04.01.10

The Murder Heating Up McCain's Campaign

The fatal shooting of rancher Robert Krentz has become a flash point in John McCain’s reelection bid. Terry Greene Sterling on the murder mystery firing the immigration debate.

Just a few short hours after a helicopter crew spotted the body of southern Arizona cattle rancher Robert Krentz slumped in his all-terrain vehicle on March 27, the unsolved murder became a flash point for the increasingly close Arizona Republican Senate primary election between incumbent Sen. John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, and his militarize-the-border opponent, J.D. Hayworth, a former Arizona congressman, TV weatherman, and conservative radio talk-show host.

Although the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department, which is investigating the killing, refuses to speculate on the nationality or sex of the unknown person who shot Krentz and his dog (which was later euthanized), many in Arizona have already made up their minds that either a Mexican drug cartel thug or an undocumented immigrant killed the rancher. This is due in part to the sheriff’s revelation that Krentz’s last garbled radio message to his brother included the words illegal alien and hurt, and partly due to the fact that trackers followed footprints for about 20 miles from the Krentz murder scene to the Mexican border.

Hayworth adviser Chris Simcox says that McCain, the Bush and Obama administrations, and anyone else who supports “amnesty” for “illegal aliens” can be held responsible for Krentz’s death because amnesty advocates don’t support secure borders.

In death, Krentz has become a political football in the increasingly nasty GOP primary campaign. Hayworth is attacking McCain for being a border-enforcement wimp who is partly to blame for the Krentz killing. McCain hammers Hayworth for unethical demagoguery. Conservative bloggers, in the meantime, have turned Krentz into a saintly martyr, contending the good rancher delivered aid to an “illegal alien” and was murdered for it.

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Phil and Robert Krentz, pictured at the Krentz ranch in Arizona (Photograph by David Zickl)

Krentz would probably be pleased that finally someone is paying attention to conditions at the border, because he’d been trying to bring attention to the plight of borderlands ranchers overrun by illegal immigration and drug trafficking for at least a decade.

I interviewed Rob Krentz while on assignment for a magazine in 2004, on his ranch near Douglas, Arizona, for a story about an environmentally sensitive ranchers' group he belonged to. He was a big, gruff man with blue eyes and a gray walrus moustache, dressed in a sweat-encrusted cowboy hat, a long-sleeved cowboy shirt, blue jeans stiff with dirt and grease and held up with suspenders, and grimy cowboy boots. The grounds surrounding the ranch house and barn were in a state of disarray, with broken equipment strewn about. The land itself, with its grasslands and oak wooded hills, was what Krentz really cared about. He’d go out on the land almost every day, on his ATV, with his pistol.

He was angry and frustrated, and felt let down by the American government because it did not stop hundreds of immigrants and drug traffickers from trekking across rich grasslands that had been in his family for generations. A long water pipe travelled from a spring down a hill to water his cattle, and he said border crossers were constantly breaking the pipe, which meant his cattle got no water. Border crossers, he said, repeatedly cut fences, and dropped litter that endangered the health of his expensive cattle as well as herds of wild pronghorn antelope. His house had been burglarized. A calf had been slaughtered. He always called the Border Patrol when he found immigrants on his land, but sometimes, he said, the Border Patrol didn’t respond right away, and they wouldn’t respond at all if the group of migrants was too small. This was one of the reasons he felt let down by the government. (Border Patrol spokesman Omar Candelaria did not return calls and emails seeking comment for this story.) At some point, Krentz said, what with all the drug running, violence would surely break out in the area and then Americans would start paying attention to the borderlands.

His death did just that.

With a little help from the J.D. Hayworth campaign.

Hayworth’s senior adviser for border security is an Arizona-based Minuteman and Tea Party supporter named Chris Simcox, who tipped the conservative Web site DiggersRealm.com about the Krentz death. The article about the shooting, which went online just hours after Krentz’s body had been discovered, said Krentz had been shot after offering assistance to an “illegal alien” even though there is no evidence to bear that out. The article quoted former Colorado congressman Tom Tancredo, a vocal anti-illegal immigration activist who apparently knew Krentz, and who has turned the Krentz death into a rallying cry for sealing the border and manning it with soldiers.

