Borderline Paranoia

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It was an early morning in mid-May. Norberto Velez, 55, and his son Norangel, 32, were driving through ranchland in far West Texas. They were looking for a piece of property to buy near the U.S.-Mexico border in remote Hudspeth County.

The Velezes made a wrong turn onto a road  that apparently led to private land, and were met by an armed, 52-year old rancher named Joseph Denton who yelled, “Get down. Get down! I’m going to kill you!” Denton then quickly fired a rifle several times, Norangel Velez told El Paso’s KTSM-TV after the incident. “He never said freeze, he never gave us a warning, he never came out in front of us and say what we’re doing here, just boom, boom, boom,” Norangel said. Norangel was shot once. His father, Norberto, jumped on top of his son to absorb the brunt of the gunfire. The older man suffered three gunshot wounds.

Norangel begged the rancher to drive him and his father to a fire station in Fabens, 20 minutes away. Paramedics then transported Norberto to an El Paso hospital, where he was in critical condition but alive. Norangel was treated and released.

Afterward, Norangel Velez told KTSM-TV he thought they’d been shot because they were Hispanic. “The only reason he shot, he thought we were immigrants. I’ve lived here all my life,” Norangel said.

Denton has yet to explain the shooting. Texas Rangers and Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West are investigating, said Renee Railey, spokesperson for the El Paso County district attorney. The Velez family wouldn’t comment further to the Observer.

The shooting comes amid growing panic in the area about “spillover violence.” Nearby El Paso was recently named the safest city of its size in the nation. Hudspeth County has seen only one murder in recent years. Yet Sheriff West has advised ranchers in the area to arm themselves in case of spillover from the drug war raging just across the border. “You farmers, I’m telling you right now: Arm yourselves,” he said during a crowded town hall meeting last year. “It’s better to be tried by 12 than carried by six, and I don’t want to see six people carrying you.” Denton may have just tested that frontier wisdom.

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. Melissa is a 2014-15 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund.