dannels said.
The sheriff's office also has a team dedicated to patrolling ranch areas and an advisory group composed of law enforcement and ranchers.
John Ladd, whose family ranch sits along 10 miles of the international border, says the radios will come in handy when he's out in remote parts of his ranch.
Ladd said that the illegal immigration landscape has changed a lot in the past decade. He used to see hundreds of migrants on his land daily, but that number is down to nearly zero now. Instead, it's the drug smugglers and their lookouts who travel through his ranch. His house has been burglarized countless times, he says.
"If you live in the rural area, that's your big concern every day. You still have to realize that I can't just walk into my house anymore. I gotta look around and see what's going," Ladd said.
Peggy Davis, a rancher about 25 miles north of the border, says activity has also significantly decreased but that it's not uncommon for smugglers and others to cross through her family's cattle ranch near Tombstone.
"Sometimes we don't have cell service on areas of the ranch. I was just thrilled that we have other options," Davis said.
Human and drug smuggling in the Tucson Sector, which comprises most of Arizona, have fallen significantly. Fiscal year 2011 saw over 123,000 migrant apprehensions; by 2015, that number had fallen to a little over 63,000.
But as traffic has gone down in Arizona, it's picked up in parts of Texas, which have seen huge increases in the number of migrants illegally crossing the border. The Rio Grande Valley Sector has seen a spike from nearly 60,000 apprehensions in fiscal year 2011 to more than 147,000 in the last fiscal year.
Border sheriffs in those areas say ranchers along the Texas-Mexico border have to be on alert at all times.
In Hudspeth County, Sheriff Arvin West says he has one officer who serves as rancher liaison to help with issues that affect landowners.
"(Ranchers) have learned to just kind of stay back and if somebody comes across with backpacks, to just let them go and not follow them," West said. "They still break into homes and stuff if the ranchers aren't around but typically the ranchers don't leave."