Considering the frequency with which I travel the highways of the borderlands, I think it was just a matter of time before I would cross paths with an armed man in a green polyester uniform, a man whose salary I pay to ask if I am a citizen of my country, a man who was cheeky and insolent and believed with all his undeveloped instincts that I had drugs in the rear left tire of my truck as I traveled from my ranch to Hebbronville.
Up before daybreak, we had fed cattle by headlight and prepared truck and trailer for the trip to the market. In my part of Zapata County you don’t just load up and head out for the sale barn. You unload and load up again at the USDA corrals and vats in Ramireño where the animals are dipped and inspected for ticks. You can’t sell without dipping.
Despite a tight schedule ahead of me for the afternoon in Laredo, the morning was mine–a time I savored for the coolness and for the promise of rain. Good highway, smooth ride on balanced tires, the pleasing vista of only ranchland–no little towns, no development to strip the place of foliage and character. Just ranch after ranch, the CD player belting out Dire Straits, and an hour to myself to sort out the scrambled hard drive of my life as a journalist.
How quickly that pleasantness left me as I pulled into the U.S. Border Patrol’s Hwy. 16 checkpoint outside of Hebbronville, where I encountered young Agent Zealous, his BP-issue straw hat creased like Dwight Yoakam’s, his eyes jacketed behind impenetrably dark sunglasses. He asked about my citizenship status, my point of origin, and my destination. I answered his questions and he asked me to pull my truck and stock trailer over for further inspection. Though the young man looked like he had just left BP Academy, he went at the left rear tire on my truck with a tenaciousness heretofore witnessed by me only in mature junkyard dogs.
When I asked what the problem was, he called the canine inspector over to give the vehicle and trailer a sniff test. All I smelled was manure, since the cattle had been on the trailer a good hour since we left Ramireño. The canine handler had fewer manners than Agent Zealous, who was butt-quick in receiving my lifetime achievement award for armed-whippersnapper boor paid with taxpayer funds.
“Stand away,” the handler barked with probably the meanest and most menacing expression he could screw onto his face. “This dog will bite you.”
I was imagining for a moment what it would feel like to be a Mexican citizen on this road, a visitor to this country traveling legally on holiday with family. What would it be like to have snarling Border Patrol agents and dogs go through your vehicle, the agents speaking to you as if you have no human rights and as if you were less than them?
Even after the sniffing dog could confirm nothing for Agent Zealous, he persisted in looking at the rear tire of my truck.
“What do you see?” I asked the young man. “I am a citizen. I work on my family’s ranch and this morning I am selling cattle.” I asked what profile I fit that made me suspect.
He mentioned the weights that are placed on tires when they are balanced. He said I had a lot of them on that one tire. I told him I had just had a flat, and when it was being repaired I took the opportunity to have the wheels rotated and balanced.
Do not think for a moment that I did not let these green-clad tarmac warriors know that I was taking umbrage with the delay and the affront to my business on this road. Agent Zealous told me, “Well, you should have left earlier.” I had already grabbed my camera and a notepad, which put pause in his pursuit, but not for long. “Put the camera away!” he demanded, claiming I was on government property and photographs were not permitted on government property.
I believed myself to be standing on a highway and not on government property. He said, “Look around, ma’am, you are on government property! See all those vehicles,” he pointed to a bank of taxpayer-funded BP vehicles parked on the edge of the highway, off the shoulder, taxpayer-purchased vehicles that inexperienced boy agents like this one tear up on chases in the brush and repair with the public nickel.
And then he asked me for my driver’s license, which I tendered to him like an obedient citizen, but only for a moment before telling him I didn’t think he had the authority to ask for it.
“I do not have that authority,” he agreed, handing it back to me, “But since you are taking notes for a newspaper, I needed to get your name down,” he said as he scrawled into a little unofficial notepad. “But step over here and the deputy can ask you.”
We walked from the pavement of Hwy. 16 to government property under a shaded portico and up to a Jim Hogg County deputy in a navy blue and gray uniform. Agent Zealous asked him to ask me for my license, which I handed to the deputy. I told him he was welcome to copy down all data on the license and share it with Agent Zealous, but that I would not hand my license over to the Agent. The deputy, who was smart enough to piece together the scenario without getting involved, asked sheepishly if I had any violations. He handed back my license and returned to work with another agent dismantling the cab of a yellow 18-wheeler.
Agent Zealous and I had words. Another fellow, Agent Sarcastic or Agent Attitude, lurked nearby. I would run into him again that morning after I delivered cattle and made my way to the BP offices of the Agent in Charge in Hebbronville. As I entered, Agent Attitude exited the office of Agent in Charge Daniel Molina, Jr., whom he had visited to inform about some kind of a problem earlier at the checkpoint. That would be me.
“Why, hello!” I offered in my most cordial, so-we-meet-again tone.
“We were told your name was Gutierrez,” the affable Agent Molina told me as he welcomed me to his office. I ran down the events of the morning, told him I didn’t appreciate being interrogated and detained in my own country, and told him his outfit on the outskirts of town was bad for the cattle industry. “I won’t be coming here again,” I told him. “Isn’t that a little extreme?” he asked.
Not in my book.
I asked Agent Molina, “What’s the profile here? Is it that I came from Zapata County which borders the river? Is it the dust on my truck? Is it my Cotulla, Texas cap? Is it the computer equipment in my truck? What made Agent Zealous pull me over?” Agent Molina was extremely polite and clearly expressed regret that these exchanges had transpired between Agent Zealous and me. He concurred that the agent did not have the authority to ask for my license and that I could have taken as many pictures as I wished. He chalked up the course of events to the agent’s youth and his lack of experience.
Was that a good enough explanation? Had anyone answered my question about profiles?
OK, fine. I got stopped. Me tocó. No doubt it will happen again. Many of the BP agents who stop you routinely at the IH-35 checkpoint are mannered and congenial professionals. Now and again, however, you get a rookie with an attitude. Who teaches new agents what they really need to know and who un-teaches them the things that inspire fear in the travelers they stop?
Besides asking for things for which they lack the authority, or telling travelers they are on government property when they are not, what else do other Agents Zealous bend or exaggerate behind the shield of their badges, uniforms, dogs, and weapons?
Because the USBP is a giant federal bureaucracy that each and every day has to justify its completely unrealistic mandate to stanch the flow of illegal immigrants and drugs into this country. Is it not clear that neither effort is going very well?
Even calculated at street value the numbers for drug loads seized and tallied at BP checkpoints are chump change compared to what’s moving through the sieve of the actual border on semi trailers. That, along with environmental assaults, are the flip side of the NAFTA equation, the precious real-life high cost of doing business on the border.
No doubt that the flow of immigrants taxes everything along the border and that we lack the infrastructure and social services to deal with their constant arrival. No doubt the steady flow of drugs that enters this country will be the ruin of us. But does the solution to these problems lie in the U.S. Border Patrol’s operation at its highly refined level of ineptitude and ineffectiveness?
When I hear there’s another passel of new BP agents unleashed onto the ranchlands of South Texas, I don’t jump for joy or think for a minute I’m safer from the perils of drug trafficking. I pray. If the U.S. Border Patrol is this nation’s front line in the War on Drugs, God help us all.
Maria Eugenia Guerra is the publisher of LareDOS: A Journal of the Borderlands, where a version of this article first appeared.