Colorado Sheepherders: Human Rights Violations on the Border?
KREX News Room
Two men search for signs of life, traveling in a pickup truck on snow-packed roads criss-crossing the vast, frozen landscape straddling the Utah-Colorado border.
“It’s a lot of guesswork,” Mesa State Spanish professor Tom Acker says, sitting in the passenger seat. “It’s easier in the wintertime. They keep their campers closer to the roads plowed by the oil and gas companies.”
In the driver seat is Ignacio Alvarado, a man who knows this seemingly monotonous and nondescript land well. He was once a Colorado sheepherder who led his flock through this very area.
“Ignacio’s sense of direction is amazing,” Acker says. “You could drop him anywhere here and he would know exactly where he is.”
Acker and Alvarado are volunteers for Colorado Legal Services’ Sheepherder Project. It’s a watchdog group for migrant workers--usually from Peru, Chile, and Mexico--hired by Colorado ranchers as temporary laborers under the H-2A program. They’re searching for “campitos," or rolling camper trailers lived in by sheepherders. They’re currently over the Utah line near the mining camp of Bonanza.
After an hour’s search, they find a campito.
“We’re gonna drive by,” Acker says, cautiously looking at the distant campito through binoculars. “Hopefully, the worker is alone and we can talk to him.”
Alvarado pulls the pickup truck next to the campito. Looking through binoculars, Alvarado says a sheepherder is coming back in.
What once was only a speck on the horizon becomes a Peruvian sheepherder mounted on a painted horse, trotting towards Acker and Alvarado. The pair introduces themselves to the sheepherder, Alejandro. After giving Alejandro warm blankets and winter clothes, the sheepherder invites them into his campito for a chat.
“Sometimes they’re scared to talk to us,” Acker says. “A lot of them aren’t allowed to have visitors. Some are worried their H-2A visas won’t be renewed. Some ranchers specifically tell their workers not to talk to us.”
If the sheepherder is cooperative, Acker asks a them a series of questions, ranging from the condition of their campito to the last time they were allowed vacation.
Alejandro talks about a chronic eye problem from lack of proper sunglasses. He complained of the problem for a year and a half, but instead of being taken to a doctor, he was given a bottle of over-the-counter eye drops. Now, Alejandro says his eye is blind.
“I wish we could get him medical attention, but that’s just impossible to do this far out right now,” Acker said.
Some of the sheepherders live in relative luxury, with solar panels and even television. But a good number are living without running water and electricity, their trailers in various states of disrepair.
A week later, on a nighttime trip searching public lands near the ghost town of Cisco, Utah, Acker found an example of an inadequate and illegal campito. With a rickety wooden door and turn-of-the-century design, the campito provided little respite from the extreme cold.
“Normally, you would see some state seal indicating this camper was approved for use,” Acker said, shining a flashlight above the doorway. “Clearly, this one is not fitting that bill.”
During the same nighttime trip, Acker and Alvarado find another sheepherder. Of Chilean descent, the man once worked as a sheepherder in California.
“How often are you able to go visit friends, go to the church, go to a party, go to the village, go to a store?” Acker asks the man.
The answer: “Never.”
“He’s ended up not having any water because they didn’t bring him water,” Acker says. He ended up having to drink from the same pond as his sheep.
The interview had to be paused when an employee of the rancher drove up, unannounced, in a pickup truck. The sheepherder exchanged a few words outside, and the rancher drove off. He steps back into the campito, shaking his head.
“He’s worried he may get in trouble now for having visitors,” Acker said. “He hopes the rancher just thinks we were some family members.”
Acker says there are a number of responsible ranchers that do treat their sheepherders well.
“The few that I’ve spoken to that are honest, they’ll admit there are some really bad actors,” Acker said.
But others are committing serious violations.
“Why do you all circle the wagons whenever there’s a criticism of your industry?” Acker asks. “Why don’t you identify the ones that are misbehaving and treating their workers badly, and make examples of them, so that your entire industry isn’t tarred?”