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Do-it-yourself border patrol: one man's vigil with a gun and spotlight

Lynn Kartchner heads to the border at nightfall with a spotlight to help the border patrol catch drug smugglers. It's a sign of the prevailing sense of urgency along the US-Mexican border.

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Border patrol Agent Mario Escalante says the area has experienced a "great change" since he was assigned to work it back in 2000. Back then, "There were people crossing all over the place," he notes. Now, pressure from additional manpower, fencing, and high-tech tools such as remote video surveillance have pushed illegal traffic westward.

Indeed, the Tucson sector is the most guarded along the international border. The number of agents here more than doubled to 3,300 between fiscal 2000 and fiscal 2009. In the past few weeks the region also got more than 500 of the 1,200 National Guard troops sent by the Obama administration to assist in border operations.

But seizures of marijuana – the drug most commonly confiscated – rose from about 240,000 pounds in 2000 to 1.2 million pounds in 2009 in the sector. In Cochise County, meanwhile, burglaries rose 10 percent from 2008 to 2009 (362 to 403).

This is where Kartchner is looking to step in – without getting too close. His gadgets, after all, can detect targets as many as four miles away. "Once we know where [smugglers] are and we've got them spotted, we'll crank on the light and call the border patrol," he says.

Kartchner has not yet come across illegal activity during his surveillance of various points of the valley. But one night, he was surprised to see a heavy border patrol presence a half-mile from the border – hovering helicopters and a National Guard observation post.

"At least for now," he says. "We must've touched a nerve in Washington."

The death of Mr. Krentz, in particular, increased the sense of urgency here. The case remains unsolved, but investigators suspect the rancher may have encountered a smuggler. If true, it would be the first time in at least 20 years that a rancher had been killed by an illegal border-crosser.

Ranchers' growing frustration and fear "pretty much came to a head with the Robert Krentz homicide," says Carol Capas, a spokeswoman for the Cochise County Sheriff's Department.

Data tell only a part of the impact of illegal immigration, she adds. For those far from the border, it is difficult to imagine waking up to find large groups of people huddling in the yard or coming home to find the house ransacked, but "these things are real to the citizens of Cochise County," Ms. Capas says. "It's something that they have to face all the time."

Five of the ranchers who have given Kartchner permission to use their ranchland "have had their homes broken into within the last 1-1/2 years," Kartchner says. He vows to make sure that no one on his nighttime rounds breaks any laws. And as long as they don't interfere with border patrol operations, they can be helpful by reporting suspicious activity, says Agent Colleen Agle. But "if they're going to take the law into their own hands, that's not going to help us," she says.

For his part, Sheriff Dever wants all hands on deck. "Anybody that wants to cross the border today, can," he says. "And until we can say that's not the case, then our border is not secure."

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