A homeowner grabbed his handgun when he heard noises at about 1 a.m. coming from downstairs at his house in a Cochise County farming community, about 10 miles south of Willcox.
He found a man standing in front of his open refrigerator who fled when the homeowner yelled at him.
Later, Cochise County sheriff deputies and Border Patrol agents found 14 men in the country illegally hiding on top of a nearby hill. Three had entered the home to look for food and were charged with burglary and theft. Human smuggling charges were also filed against two of them.
As border enforcement increased in more-populated areas such as Douglas and Nogales, often protected by tall fences and Border Patrol agents driving up and down the roads, trafficking — of people and drugs — started to shift to rural areas.
For years, ranchers and residents in Cochise County asked the Border Patrol to be closer to the actual border.
More than half of the Border Patrol apprehensions in the Tucson Sector are made five to 20 miles from the border. About the same number — nearly 30,000 arrests — are made within five miles from the border or more than 20 miles from it, 2011 data obtained by the Government Accountability Office show.
In May, the Border Patrol responded to the community’s request by opening a new Forward Operating Base southeast of Douglas, about three miles from the border.
Borrowing from the military, the Border Patrol puts modular buildings in remote areas and equips them with video surveillance, bathrooms, kitchens and beds. Agents take turns staying in the bases for a week at a time.
The first forward operating bases were established in Arizona more than a decade ago. Camp Grip, about 75 miles from Yuma, opened in 2002 and Papago Farms in the Tohono O’odham Nation in 2004.
Today, there are five active forward operating bases. A sixth in Sasabe closed in 2012.
Bases are placed strategically in locations that have high activity levels and difficult access.
Each base costs about $3 million to build, the Arizona Daily Star reported in 2011.
The new Hedglen base, located in a rugged area of Cochise County near the New Mexico state line, was approved and funded through the fiscal year 2010 Emergency Border Security Supplement Act. It’s equipped with vehicles, a fueling station and stables.
Even though it’s only been a couple of months since it opened and it’s not staffed at its maximum capacity — it has 32 beds — residents can already see a difference.
The agents working at the base are “instrumental in catching or detouring a lot of people,” said Wendy Glenn, who lives with her husband on a ranch seven miles from the forward operating base.
Now, she said, agents don’t have to drive as much and can respond within 10 minutes as opposed to sometimes up to an hour if they had to drive from the station in Douglas. “They are working hard out there.”
U.S. Rep. Ron Barber, whose district covers that area, said the base is a great asset to protect a vulnerable stretch of the border.
“While I agree we’ve made some progress in securing the border, the people I represent are still waiting for the security they deserve,” he said.
Problems not new
The problems of trafficking in the rural areas of Cochise County are not new. It had been escalating for years before Robert Krentz was found slain on his ranch northeast of Douglas in 2010. The case remains unsolved, but authorities suspect a smuggler killed him.
Portal, a small community at the mouth of Cave Creek Canyon on the eastern side of the Chiracahua Mountains, has had its share of home invasions over the years — despite being about 60 miles from the border.
“We were inundated a few years ago,” said Jeff Gee a local resident who moved from Detroit 25 years ago.
Residents see people coming through a couple of times a week, although it has slowed since the Border Patrol added more resources in the aftermath of Krentz’s death.
From Oct. 1 through July 31, the Tucson Sector Border Patrol apprehended 106,183 people. More than 24,000 of them came from the eastern corridor, — which covers arrests made in the Naco, Douglas and Willcox stations. Out of nearly 1 million pounds of marijuana seized, 13 percent comes from this corridor.
Glenn, the rancher, said she doesn’t see the huge groups of people coming through trampling out vegetation, making trails and leaving trash behind as she did before.
She and her husband, Warner, bought their ranch 53 years ago.
Drug traffickers remain a problem, though.
Her husband spent four days last year finding and fixing all the cuts someone on horseback made on their fences. They think it was someone with two horses hauling drugs.
The Glenns’ house is about five miles from the border, yet she said she doesn’t feel threatened.
“We know they killed our neighbor,” she said. “But every illegal that comes through here is not going to shoot one of us.”
She said she’s just mindful of her surroundings and relies on her noisy dogs to help keep people away.
The Senate’s immigration bill, approved in June, calls for more permanent forward operating bases and upgrading existing facilities to include electricity and potable water.
The Border Patrol union has said some the bases are not suitable for agents.
Some “agents are housed in conditions worse than for detainees,” Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, wrote in an email.
He said the agency has come to rely on forward operating bases in areas such as Yuma or El Paso, where it should build permanent stations and pay to move personnel there.
Border Patrol spokesman Brent Cagen said the bases are not as rustic and are far better than they were in the past.
For Barber, forward operating bases are a step in the right direction.
He would support having more along the border in places where it makes sense. He said he’ll ask the Border Patrol to provide data on the effectiveness of the Hedglen base.
“Border Patrol agents will tell you one of the most important things that helps them is to have situational awareness,” he said, “to see what’s going on at the border.”