Rancher's slaying intensifies political fury over border security measures

The debate over U.S. border security has been reignited following an Arizona cattle rancher’s murder, with lawmakers renewing their call for more troops and facing a public outrage that is shaping up to make border control a main issue in this year’s elections.

Both Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) sent letters last week to the White House asking for additional National Guard troops along the U.S.-Mexico border after rancher Robert Krentz was shot to death on his farm last Sunday.

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Krentz’s expansive ranch runs along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona and though authorities are still investigating the slaying, officials were able to track the footprints of the suspected killer across the border into Mexico, which has caused some to posit that the murderer could be an undocumented immigrant who traveled across the border illegally. Krentz was known as a good Samaritan who would give illegal immigrants water and help if they were injured.

The slaying has further highlighted the threat of ongoing drug-cartel violence, as the border is not just a human-smuggling route but a drug-smuggling corridor as well.

Three people with ties to the U.S. Consulate were shot dead last month in Ciudad Juarez, across the border from El Paso, Texas, in a gang-style assassination. And about 18,000 people have been killed since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took power in 2006 and began an all-out war against drug cartels in his country. The majority of the slain have been involved in some level of the drug or illegal weapons business. 

“This cold-blooded murder is a sober reminder that the safety of U.S. citizens on American soil is under attack,” Giffords said in a letter to President Barack Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano addressing Krentz's slaying. 

“Residents of the area are increasingly fearful of the violence that has been brought to the border and into our country by the drug cartels. The murder of Robert Krentz has heightened those fears,” wrote Giffords, whose district is home to Krentz’s farm.

The slaying comes as Napolitano recently froze funding of the U.S.’s initiative to build and maintain a fence that stretches the length of the U.S.-Mexico border. Napolitano redirected $50 million from the fence project to purchase mobile radios, laptops, and infrared cameras for federal law enforcement officials working in the border region.

The fence’s funding, which began under President George W. Bush, is on hold until a study of the spending is completed. The review is looking at both the accountability for money spent on the project, and also the efficacy of the actual fence and whether there are other technological alternatives that might prove more effective in ensuring the border's security.

A spokeswoman for McCain said he views the SBI-net as a “failure” and a waste of taxpayer dollars and that Napolitano was right to reassess its efficacy.

“We have to make sure this never happens again,” said McCain spokeswoman Brooke Buchanan in an interview about Krentz’s death. “Obviously the virtual fence didn’t work, and so we need to deploy things that do work to prevent these types of tragedies from happening.”

An official with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said there was no clear link between Krentz’s killing and the failure of the border fence project.

The White House has yet to respond to McCain and Giffords' requests for more troops along the border, although DHS has recently bolstered its ranks of Border Patrol agents.

State officials from the border region are also pushing for more action.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson announced last week that he planned to send additional security forces to his state’s border region to thwart any further violence while the murder is being investigated. They will join a cadre of officials already in place under the state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Meanwhile, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has requested that the White House send 250 more National Guard troops to her state’s border with Mexico.

“In the wake of the violent killing of highly regarded Cochise County rancher Robert Krentz early Sunday morning, Arizonans were once again reminded of the abject failure of the U.S. Congress and President Obama to adequately provide public safety along our national border with Mexico,” said Brewer’s office in a statement.

In an interview with Fox News last week, Brewer said that she is still waiting for a response from the White House and that she is still considering sending the troops herself.

And Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), ranking member of the foreign operations appropriations subcommittee, says that Congress still needs to do more to give assistance to border officials trying to contain the violence.

Calderon has deployed 45,000 army soldiers to dangerous cities and regions throughout Mexico – including 7,000 to Juarez, where more than 4,500 people have been killed in the past two years -- but Napolitano said last month that the troops have not helped thwart the violence a great deal.

The Senate Homeland Security Committee is planning to hold a hearing on border security and the border fence project when Congress comes back from its spring recess in a week, according to McCain's office.