Homeland Security on the Rio Bravo

Excesses of human behavior have long pervaded the Big Bend of the Rio Grande. Maybe it’s just all the elbow room. Downstream from La Junta—the fabled confluence of the Rio Grande and its life-giving Mexican tributary, the Rio Conchos—time and water have cut a breathtaking gorge through maroon rock mountains. The river canyon opens out on a shallow and handsome vestige of the Comanche Trace. The Rio Grande (or Río Bravo, as Mexicans call it) has diminished greatly since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. No one knows with certainty if the river bend marked by stands of cane and gentle rapids is the exact spot once forded by Comanche and Kiowa raiders. But in the warm months they for certain came down off the llano estacado, following a trail of scarce waterholes to inflict hell on Mexican farms, ranches, and villages. Consummate terrorists, they often struck so far into Mexico’s heartland that they came back with visions and specimens of parrots and monkeys, along with the usual stolen women and children, and horses and mules. The horse Indians loved their plunder of Mexicans as much as they hated Texans. Their name for the river of opportunity was ocuebi.

Wherever the ford was in fact, Texans have claimed that the Indians waded the river near an odd outpost called Lajitas, which owes its modern-day existence to their eventual defeat. For many years the Texas village hung around as a failed golf resort and hokeyed-up stand of clapboard barrack ruins, which appeared to withstand gravity on hopes they would serve as a continuing set for B cowboy movies. The real settlement south of the rock gorge was Paso Lajitas, on the Mexican side of the river. Over there one heard roosters crowing non-stop, children playing with squeals of laughter, and as mauve twilight became the enormous starlit night, guitars and the conversation of people convened for a dusty paseo. For generations the river people have come and gone, back and forth.

The American writer and actor Sam Sheppard caught the contrast and flavor one Sunday in 1996 when he chanced to visit a grocery store and beer joint on the Texas side called the Lajitas Trading Post. The Dallas Cowboys of Troy Aikman-Emmitt Smith-Michael Irvin vintage were playing their archrivals, the San Francisco 49ers, in the NFL playoffs that day. Texans who lived around Lajitas had gathered to party and watch their heroes stake another claim to the Super Bowl, but the Cowboys played the first quarter like stumblebums, and as their fans muttered and got drunk, the season’s big game became a boring exhibition of impossible catch-up. One could tell the game was finally over, Sheppard noted, by all the pickups that fishtailed and peeled out of the gravel lot. Denizens from across the way had meanwhile been gathering, observing but with no evident interest in the game. When the last gringo had departed, the Mexicans at once turned off the TV, plugged in the jukebox, made the day’s second strong run at the beer inventory, and got to dancing.

The Trading Post made a ceremony of its lack of self-importance. Fenced up out front was a succession of goats named Clay Henry. Honored as the mayors of Lajitas, the goats mastered a trick of hoisting beer bottles and gurgling the fluid down their gullets. They were soon rather paunchy alcoholic goats. In a memorable column in 2002, “Mayor of Lajitas Not the Goat He Used to Be,” Molly Ivins recounted how one of these Clay Henrys lost his cojones to a knife-wielding construction worker, who wound up charged with torturing an animal and possession of a deadly weapon. Ivins implied it never would have happened if it not for an arriviste trying to impress the tourists: “It’s Sunday a.m. with no beer for sale, so this rich guy asks the perps if he can get a beer from their stash, and they oblige. Then he takes their perfectly good green-bottle beer and gives it to the goat, which the alleged perp feels is an insult. Why he decided to take his revenge on the goat is unclear, except they were all pretty drunked up, according to several sources.”

Golf has brought no more good to the Comanche Trace. Though Houston developer Walter Mischer’s nine-hole course withered, residents addicted to the links developed a variant of play described by John Spong in Texas Monthly: “each duffer with a couple of clubs and a sheet of AstroTurf. Drop the Turf, place the ball, give it a ride, track it down, repeat. Desert golf.” Lajitas began to change drastically in 2000 when an Austin telecom nouveau riche named Steve Smith started pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into his dream of creating a Palm Springs-like golf resort a few miles from Big Bend National Park. Many local residents opposed Smith’s development; few believed his claim that his outfit had discovered a limitless aquifer that would relieve the development’s stress on the Rio Grande. The prospects of Smith’s “Ultimate Hideout” never seemed bright. Who was going to spend $175,000 for a recreational vehicle slip at Lajitas? The fancy restaurant burned down. Cell phones didn’t work out there. Computers were troubled. A woman who moved to Lajitas with one of the construction companies said with a laugh that the whole operation lost its power for a few days when a bear up in the mountains decided to gnaw on some wire.

