Blood and bullets along the border as Arizona's private posses hunt Mexican migrants for sport

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The Independent US

The Barnett boys never miss a chance to go hunting on their older brother's 22,000-acre cattle ranch at Sierra Vista, which skirts the frontier between Mexico and Arizona. For more than a year, the Sunday sport of choice for dozens of ranchers around arid Cochise County has been to stalk undocumented migrants, round them up with trained dogs, then - at gunpoint - hand the scared Mexicans to the nearest US Border Patrol.

"Humans. That's the greatest prey there is on earth," said Roger Barnett 57, a former deputy sheriff turned cattleman. "They're your equal." He shifted his assault rifle so he could pat his muscular hound, Mikey, and then grinned for the network news team.

The Bartletts were filmed on Wednesday capturing nine illegal aliens out beyond their barbed wire fence, although the haul is nowhere near their record of 86 in one morning,

"There's no shortage," Don Barnett, 54, told The Independent. During March alone, some 72,000 Mexican jobseekers tried to sneak across the flat badlands from Agua Prieta in Mexico to Douglas, Arizona, three times as many as normal.

Since the borders were clamped in California and Texas, said the mayor of Douglas, Ray Borane, illegal immigrants have been swarming into south-eastern Arizona in record numbers, using 19th-century routes pioneered by gunrunners and bootleggers.

"It's relatively easy - flat desert terrain with no mountains to traverse," he said. "But they may find a gun pointing at them, even mothers carrying babies. Last month one group had seven bullets fired next to them and another guy got shot in the butt.

"It is getting way out of hand. There are flyers circulating that advertise for tourists to do this for recreation. Bring your own RV [residential vehicle] and help out a rancher. They even list the essentials: infra-red binoculars, dogs, ammo, sun block. It's a travesty of human rights."

These amateur posses of '"armed private citizens" operating along the 83-mile border of Cochise County were denounced by the Mexican government as "xenophobic". Meetings between the Mexican ambassador, Jesus Reyes Heroles , and the US deputy attorney general, Eric Holder, were hastily convened this week. Out of 25 encounters cited, the Barnett brothers were involved in at least 14.

"I got no regrets," Don Barnett said. "My brother's ranch is like a garbage dump after the illegals come through. They leave behind tons of junk - dirty diapers, plus what's in those diapers. You really have to watch where you step. It'd take 100 trucks and you still couldn't haul it all away.

"The Mexicans get thirsty and cut our hoses, and so our 10,000-gallon water tank drains dry. People stop us on the street daily and ask what they can do.

"The Clinton government defends the borders of Kosovo and Bosnia - everybody's but our own. I consider myself a patriot. There is a slo-mo invasion of Mexicans going on and something has to be done. We need troops out there."One would-be migrant who found himself on the wrong side of gun-wielding locals is Cipriano Ramirez. He scrimped for years in Temoac village, central Mexico, earning $4 a day mostly selling sweets, until he finally could pay $1,600 (£1,000) to a professional smuggler known as a "coyote".

Promising a new life in distant Chicago, the smuggler arranged a flight north to Chihuahua, then a trip in a lorry to Agua Prieta with a dozen other migrants. Repeatedly, they set out for the Arizona border shortly before midnight.

But the unlucky Mr Ramirez was deported back to Mexico after he was felled in his third attempt to cross the border on 23 March. "I thought it was a sure thing," he said from a hospital bed in Hermosillo, Mexico, where he is recovering from a bullet wound.

The round entered his right buttock, nicked his tail bone, and perforated his large intestine. It will be six months before he heals, said doctors, but he is out of danger. Mr Ramirez, 32, worries that he may never walk or work again. He keeps a gift box of American chocolates from the kindly American who shot him as a reminder of the journey he didn't complete. He says he doesn't have the heart to finish them.

"There were 12 of us and we walked all night long," said Mr Ramirez. "But we did not know there were ranchers hunting illegals. Some time after daybreak, I felt a sudden pain in my belly and began to writhe on the ground. The rancher, Mr Major, said it was all a mistake. He was firing his gun at a dog walking three feet away from me.

"He did carry me to his farmhouse and called a helicopter from the Tucson Medical Centre. Later I lost consciousness for five days."

Roger Major and his 20-year-old son, Ryan, raise winter squash and landscape trees on a 300-acre farm outside Douglas. "My dad is on his way to Alaska now and I don't want to say much till the sheriff is done investigating," Ryan Major said. "But, yeah, there were two guns involved. It was accidental. The Mexican had long hair and he was screaming, but he was definitely a man. Me and my friends went and saw him in Tucson, and so did my parents." His father organised a medical evacuation.

In Mexico, Mr Ramirez said: "The Majors visited and even wrote me a letter which says they are truly sorry and I am in their family's nightly prayers."

He has filed a complaint and plans to sue for damages. "I hope the authorities in the United States can find a remedy for this problem, because we want nothing more than to go to work," Mr Ramirez said. "We do no harm to anyone. We go because the wages are so much better than here."

Don Barnett has little sympathy. "The bottom line is if some Mexican is squatting behind a bush on private property, he gets what's coming to him," he said. "They are not all so innocent. There are drug smugglers out there with a lot more firepower than me. I am not a vigilante. I carry a Colt .45, but I keep it in my holster. The day I pull it out is the day I pull the trigger."