Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Trevino points out that drug, gun and human smuggling is nothing new to the border. The difference is the attention that the drug-related violence in Mexico has drawn to the region in recent years.
He insists his county, which includes McAllen, is safe. The crime rate is falling, and illegal immigrants account for small numbers in his jail. But asked if the border is "secure," Trevino doesn't hesitate. "Absolutely not."
"When you're busting human trafficking stash houses with 60 to 100 people that are stashed in a two, three-bedroom home for weeks at a time, how can you say you've secured the border?" he said.
Trevino's view, however, is that those people might not be there if they had a legal path to work in the U.S.
"Immigration reform is the first thing we have to accomplish before we can say that we have secured the border," he said.
NOGALES, Ariz.: In nation's busiest illegal corridor, ranchers scoff at "secure"
Everywhere he goes on his cattle ranch, Jim Chilton has a gun at the ready. He has guns at his front door, guns in his pickup truck, guns on his horse's saddle. His fear? Coming across a bandit or a smuggler on his land northwest of Nogales, Ariz.
Cattleman Gary Thrasher frequently encounters immigrants and smugglers running through his property. Some have showered in his barn. He and his family live in constant dread.
"They really have secured the towns right along the border, but what that does is it drives all the traffic out into the rural areas around here," said Thrasher, a rancher and veterinarian for more than 40 years on the border east of Douglas, Ariz. "It sends the traffic right into our backyards."
The question of border security hits close to home to those who work the land in southern Arizona. It was here, in 2010, that cattle rancher Robert Krentz was gunned down while checking water lines on his property near Douglas. Local authorities have said they believe the killer was involved in smuggling either humans or drugs.
That same year, Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in a shootout near Nogales with Mexican gunmen that brought attention to the federal government's botched weapons-trafficking probe called "Fast and Furious."
"The border is not secure," said Chilton. "Period. Exclamation mark."
Defining "secure border" in Arizona is never easy. Just last week, U.S. Sen. John McCain hosted two town hall meetings on immigration reform in his home state, and was left defending a plan he's been developing.
During a heated gathering in the Phoenix suburb of Sun Lakes, one man yelled that only guns would discourage illegal immigration. Another man complained that illegal immigrants should never be able to become citizens or vote. A third man said illegal immigrants were illiterate invaders who wanted free government benefits.
McCain urged compassion. "We are a Judeo-Christian nation," he said.
The crackdowns in Texas and California in the 1990s turned Arizona's border into the busiest for human smuggling for 15 years running now.
In 2000, agents in the Tucson sector made more than 616,000 apprehensions — a near all-time high for any Border Patrol sector. The number eventually began dipping as the agency hired more than 1,000 new agents and the economy collapsed. State crackdowns such as the "show me your papers" law — requiring police enforcing other laws to question the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally — are also thought to have driven migrants away.
The result: the sector had 120,000 apprehensions in fiscal 2012.
But the amount of drugs seized in Arizona has soared at the same time. Agents confiscated more than 1 million pounds of marijuana in the Tucson sector last year, more than double the amount seized in 2005.
In Nogales, Sheriff Tony Estrada has a unique perspective on both border security and more comprehensive immigration reform. Born in Nogales, Mexico, Estrada grew up in Nogales, Ariz., after migrating to the U.S. with his parents. He has served as a lawman in the community since 1966.
He blames border security issues not only on the cartels but on the American demand for drugs. Until that wanes, he said, nothing will change. And securing the border, he added, must be a constant, ever-changing effort that blends security and political support — because the effort will never end.