LA JOYA, Texas (AP) — As Texas farmhands prepared this winter to burn stalks of sugarcane for harvest along the Rio Grande, four masked men on ATVs suddenly surrounded the crew members and ordered them to leave.
Farmer Dale Murden has little doubt they were Mexican drug traffickers.
"They hide stuff in there," Murden said of the dense sugarcane crops, some as high as 14 feet. "It was very intimidating for my guys. You got men dressed in black, looking like thugs and telling them to get back."
Texas farmers and ranchers say confrontations like these are quietly adding up. This month the Texas Department of Agriculture, going beyond its usual purview that includes school lunches and regulating gas pumps, launched a website publicizing what it calls a worsening situation "threatening the lives of our fellow citizens and jeopardizing our nation's food supply."
However, some Texas Democratic lawmakers say the danger is being wildly overstated, and U.S. Border Patrol officials said they are not aware of landowners in the Rio Grande Valley facing increasing threats.
The launch last week of ProtectYourTexasBorder.com also left the state somewhat embarrassed after the site's message board quickly filled with postings calling for vigilante justice and the killing of illegal immigrants. The postings have since been removed.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, a Republican in the job once held by Gov. Rick Perry, condemned those postings Thursday. But he said they shouldn't detract from the site's goal of getting more federal resources to the Texas border.
"The website demonstrates in undeniable form that greater federal government presence is needed. We need to keep this as a lookout post"," Staples said.
But Texas state Sen. Jose Rodriguez said the site is misleading, lacking any data that puts the incidents or danger in context.
"For the site to convey the impression that we are under a serious threat and that there's all this concern, including to the food supply, it's just total exaggeration of reality," Rodriguez said. "It's unacceptable."
Still, there is little doubt of increased unease on Texas border farms.
Most brazen among the reported confrontations occurred earlier this year on the sugarcane field near Rio Grande City. In February, a Hidalgo County employee was similarly threatened by three men along the border river to stop clearing brush near a canal, said Troy Allen, general manager of the Delta Lake Irrigation District.
Allen said another of his workers has taken to locking himself inside the water pump houses along the Rio Grande. If someone knocks, Allen said, he doesn't answer.