Simcox, who in 2009 voiced a desire to run against McCain in the Senate primary and then withdrew from the race to support Hayworth, said during a phone interview that McCain, the former Bush administration, the current Obama administration, and anyone else who supports “amnesty” for “illegal aliens” can be held responsible for Krentz’s death because amnesty advocates don’t support secure borders. He says illegal aliens are part of an “armed invasion” of the United States.

The McCain campaign, through its spokesman Brian Rogers, angrily replied that Hayworth ought to “retract” Simcox’s “shameful” allegations. In the first place, Rogers argued, McCain doesn’t support amnesty. In the second place, the Hayworth campaign is exploiting the Krentz death to “score points and raise money.”

Three days after Krentz was shot to death, McCain asked former Arizona governor and current Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to send National Guard troops to secure the border. He claimed he’d been making similar requests for months.

“It’s about time,” Simcox says of McCain’s request, “I hope it’s not too little too late and he’s not doing it only because his political career is in grave jeopardy.”

If McCain is to prevail in the primary race, he must court hard-line conservatives who favor strict border enforcement and traditionally vote in primary elections. But he must also appease moderate Arizona Republicans associated with Arizona’s hospitality, construction, and agriculture sectors that rely on immigrant labor. Such moderates support the kind of comprehensive immigration reform that McCain and Sen. Edward Kennedy introduced in 2005. The measure never passed, but it was a prototype for comprehensive immigration reform that includes border enforcement and a pathway to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants residing in the United States. President Barack Obama voiced support of similar immigration reform during his 2008 campaign.

In mid-March, conservative Rasmussen Reports pollsters said Hayworth trailed McCain by seven points. Internal polling by the McCain campaign in January had the incumbent leading Hayworth by 20 points. Even so, McCain isn’t taking any chances. He’s campaigning vigorously in Arizona.

Thanks in part to Hayworth and McCain, the Krentz murder has served to further polarize a state already bitterly divided over immigration reform. Arizona’s border with Mexico is the gateway for most of the nation’s illegal immigration, and Arizona’s anti-migrant laws are among the harshest in the nation. Hayworth supports current efforts in the Arizona legislature to pass an anti-migrant measure that could turn all state law-enforcement officers into immigration enforcers.

The Krentz murder will be “exploited” for political gain, says former State Senator Alfredo Gutierrez, a Phoenix-based Democratic strategist and human-rights advocate.

“The most immediate effect of this tragic death will be the passage of a [state] law that seeks to criminalize every undocumented person who sets foot in Arizona,” Gutierrez says. “The long-term effect is that the death will be used as an excuse to pass such laws all over the country… Despite President Obama’s moving speeches that he’d put a stop to all this, he hasn’t.”

Gutierrez says Krentz was probably killed by a drug smuggler. Mexico’s drug cartels have stepped up violence as they fight each other and defend themselves in a four-year war launched by Mexican President Felipe Calderon. So far, more than 19,000 Mexican men, women, and children have died in that war.

“The Krentz murder is unresolved,” Gutierrez says, “but already it is assumed that an undocumented immigrant did it when more than likely it was an effect of Mexico’s Calderon’s administration, which was supported by President Bush and is supported by President Obama. But that doesn’t matter. The murder will be attributed to a simple gardener or busboy.”

As the political controversy swirls, ranchers and environmentalists in the borderlands mourn the loss of a good friend. Krentz sat on the board of Malpai Borderlands Group, an association of ranchers that teams up with conservation groups and environmental agencies to preserve and protect borderlands ranches from development.

Rancher William MacDonald is one of the founders of the Malpai group and is a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” award for his work. He says the murder of his friend makes some ranchers question why they keep on ranching in a landscape they struggle to preserve despite increasing violence that has nothing to do with the ranchers.

Cowboys ride the range alone, and even if they carry a gun, as Krentz did, there’s no assurance of safety anymore.

“We’re all searching for answers,” says MacDonald, “and there are no answers.”

Terry Greene Sterling is an Arizona journalist who blogs about immigration in Phoenix at terrygreenesterling.com. Her book, Illegal: Life and Death in the Undocumented Underground, will be published in August by the Globe Pequot Press.