Boots On the Ground
A day in the life of a border sheriff.
Sierra Blanca—”Y’all got here just in time. We’re going to look for a body. Are you up for it? It’s gonna get rough out there, but I can have you back by lunch.”
It’s 7 a.m. I’ve already driven two hours from El Paso with my husband, whom I’ve convinced to shoot photographs for my story. If it hadn’t been for the Border Patrol checkpoint just outside of this dusty, half-abandoned town on Interstate 10, we might have missed it altogether. Smack in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, two hours east of El Paso, we’ve arrived at the office of Arvin West, sheriff of Hudspeth County.
“Sure, I’m up for it,” I say. My husband nods gamely.
West leads us out to his white SUV. He doesn’t fit my celluloid idea of a Texas sheriff. He wears a white Stetson and Wrangler jeans, but is short, with a paunch. Instead of cowboy boots, he wears brown suede Wallaby boots. His wife buys them at a mall in El Paso.
“I used to wear these in high school,” he says, “and hell, they’re comfortable. I’m getting too old for cowboy boots.” West is 43. Half-Mexican, he jokes about growing up a “GMC,” or “Gringo-Mexican combo,” when Texas shops still displayed signs that said, “No dogs, no Mexicans.”
We set off south for the Rio Grande. The river has made West more than just a small-town sheriff. With 3,300 residents, his county straddles 98 miles of the Rio Grande. At 4,572 square miles, Hudspeth is twice the size of Delaware.
“At least 98 percent of what I deal with is drug trafficking,” he says. “If you took away the border, my county would be like Mayberry. We’d be spending our time taking cats off the roof.”
Since Sept. 11, 2001, border counties like Hudspeth have played an outsized role in the contentious debates over border security and immigration reform. West and the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition, which formed in 2005 and which he chairs, have helped shape those debates. The border sheriffs’ congressional testimony has provided great fodder to many an anti-immigration politician. Their firsthand accounts of battling narcos and nabbing suspected terrorists have made them darlings of cable news. Members of Congress call on them frequently to guide tours for political delegations and media, elaborating on border dangers and the dire need for more equipment, money and, as the sheriffs often put it, “boots on the ground.”
In January 2006, Hudspeth County hit the headlines when West’s deputies faced off with what he describes as “members of the Mexican army” protecting three Cadillac Escalades filled with bales of marijuana.
No shots were fired. The alleged drug dealers and soldiers fled back to Mexico. After West held a press conference the next morning at the county courthouse, the story went viral. The right-wing blogosphere, and radio and cable shows picked up the “Mexican military invasion” and galloped with it.
West breaks off from the Mexican army story as he rolls, slowly, toward some cattle blocking the dirt road. They get the hint and begin to mosey across as West radios his deputies: “Watch those heifers when you get up to the draw. They’re real gentle and don’t want to move off the road.”
Back to the Mexican military: During his deputies’ showdown with the narcos, West had been on a plane back from Houston. A few days later, the Mexican consul from El Paso arrived in Hudspeth County. The consul wouldn’t discuss the matter with a local sheriff, according to West. “The federal government doesn’t need to answer to local government,” West says, mimicking the consul with a hoity-toity Spanish accent.
“Well, I told him the next time one of your immigrants is sick or dying, you can call the federal government then.”
West never made good on that threat. Today, his people are looking for a Mexican man in his late 50s. He is a chronic alcoholic in poor health, the men traveling with him had told the Border Patrol after their apprehension. They said the man finished the remnants of a tequila bottle for breakfast and drank several beers before crossing the Rio Grande. By the time the group reached Hudspeth County, the man was doubled over and vomiting. “Go ahead and I’ll catch up,” he told them.
That was two weeks earlier. This is West’s third trip into the desert to look for the body. “Nobody could make it out there this long,” he says, “especially someone in as bad of shape as he was.”
Sheriff Arvin West and his 17 deputies patrol a county nearly twice the size of Delaware on the Texas-Mexico border. Hudspeth County just east of El Paso is home to approximately 3,300 residents. West, chair of Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition, which comprises the 16 border sheriffs in Texas has traveled to Washington D.C. 13 times since 2005 to testify about border security.
On this day, West and his deputies were searching for the body of a Mexican man who had died crossing the desert. The next day, West’s deputies patrolled Ft. Hancock one of the more populated areas in the county. Ft. Hancock lies on the Rio Grande River. On the other side is the Mexican town of Porvenir in the State of Chihuahua. Recently, 7-miles of border fence was constructed in Ft. Hancock.
“If you took away the border, my county would be like Mayberry. We’d be spending our time taking cats off the roof,” says West.
It’s the second time he’s requested help from a state helicopter in the search. The helicopter is part of Operation Border Star, the latest of four high-profile border security programs launched by Gov. Rick Perry since 2005, the year the sheriff’s coalition got going. The programs have so far cost the state $170 million. The intent, as the governor has often said, is to combat violent crime, drug smuggling and terrorism. One result is that the sheriffs now have helicopters parked full-time, ready to go, in Alpine and El Paso.
