KINO SPRINGS, Ariz. — Gabriel Cuen-Buitimea was slipping across a rancher’s land near the border with Mexico when the shooting started. “I’m hit,” he said, before his eyes rolled back and he crumpled face down by a mesquite tree.
To the sheriff in rural Santa Cruz County, Ariz., this account, relayed by a witness, and other pieces of the investigation into the shooting death of Mr. Cuen-Buitimea seemed to make the next steps clear. The sheriff’s office arrested George Alan Kelly, the rancher suspected of firing the fatal shot, and charged him with murder.
Then the angry calls started pouring in.
“This is garbage.”
“It’s a travesty of justice.”
“Since when do illegals have rights?”
To conservative ranchers and far-flung immigration critics who seized on the case as it ricocheted across social media, Mr. Kelly, 74, was the real victim in a murky tale of death and justice in Arizona’s politically volatile borderlands.
The shooting Jan. 30 aggravated tensions over the surge in cross-border migration. Many in Santa Cruz County are horrified by the killing, and view the growing number of migrants as a humanitarian crisis. Mr. Cuen-Buitimea, 48, an undocumented Mexican man, was unarmed and was crossing the border into the United States in search of work, law enforcement officials said. But Mr. Kelly’s supporters and some fellow ranchers see the incident as evidence of an “invasion” of migrants and drugs along the 2,000-mile border that threatens their security.
Gabriel Cuen-Buitimea’s grave in Buaysiacobe, Mexico. Friends and relatives say he was looking for work when he crossed the border in January and was shot and killed.Credit…María Dolores Hernandez Gil
Mr. Cuen-Buitimea’s death has added to a bloody toll of widely publicized killings along the border, and a sense of the peril on both sides.
In September, two American men were accused of opening fire on a group of migrants who had stopped for water at a pond outside El Paso, Texas. In March, two Americans were fatally shot during a brazen kidnapping in Matamoros, Mexico, that highlighted the rampant violence on the Mexican side of the border.
Law enforcement officials say the shooting on Mr. Kelly’s ranch occurred after a group of undocumented migrants traversing the high desert nearby spotted a Border Patrol vehicle and scattered. When two men ran onto Mr. Kelly’s 170-acre ranch, the authorities say, Mr. Kelly fired his AK-47 rifle at them, hitting Mr. Cuen-Buitimea in the back.
In court papers, Mr. Kelly’s lawyer offered a sharply different account, saying that Mr. Kelly and his wife were eating lunch when they heard a gunshot. Mr. Kelly went to his porch to investigate, the court papers say, and in the distance he spotted a group of camouflage-clad men with assault rifles crossing his property. He fired warning shots over their heads after one of the men pointed a rifle at him, his lawyer said incourt documents.
Mr. Kelly and his lawyer, Brenna Larkin, declined to comment for this article.
Mr. Kelly pleaded not guilty in March to charges of second-degree murder and assault, and has been released on a $1 million bond. A trial has been scheduled for Sept. 6.
Ms. Larkin has disputed whether Mr. Kelly fired the fatal shot. In a court hearing, she appeared to raise the possibility that Mr. Cuen-Buitimea might have been killed in a conflict between rival gangs.
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The question of security for ranchers living along the border is a complex one. Most migrants are looking for work, or seeking to escape dangerous conditions. Yet that flow of families and young migrants is often managed by networks of smugglers controlled by organized crime groups, including some of Mexico’s most violent cartels. Ranchers in remote areas say they feel especially vulnerable because they are isolated.
Some ranchers have responded to rising numbers of undocumented migrants by setting out water for them in the desert. Others use game cameras to track groups threading their way up ravines and arroyos. Some ranchers say they bring rifles for self-defense against traffickers when checking on their stock.
“The border is out of control,” said John Ladd, a rancher outside Naco, Ariz., who said he had found 16 migrants’ bodies on his land and had seen people with 30-foot ladders scaling sections of border wall by his ranch. “Everybody’s just sick of it. When you think your life’s threatened and your wife — everybody has a certain point where enough is enough.”
After Mr. Kelly was arrested, scores of people from Virginia to Florida to California rallied to his defense and raised $425,000.
The history and economy of Santa Cruz County, whose population is 80 percent Hispanic, are rooted in the ties of “Ambos Nogales,” the twin cities that straddle the border wall. Every day, thousands of people from Nogales, Mexico, cross legally into Nogales, Ariz., trucking in tomatoes and electronics, or walking in to shop and visit relatives.
Although overall crime rates in Nogales, Ariz., are higher than statewide averages, violent crime is lower. And crime is scant in the outlying rural areas of Santa Cruz County, including the Kino Springs area where Mr. Kelly’s ranch sits, according to state data. The whole 50,000-person county often records one or two homicides a year.
