HOUSTON -

Local 2 investigates what lawmakers said is a threat to hundreds of millions of dollars in fruits, vegetables and beef produced along the Texas border.

Dressed in camouflaged fatigues with a pistol at his side Dr. Mike Vickers drives across a 1,000 acre ranch he says has become a battleground

"We know every time we walk out our front door, or back door, we're putting our lives in danger," said Vickers.

"You feel you have to carry a gun just to be on your own property?" asked Local 2 investigator Robert Arnold.

"Well, you're putting your life in danger if you don't," said Vickers.

Vickers' ranch is 60 miles from Texas' border with Mexico in Brooks County. The trails and brush on the property are well-traveled territory for drug and human smugglers.

"The criminal activity in this county is as bad as it's ever been," said Vickers. "The dead bodies continue to show up."

Vickers is the chairman of Texas Border Volunteers, a 300-member organization that helps law enforcement spot drugs and illegal immigrants crossing through the farms and ranches lining the border.

"I had five come at me with fence posts and tried to take my truck away from me," said Vickers. "We're not going to be intimidated off our land like a lot of our friends have."

Local 2 spoke with several farmers and ranchers who declined to speak on-camera for fear of retaliation. However, several said the threats from drug smugglers have increased to the point they no longer question strangers on their property.

"We just walk the other way," said one farmer who asked not to be identified.

The attacks are not only happening in the rural parts of the border.

"The shots ricocheted off this wall," said Othal Brand, president and general manager of Hidalgo County Water Improvement District No. 3. "Hit within 18 inches of each man."

Brand said water district employees were fired on while working to repair an intake line at the pumping station on the Rio Grande River. Brand said the shots came from Mexico's side of the border.

"They wanted to bring something across, and they didn't want anybody around," Brand said. "We haven't seen this since the days of Pancho Villa."

The day after the attack, Brand gave his workers permission to carry guns.

"Because nobody is going to stand out here and protect my men on the embankment of the river, nobody," said Brand.

"Did you every think you would reach a point where you would tell employees of a municipal water district that it's OK to arm themselves?" Arnold asked.

"Never, never, but we're next to a country that's at war, a civil war, and make no mistake, it is a war," said Brand.

Local 2 also spoke with Paul Heller with Rio Grande Citrus who said his workers have also been attacked at a rural pump station helping irrigate farms.

"Some guys showed up and tried to take our guys' truck," said Heller. "Apparently the vehicle that was supposed to smuggle drugs across didn't show, so they tried to use our truck."

Heller said none of the employees was hurt.

"The area has become very unstable because of heightened violence on the U.S. side," said Heller.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples said stories like these are threatening an industry producing $700 million worth of fruits, vegetables and beef every year.

"We don't like being dependent on foreign oil. We can't become dependent on foreign food," said Staples. "When we have farmers that are chased off their own land, when we have land owners that are abandoning their agricultural enterprises, that threatens us."

Staples was one of several people testifying during a Congressional hearing on border violence held in Brownsville.

A Special Ranger with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Roland Garcia, also testified there were 978 agricultural thefts last year for a total of $3.6 million worth of stolen property.

"Information provided by confidential sources in Mexico add that livestock and agricultural equipment thefts occurring throughout the state make their way to Mexico, and these thefts are often used in trade for the purchase of drugs to fund violent gangs such a Zetas," wrote Garcia in a prepared statement to the panel.

"If they admitted that it's a problem, border security is a problem, then the federal government would actually have to do something about it," said U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, who led the hearing.

During his opening remarks, Poe quoted a recent U.S. Border Patrol report citing that "44 percent of our southern border is under the operational control of the United States."

"Who controls the other 56 percent?" asked T.J. Bonner, a retired border patrol agent and retired president of the National Border Patrol Council.

"Our nation cannot afford to sit back and allow this crisis to escalate further," Bonner wrote in a prepared statement for the hearing.

Staples, Bonner and Garcia testified many border farmers and ranchers are afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation from drug smugglers.

During his testimony, Staples cited that Arizona, New Mexico and California have 14 Border Patrol agents per border mile, while Texas only has six agents per border mile.

"Even if we doubled the federal presence that we have today, we would still have numbers that are shy of what we have in other states," said Staples.

Assistant Director for Domestic Operations for Immigration and Customs Enforcement Janice Ayala assured the panel "addressing the escalating drug cartel related violence on the Mexican side of the Southwest Border is vital to the interests of the United States."

"They took my husband. They killed him and murdered him in front of me," said Tiffany Hartley, whose husband was shot to death on Falcon Lake in September 2010.

The couple rode their jet skis into Mexican water to take photos of a partially submerged church, a popular tourist spot. Zapata County Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez Jr. said the pair was ambushed by low-level members of the Zeta cartel working as lookouts.

In her first trip to the border since the killing, Hartley also testified at the hearings.

"They're our neighbor. They're not an ocean away. They're not thousands of miles away. They're right here," Hartley said in an interview with Local 2 following the hearings.

Hartley said she is also angry she has received no information from the federal government regarding progress on the investigation into her husband's killing or efforts to recover his body.

"Until he's home to his own land, his home country, he'll be in the land of the enemy," said Hartley.

The nonprofit government watchdog group Judicial Watch filed a lawsuit on behalf of Hartley to try to gain information on the investigation.

"They can say it's an ongoing investigation, but I don't know what they're doing, you know, what does that mean? I don't know," said Hartley.

"The lack of information, of telling the widow of a murder victim what's taking place or what's not taking place, is wrong,' said Poe, who is also pushing federal investigators for information on the progress of the investigation.

While a chorus of voices is asking for more help from the federal government, Vickers, a sixth-generation Texan, said he will not back down.

"We're going to stand and fight, protect our property, protect our state and ultimately protect our country," said Vickers. "This situation is totally out of control."