Following a couple of tours in Vietnam as a Green Beret medic, Robert Heilig spent much of his career in government intelligence work. When he retired, Heilig, who holds a law degree and a master’s degree in education, taught college in Nevada before coming back to Arizona four years ago to raise cattle.
So Heilig is familiar with challenges, and as a fourth-generation Arizona rancher, he knew about the ones particular to ranching. But the location of this ranch — near Nogales, Ariz., on the border between the United States and Mexico — has brought him face-to-face with a whole different set of trials.
On the Double Bar R Ranch, covering almost 13,000 acres in the Sonoran desert in the shadow of the Patagonia Mountains, Mexican cows show up frequently. “I have a good friendly relationship with the neighbors,” Heilig says. “I just call them up and say, ‘Meet me at the border, and we’ll cross them.’ ”
It’s nothing unusual for a rancher to return his neighbors’ cows, though Heilig does have to be careful to keep his bulls away from the wandering Mexican cows. “My bull pasture is as far from the border as I can get. They have trichomaniasis in Sonora. I haven’t seen Mexican bulls up here, so I’m not so worried about my cows.”
But there is no way to avoid the illegal workers who cross the border on his ranch to find work in the United States or the smugglers bringing in drugs, and he sees them often. His ranch is in a high-traffic spot; the U.S. Border Patrol estimates about 2,000 people a day cross the border in that area. “The trails going through my ranch look like the Forest Service built them,” Heilig says.
Once a month or so, while riding his pastures, he stumbles upon stashed drugs waiting to be picked up. In those cases, he rides away, knowing there is probably someone in the area with an eye on the stash, and calls Border Patrol.
He did the same recently when he and his wife were out riding and two men appeared suddenly, pointing AK47s — turned and rode away, then called Border Patrol. While he has empathy for the illegal workers — “Their plight is terrible,” he says — the drug smugglers are another matter. “They’re dangerous people. I wouldn’t leave the house without a sidearm, just to protect myself if I get caught in the crossfire.” Besides the workers and the smugglers, bandits roam the border area, waiting for a chance to rob either group. It’s not unusual for Heilig and his wife to hear gunshots from their front porch.