“It’s a very peaceful and tranquil area,” said Sheriff David Hathaway, an elected Democrat. He said he and his wife take sunset walks not far from where the shooting happened.
But in a court hearing, other law-enforcement agents described the area around Mr. Kelly’s ranch as a “high-crime area” where drug smuggling was on the rise.
Outside Nogales, the land on the United States side of the border quickly turns rugged and remote, studded with ranches and wide-open public lands. Miles of new border wall abruptly end when they reach riverbeds and canyons, which serve as crossing points for migrants and smugglers.
At least 894 migrants died along the entire southern border in the last federal fiscal year — a 58 percent increase from the previous fiscal year, according to the U.S. Border Patrol Missing Migrant Program.
To Mr. Kelly, the mesquite-fringed stretch of land where the shooting occurred represented a late-life dream when he and his wife bought the property in 2002.
The Kellys planned to build a resort where wealthy tourists might pay as much as $1,000 a night to go horseback riding, hike or stargaze, according to court records. But the resort never materialized.
Mr. Kelly called the Santa Cruz Sheriff’s Office several times in the early 2000s to report gunshots on his property, a break-in, and tampering with his gates. In 2005, he reported seeing a group of undocumented migrants on his land, and said that when two of the men approached him after he yelled at them to stop, he used his pistol to fire a warning shot into the air, according to a report from a sheriff’s officer.
Mr. Kelly also made regular calls to the Border Patrol’s rancher liaison officers, according to court testimony.
Mr. Kelly was a stranger to many commercial ranchers in the area. Some called him a “hobby rancher” in contrast to larger operations that graze hundreds of cattle.
“All the ranchers I’ve talked with have never known him,” said Jim Chilton, a rancher and border-wall proponent in Arivaca, Ariz.
Mr. Chilton said that he regularly sees clusters of backpack-carrying people crossing his land, but he said they tend to avoid his house.
“I’ve never fired a shot, but I’m armed at all times,” he said, adding that he had sympathy for Mr. Kelly: “I can understand his frustrations with people coming through his place.”
In a self-published 2013 novel, “Far Beyond the Border Fence,” Mr. Kelly conjured the persona of a border rancher named George who patrols his “war zone” ranch. George gets into gunfights with traffickers and heads into Mexico to rescue abducted family members.
Mr. Cuen-Buitimea, 48, grew up in an adobe house in the impoverished farming village of Buaysiacobe in the Mexican state of Sonora, according to his relatives and friends there. He had crossed into the United States illegally and been deported at least three times between 2011 and 2016, according to court records.
Jesús Molina, a friend, said that Mr. Cuen-Buitimea lived with his two oldest daughters in Nogales, Mexico. He occasionally returned to Buaysiacobe, about 350 miles south of the border, where his mother and other relatives lived. In Buaysiacobe, he worked in the onion fields and would hang out with friends at a local tire-repair shop, Mr. Molina said.
In court filings, Mr. Kelly’s lawyer claimed that Mr. Cuen-Buitimea must have been a smuggler — “whether of people, or drugs, or both” — because investigators had found a two-way radio with his body, some 100 yards from Mr. Kelly’s house.
Officials of the sheriff’s office in Santa Cruz County said they believed Mr. Cuen-Buitimea had been heading to Phoenix to seek work as a roofer, and that they had not found any evidence that he had been a trafficker.
Court records say that a witness told investigators that he and Mr. Cuen-Buitimea were making their way through the area when a man with a rifle opened fire without a word of warning.
Mr. Kelly called the Border Patrol to say he was being shot at, and was returning fire and pursuing a group of men, according to testimony from law enforcement officers. Responding officers searched the area but did not find anyone.
Toward evening, Mr. Kelly told a sheriff’s dispatcher that he had found Mr. Cuen-Buitimea’s body. In a recording of the 911 call obtained through a public records request, Mr. Kelly says he is hesitant to talk on the phone, and tells the dispatcher he discovered “an animal laying face down.”
“An animal?” the dispatcher asks.
“An animal,” Mr. Kelly replies. “And you know what an animal is — it’s not a vegetable or a mineral. It’s a body, and you know what I’m talking about.”
In legal filings, Mr. Kelly’s lawyer has called witness statements “highly suspicious” and has said they are contradictory and do not match the physical evidence.
Supporters of Mr. Kelly who have spoken to his family say that he and his wife have left the ranch house in Kino Springs because they are worried about their safety. The dirt road leading to the property is blocked by a locked gate and a sign that says, “No Trespassing.”
María Dolores Hernandez Gil contributed reporting from Buaysiacobe, Mexico, and Eileen Sullivan from Washington. Kirsten Solis contributed research.