A Bordertown Drug-Murder Mystery

As a rancher is laid to rest in a politically charged Arizona murder mystery, questions swirl about the motives of his killer—and the fallout for McCain's primary campaign.

As a rancher is laid to rest in a politically charged Arizona murder mystery, questions swirl about the motives of his killer—and the fallout for McCain's primary campaign. By Terry Greene Sterling.

Arizona borderlands ranchers and their families, mostly dressed in cowboy hats, long-sleeved shirts, Wrangler jeans, and boots, poured into the Douglas High School gym Saturday to attend a memorial Mass honoring rancher Robert Krentz, who was shot on his ranch by an unknown assailant on March 27.

The mysterious Krentz killing, widely blamed on a faceless drug trafficker, has become a highly politicized rallying cry for border-militarization advocates, and has become central to a nasty Republican Senate primary battle between former Congressman J.D. Hayworth and Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate in 2008.

Increasingly cynical ranchers wonder if the senseless murder means Mexico’s inchoate narco-violence has spilled into their borderlands ranches.

McCain, who says he’s been unfairly blasted by Hayworth for being soft on the border, and has called for National Guard troops at the border for months, had reportedly visited the Krentz family several days before the funeral. (The McCain campaign would not confirm the visit.) On the day of the funeral, Hayworth pounded McCain in a press release once again for being soft on the border.

No recognizable politicians of note showed up for the Krentz funeral at the high school where Krentz had been a football star. The grieving family and tight-knit ranching community wanted to keep politicians at bay, for just one day.

Still, the town and the ranching community itself was unsettled and tense, with new questions swirling around the Krentz death each day. Increasingly cynical ranchers and residents in both Douglas and its Mexican neighbor, Agua Prieta, wonder if the senseless murder means Mexico’s inchoate narco-violence, which has killed more than 19,000 people since 2006, has spilled into their borderlands ranches.

The 1,000 or so people who attended the Krentz funeral sat in red folding chairs and in bleachers, listening to country music, Catholic liturgy, and heartfelt eulogies depicting Krentz as a man of kindness, honor, and courage. Gerald Kicanas, the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, officiated at the funeral, and afterward, ranchers piled into their dusty pickups and drove to the historic Gadsden Hotel for a private gathering that excluded journalists.

Despite the private, non-political nature of the funeral, the ranching community and the Krentz family have long sought out politicians to ask for protection from increasingly violent drug traffickers and human smugglers that use their ranches as smuggling corridors.

The Krentz family earlier this week said it did not blame Krentz’s death on the Mexican people, but blamed “political forces” in Mexico and the United States for enabling the murder by ignoring their “repeated pleas and warnings” of “impending violence.”

Patrick Bray, a spokesman for the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association, a politically active coalition of cattle feedlot owners and cattle ranchers (including the Krentzes and many borderlands ranchers), calls the Krentz murder a “turning point” in ranchers’ lobbying efforts to secure the border. The American public, Bray said as he left the Krentz funeral, “will be very sympathetic” to securing the border once it knows what ranchers have gone through. The association has raised $15,000 for a “reward fund” leading to the arrest and conviction of Krentz’s killer and plans to lobby hard for sealing the border.

Although the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department has refused to comment on the murder weapon or details about the crime scene, theories are swirling around who killed Krentz.

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Ed Ashurst, 58, has for 13 years managed a ranch that borders the Krentz ranch. Ashurst said he was one of the people who had searched for Krentz on the day he disappeared and had assisted trackers who followed footsteps from the murder scene to the border. He believes the unknown Krentz killer was the same person who had earlier burglarized a different rancher’s home and stolen a 9mm gun, and then had stolen food from another ranch. The food wrappings from the stolen food were found at the murder scene, he said, and Krentz was killed by a 9mm weapon.

Ashurst “wouldn’t doubt” that the Krentz shooter is probably dead, killed off by drug lords who don’t want further embarrassment.

Even though the murder has become politicized, Ashurst said, nothing has changed in the borderlands. Just two days before the funeral, drug traffickers carrying marijuana trooped by a neighbor’s house.

“As long as America has a huge appetite for pot, this will continue,” he said.

Like many ranchers, Ashurst is taking a cynical step back to see if the McCain-Hayworth debate, as well as renewed calls by other politicians to send National Guard troops to the border, will actually give ranchers what they need: A border sealed by a military presence instead of an ineffective fence, which is routinely climbed over, blow-torched, and knocked down. He’d also like the government to issue permissions to immigrants who want to work in the United States so that they can enter with dignity and not wander across the ranches, leaving trash and cutting fences.

The Krentz funeral was mostly attended by Anglo ranchers like Ashurst, but Mexican-Americans in Douglas and its sister city, Agua Prieta, have been deeply affected by the killing.

Leobaldo Monge, 65, a retired boot vendor who has lived in Agua Prieta for 60 years, stood on a Douglas street corner on the day of the funeral, having a cigarette, waiting for his daughter, an American florist. He said Mexican police are combing Agua Prieta looking for the killer, and just last week took five youths in for questioning.

Poverty is rampant in Agua Prieta, a town of about 100,000, he said, and hungry people work in the drug trade out of desperation. He said random drug-related violence is common in Agua Prieta.

Most of the 16,500 or so people who live in Douglas, a former smelter town about 210 miles southeast of Phoenix, are of Latino heritage. The Krentz murder hasn’t caused any racist backlash against Mexican-Americans, residents say, but they worry violence will escalate in reaction to the rancher’s death.

Carlos Perez, 25, a substitute junior-high teacher who has lived in Douglas all his life, said on the day before the Krentz funeral that he worried that “people are arming up.”

Like many other Mexican-Americans in Douglas, Perez questions whether the same political uproar would have occurred if a Latino, instead of an Anglo, had been murdered.

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, was published in August by the Globe Pequot Press.