Still, Smith’s development and its contractors were responsible for a thick wad of paychecks, which are hard to come by in Big Bend. Some of the happiest beneficiaries were residents of Paso Lajitas, which was now just upriver from a nineteenth hole where duffers—few to the point of being non-existent—were invited to whack a ball across the river in the cause of international golf.

But the light-hearted zaniness ended when “the world changed”—the mantra that George W. Bush and his administration kept chanting to capitalize on the terror attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Smith’s company and a majority of the contractors who swarmed into Lajitas had taken pains to ensure their employees in Paso Lajitas were properly documented by the I.N.S., but most workers came across in a rowboat. One Friday in May 2002, people were lined up buying provisions and cashing their checks at the Trading Post. Suddenly dust swirled from a low-flying helicopter, and people with dogs, guns, and black coveralls were running around in “Operation Green River Tours.” Border Patrol agents arrested 21 people for illegally entering the U.S., among them the 18-year-old youth who ferried people back and forth in a johnboat for two bucks a trip. He was enticed by a female agent into coming close enough to be swarmed and handcuffed. His boat was confiscated, and he sat in jail in El Paso for a month before he was deported to Mexico.

Two weeks later the Border Patrol raided Lajitas again, arresting seven more people. “They were breaking the law,” Steven Smith said mildly in his restaurant one morning. “There’s not much you can say.” But to reach the Ojinaga-Presidio bridge, legal workers from Paso Lajitas now faced a four-hour trek over a bad dirt road, a line of people approaching U.S. officials at the bridge, then more than another hour’s drive back through the gorge on the Texas side. A few Mexican kids were denied the chance to continue going to school in nearby Terlingua. The families of some workers left the village and moved to Ojinaga. Lajitas employers offered a four-day workweek and dormitory arrangements to the artisans and laborers.

Simon Garza did not grow up in the Big Bend country, but he was the long-time chief of the Border Patrol’s sector at Marfa. In defense of the raids, he told a reporter from The Texas Observer that up to 170 people a day had been illegally crossing at Lajitas: “I can’t tolerate that level of activity on a portion of my river.”

His river? Nearby Terlingua is a defunct mercury and silver mining town that has been reclaimed by desert-lovers, hermits, and eccentrics; its response to the raids was furious. Mimi Webb Miller, locally renowned as the longtime friend of the late Mexican drug kingpin Pablo Acosta, claimed that her daughter, a U.S. citizen, was hauled away by agents who left her infant in care of a 90-year-old woman on a walker. Another Terlingua woman said that teenagers were buzzed and followed by a helicopter as they were walking to a spring prom. Toward the end of summer in 2002, area residents blew off steam in a packed Terlingua community center. The Border Patrol and the I.N.S. did not send representatives, but U.S. Customs and the Park Service did. Frank Deckert, then superintendent of Big Bend National Park, made no secret of his objection to the crackdown. For decades park visitors had been taking rowboats across the Rio Grande and having a beer in the villages of Boquillas del Carmen and San Vicente. Now if they did that they were threatened with arrest and a $5,000 fine for violating Homeland Security. The policy frightened tourists, alienated residents of the villages, and obstructed the work of Los Diablos—firefighters from the Big Bend villages who had been cleared by Customs to help fight range and forest fires in the U.S. In a briefing statement on the policy, park superintendent Deckert warned: “A noticeable drop in park visitation could occur, since the lure of visiting quaint Mexican villages is important to many visitors. The lifeblood of park neighbors in the villages will be drained without the support of U.S. tourist and humanitarian organizations. As a result, they will be more likely to resort to far more serious illegal activities in order to survive.”

