Texas farm and ranch land along the Rio Grande River in deep South Texas is well suited for agriculture, a place where crops, forage and livestock flourish on rich soil.
But in a time when farmland values are exceptionally strong, thousands of acres of this prime property are currently available for below market value, yet few potential buyers are giving the property a second look.
A local farm and ranch realtor, Terry Urdal in McAllen, says few buyers are willing to gamble on property plagued by serious border issues including drug cartel violence and an increasing influx of illegal immigrants streaming into the Valley to escape what some term the most violent region on earth.
A broadcast report from KRGV television in the Valley recently stated that property owners along the Rio Grande River north of Brownsville are trapped between escalating violence in Mexico and political indecision in Washington, a problem Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples voiced last week in his latest letter to President Obama calling for stronger border security measures.
“With steadily rising agriculture land values across much of the United States, this fertile soil should be producing crops and contributing to the local economy, and it should be selling quickly when placed on the market. Instead, families that have nurtured the land for generations are tragically forced to start over away from the car chases, armed drug smugglers and cartel violence spilling over from Mexico,” Staples said in a Feb. 14 letter to the White House.
Staples is once again asking the Obama administration to stop the reduction of National Guard troops along the border. He writes that more troops are needed to control spillover violence and suggested surplus military equipment returning from Iraq should be used to enhance a military arsenal in ongoing border security efforts.
Staples’ strong stand on border security is nothing new. The most recent letter is not the first he has sent to Washington. By saying agriculture interests in Texas will be adversely affected by continuing border violence, he pledges to continue efforts to bolster border security along bipartisan lines, and points to devalued land prices along the river as the latest indication that the problem in the border region is intensifying.
Urdal, who in addition to being a farm and ranch realtor in McAllen is a partner in a border ranch operation in South Texas, says he believes the problem has escalated “beyond a reasonable solution.
“Smugglers have been crossing the Rio Grande in both directions for over 200 years selling everything from guns to stolen vehicles. But the illegal drug trade and human trafficking and kidnapping issues in recent years have taken us to a point where there seems to be no real solution to the problem,” Urdal says.
The son of an immigrant father from Norway who joined the U.S. Army during World War II, Urdal says the problem goes beyond illegal trade across the border.
“The biggest problem is the denial of border officials on this side of the river who continue to downplay what is clearly an explosive situation. Some local law enforcement officials say criminal activity exists in places like Detroit and is not just a problem in our border region. But I don’t remember ever reading about mass graves where 200-plus victims have been buried on U.S. soil. There are drug dealers leading large groups of men across Texas ranchland carrying AK 47 rifles, and many farmers and ranchers in South Texas fear for their lives everyday,” he contends.
Indeed, recent crime data released in Mexico City is startling. According to an official Mexican government report, 15,273 crime-related deaths were recorded in 2010 alone, raising the total death toll to 34, 612 since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office in 2006. Most of those deaths occurred in Northern Mexico, and the majority of those took place in cities and communities on or within a few miles of the Texas border.
“Only about 10 percent of the cartel-related violence on this side of the border is being reported,” Urdal claims. “And that’s largely because many officials in Texas border cities want to keep it quiet out of fear of jeopardizing cross-border commerce between the two nations.”
Cities in Texas like McAllen, Laredo, and Brownsville depend on legal trade and commerce with Mexico. Recent estimates indicate as many as 150,000 travelers move across the U.S./Mexican border every day for purposes of shopping or conducting legitimate business, resulting in a positive economic impact for cities on both sides of the border. U.S. and Mexican imports and exports of agriculture products alone, like fresh fruits, vegetables and livestock, represent a significant economic impact and provide substantial and positive trade between the two countries.
But according to the Texas Department of Agriculture, the illegal trade conducted across the border overshadows the positive impact, and spillover violence is increasingly threatening the life and livelihoods of U.S. farmers and ranchers.
“A lot of good farm and ranch land along the river has been valued at $5,000 an acre, but currently we can’t find a buyer for the property at $2,500 an acre because no one wants to gamble on the dangers that come with it,” Urdal said.
Urdal has a federal handgun license and never travels around the border region without carrying his gun for self protection.
“And when I head out into ranch country, I have more than one gun with me,” he adds. “I have known seven friends who conduct business in Mexico regularly that are missing. They crossed over the border and never came back. Most of these disappearances go unreported. You hear about a few of them, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
Urdal says he is not opposed to legal immigration and understands why Mexican workers and families want to escape the violence in Mexico. It is not the workers or families that concern him but the escalating influx of criminals streaming across the border to extend their territory.
“I have never used an illegal drug in my life. But legalizing drugs may be the only way to take the sting out of the drug business. If there is no profit in it, the criminals would have no reason to deal the drugs in the first place. Instead of wasting money on a wall that doesn’t work, we need to put more boots on the ground and enforce the laws we have. But to be honest, we have already reached a point where even that may not stop the violence from bleeding over the border. I am not sure there is an answer to the problem,” Urdal admits.