Trial Commences for Arizona Border Rancher Charged with the Murder of an Illegal Immigrant

The trial of an Arizona border rancher accused of fatally shooting a migrant on his property has commenced, stirring a contentious debate over immigration policies, and property rights.


MAR 29, 2024

George Alan Kelly, 75, an Arizona rancher, now begins his trial for the fatal shooting of an illegal immigrant on his property. Mr. Kelly is charged with second-degree murder in the killing of an illegal immigrant who trespassed on his property outside of Nogales, Arizona. Mr. Kelly maintains his innocence and has rejected a plea deal that would reduce the charge to one count of negligent homicide. He was arrested last year on January 30, when he fatally shot 48-year-old Gabriel Cuen-Buitimea; Mr. Kelly shot at a group of migrants who walked through his 170-acre cattle ranch. 

He is also charged with aggravated assault against Daniel Ramirez, who was among the group of eight illegal immigrants who were on his property. Mr. Ramirez had gone into the U.S. illegally seeking work and witnessed Mr. Buitimea being shot and killed. The group of illegal migrants soon scattered, with some fleeing back across Mexico; Mr. Buitimea had, at that point, entered the United States illegally on multiple occasions and was convicted and deported each time before his recent illegal crossing. Brenna Larkin, George Allen’s defense attorney, has said the investigation that led to her client’s arrest was biased and incomplete. Details regarding the circumstances leading up to the shooting remain murky, with differing accounts emerging from both sides. 


George Alan Kelly listens to the prosecution during opening arguments, on March 22, 2024. 

The prosecution contends that Mr. Kelly fired a rifle toward illegal immigrants, who were 100 yards away from him, the insinuation being that the group of illegal immigrants was too far to pose any immediate threat to Mr. Kelly. Santa Cruz County Chief Deputy Attorney Kim Hunley told jurors the following: 

“I want you to consider Gabriel Cuen-Buitimea as a human being and not as George Kelly described him as an animal.”

Prosecutors state that Mr. Kelly recklessly shot Mr. Buitimea and the group he was traveling with, leading to his death. The prosecution argues that Mr. Kelly was in no immediate danger and could have escaped safely instead of engaging with a group of men trespassing on his property.


Defense attorney Brenna Larkin during the trial of George Alan Kelly at Santa Cruz County Courthouse, Friday, March 22, 2024 

The defense argues that Mr. Kelly acted in self-defense and protected his property. They claim that the migrants were trespassing on private land, posing a potential threat to Mr. Kelly’s safety and livelihood. According to the defense, Mr. Kelly perceived the group of illegal immigrants as a threat and responded with lethal force to defend himself and his property.

Brenna Larkin argues that Mr. Kelly shot into the air above the heads of the illegal migrants; and that the property owner was in fear for his life and the life of his wife. Illegal migrant crossings are becoming more frequent and dangerous due to cartel activities which drove Mr. Kelly to arm himself for protection. The defense claims Mr. Kelly was preparing lunch when he noticed unknown men moving across his property with large backpacks and rifles. According to Mr. Kelly, he heard a single shot fired before heading outside with his firearm. Mrs. Larkin states in her oral argument:

“He knows something is happening outside. Something violent, something dangerous, there are armed criminals on his property. Maybe another shot will be fired; maybe it will be fired at him.”

The prosecution, however, challenges this account by arguing that Mr. Kelly’s recount of events that day changes in the following exchange with a witness during court: The case has sparked intense scrutiny and raised important questions about the rights and responsibilities of property owners along the U.S.-Mexico border. Advocates for Mr. Kelly argue that property owners should have the right to defend their land from unauthorized trespassers, especially in areas known for illegal border crossings and cartel activity.


Migrants try to cross into the U.S. Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on March 20, 2024 

Beyond the legal implications, the case underscores broader issues surrounding immigration policies and border security in the United States. The influx of migrants, coupled with political rhetoric surrounding immigration reform and border enforcement has intensified debates over the treatment of migrants and the need for comprehensive immigration reform and border security.

Recently President Biden met with the president of Mexico, Andres Manuel Obrador, to discuss the issue of illegal immigration. The proposals put forward by President Obrador are as follows; for the US to commit $20 billion a year to poor countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Lift sanctions on Venezuela, end the Cuban embargo, and legalize law-abiding Mexicans living in the US undocumented. President Obrador has boldly claimed that border crossings will continue if these proposals are not implemented, however, some criticize the Mexican president’s proposal as a one sided deal. Some critics even go so far as to say that the Mexican president’s “deal” is “blackmail.” 

As the trial unfolds, it is likely to further polarize opinions, and regardless of the outcome, the case serves as a warning that as more of these crossings happen, the potential of people getting hurt or killed increases. However, it seems politics allows the problem to persist as money for foreign conflicts is prioritized over the border. More recently, the federal government was denied by federal courts when seeking to take funding away from border wall construction. While this is a victory for border states like Texas, it further illustrates how split the federal government’s priorities are regarding a pressing domestic issue like the border.