Deckert was diplomatic, hopeful that a compromise suited to local circumstance and reality could be reached. But his chief river ranger, Marcos Paredes, was more outspoken. “I’m baffled by it,” Paredes said of the crackdown. “That border has never been a hard fast line. People do come across, and they’re not going to stop. Contraband has always been a part of life on the border—whether it’s cocaine or chickens or blue fountain pens. But people in San Vicente never even wanted a tourist economy. They’re just trying to hang on to a traditional way of life. To say people in these villages pose a security threat is just absurd.”

Garza and Deckert have since retired from their careers as federal employees. Los Diablos are allowed to enter the U.S. to fight fires in the West. But once entrenched in the federal bureaucracy, Homeland Security has been as onerous along the Rio Grande as many people feared. Young people in Marathon, Alpine, and other Big Bend communities got up a drive to row clothing and food to mid-river and hand the bags across; but Boquillas, remembered and loved by many Americans, has now all but emptied out. Its future is sure—a ghost town.

The new day on the Texas-Mexico border has been most evident in its emptiest stretches. Perhaps terrorists might lug weapons of mass destruction across the Rio Grande by mule’s packsaddle or by backpack—who knows? But the Bush administration recently announced that Border Patrol agents would henceforth be free to deport people with no legal recourse at all on nothing more than a hunch that aliens might have terrorist intent. If protecting the homeland were really the intent of the policy, wouldn’t it make sense to lock up the suspects a while until they could be checked out? Nope, just dump them back across and let them go straight to another ford and wade or roll across with their lethal cargo.

Among other senseless effects, Homeland Security has placed a chokehold on the eco-tourism that had begun to flourish in Mexico’s Sierra del Carmen. The bridge between Ojinaga and Presidio is the only official port of entry, the only legal crossing of the Rio Grande, between El Paso and Del Rio. Federal agencies with border authority are being merged into the new Department of Homeland Security, and local officers have been eager to demonstrate their vigilance. Eighteen miles upriver from Lajitas, across the massif of maroon rock, is the hamlet of Redford. A book-filled house on the highway is the home of a perennially outraged man named Enrique Madrid. He believes that 9/11 has turned fully loose on the U.S.-Mexico border a militarization planned and set in motion in 1989, when Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defense under George Bush the Elder and Colin Powell was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They decided then that military troops were a perfect fit on the Rio Grande, fighting another vaguely defined war.

Madrid, an accomplished historian and an archaeological steward, has been waging an unending war of his own—a war of pride—against perceived slander of his neighbors and community. He will go to his grave furious about the shooting in 1997 of an 18-year-old goat herder, Ezequiel Hernández, Jr. The boy was killed by U.S. Marines from Camp Pendleton, California, who had been sent to the Texas-Mexico border as part of the Cheney-Powell war on drugs. The coals of Madrid’s outrage were forever being stoked. Mexican children of families on the other side had long come across the river and attended school in Redford, having no school of their own. From the river crossing they followed a well-worn path up the bank. One day not long after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, employees of the International Boundary and Water Commission, a sub-agency of the State Department, sent out a truck from Presidio and dumped a load of boulders on the Mexican schoolkids’ path, trying to make it impassable. The kids clambered over the rocks, but to Madrid it was one more indignity in an avalanche of insults.

“There were fourteen Indian pueblos around La Junta,” Madrid said one night in his home, his eyes flashing. “Those Indians, my ancestors, built sophisticated weirs on the river that let them irrigate. We’ve been here twelve thousand years. In our hearts there is no border. It does not exist. Our soul is not divided—it’s the land that’s divided. After the Marines killed that boy, that innocent American citizen, they told Congress that Redford is filled with unfriendly people, that seventy-five percent of them are involved in drug trafficking. A hundred people live here! Seventy-five of us are smuggling drugs? Now we’re terrorists on top of being drug traffickers.”

Madrid brandished a Denver newspaper story about the border, illustrated by a photo of a U.S. officer in black fatigues and grease paint, aiming an assault rifle at the camera and looking, for all the world, like a terrorist.

“What business do they have pointing combat weapons at my face?” Madrid thundered.

“Who is that supposed to frighten? Who is that supposed to comfort?”

Adapted from Rio Grande, edited and with a text by Jan Reid (University of Texas Press, 2004).

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Published at 12:00 am CST