The search for the body has already cost his department $12,000, West says. The money would come out of his coalition money. Since 2006, the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition has received $16.1 million in state and federal funds, while the 16 border sheriffs and their counties have received another $12.6 million in Operation Border Star money. Perry first announced a $6 million grant to the coalition in November 2005, running up to his reelection campaign. The sheriffs traveled to Washington to stand by him in 2006 as he discussed border security before a phalanx of media. Many of the sheriffs, including West, endorsed Perry. (West is backing him again in 2010.)
Hudspeth’s share of the coalition pot has allowed West to hire six more deputies since 2005, at $28,000 a year, and pay them overtime. Hudspeth County now has 17 deputies. The department also has four new ATVs for searches like this one, and six new Ford F-150 trucks.
What, I ask West, would immigration hard-liners back in D.C. and Austin think of his spending more than $12,000 of taxpayers’ money searching for a chronic alcoholic immigrant?
The sheriff seems startled, almost repulsed, by the question. “Of course we need to find him,” he says. His daughter calls every day from New Mexico, he says, begging them to find her father. “That’s somebody’s father, somebody’s brother. He’s a human being. What if it was you calling on the phone every day begging us to find him? Wouldn’t you want us to do everything that we could to find your loved one?”
“Congress knows about as much about the border as that mesquite bush,” Sheriff West says, pointing to a straggly green bush about to be munched by a heifer.
West, like several other border sheriffs, has seen a lot of Washington since the coalition started, just in time for the immigration-reform dust up of 2006. West has testified before Congress three times and been to Washington 13 times in the last four years for meetings with other coalition sheriffs. He’s found a loyal ally in Congressman John Culberson, a Republican who represents west Harris County, one of the richest districts in the nation. Culberson has visited the border several times and met with West. Culberson is a full-out hawk on border security. Last March 11, he called for a “fast-reaction military force that can move up and down the border on the U.S. side” to fight the “undeclared war.”
West’s story, filtered through Culberson, captured Hannity’s fancy:
Hannity: I want to make sure I get this in. This is important. You’re saying within the last six weeks that we know for a fact that al-Qaida terrorists have crossed our border and are in the United States? Can you say this for a fact, with a certainty?
Culberson: Yes. Yes. Yes, sir. And I encourage you to contact the Hudspeth County sheriff, Arvin West, Sean. I want to put him in touch. … You need to put this man on the air, and let him tell you straight up. He will testify from his own experience what he goes through.
Hannity and Colmes never did follow up with West. So I ask him about the story. It grows more baroque as he explains. It seems that West’s friend, the sheriff of the little Mexican town of Porvenir just across the river, had apprehended a fellow who was tracking the migratory patterns of birds and animals, and writing down the information in Arabic in a diary.
“I’m not saying the guy was a terrorist,” West tells me as we bump through the desert, “but it seemed kind of strange that a guy of Arabic origin was keeping track of migratory animals in Southwest Texas.” He pauses. “Consequently or coincidentally, this was right before the bird flu broke out.”
What became of the diarist? The Mexican authorities called Border Patrol, West says, and Border Patrol called the FBI, but the man had “vanished from the face of the Earth.”
I ask if I can look at the diary. West says he misplaced it. He made copies and gave them to the feds, he says, but never heard another word from the FBI.
The sheriff offers a sampling from memory of the contents: “I hate the gringos,” for one, and “kill the gringos,” for another.
Later, after our ride, I send an e-mail to the Department of Homeland Security to inquire about West’s story. Border Patrol Officer Mark Qualia, spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, calls the account a “West Texas tale.”
“You’re in Texas so you’ll understand when I say it was a West Texas tale,” he writes in the e-mail. “It was a story spun by the sheriff at the time.”
Later on the phone I ask Qualia whether any known terrorists have crossed the southern border and been detained. Qualia says you have to be careful when you say terrorist. “The title and definition is difficult to qualify,” he tells me. “I will say that people have been arrested with links to terrorist groups or who have been on a terrorist watch list, without a doubt.”
Five of West’s deputies are parked up ahead, next to a windmill. They have a trailer loaded with six ATVs. As we pull up, I am asking West about his most controversial purchase: a Mustang GT, bought in 2006 with homeland security money. It was, he tells me, “for high-speed chases on Interstate 10.”
Is that what border security money was designed for? “Fine, then,” he says. “Don’t give us any funding, just have the federal government reimburse us for what we’ve spent. I’d bet it’d be a lot more than we’ve received.”
I ask how much he’s spent on immigration and drug-trafficking cases. “That’s a double-edged question,” he says.
Consider the potential costs involved with the man we are looking for, he says. “We are keeping our fingers crossed that he died from natural causes, because if we find a bullet in him, then that means there is foul play. Then we have to step back in and find out who murdered this guy. Once that happens, we have to chill the body and contact the Mexican consulate to find the family. If they can’t find the family, it’ll take county money to bury the body.”
West shakes his head and climbs out of the SUV. “Just reimburse us for what we have to expend,” he says, “or do it yourself.”
Waiting next to the windmill are his deputies: three young Latinos in their 30s, a Latino man in his 40s sporting a beige polo shirt reading “Hudspeth County Regulators,” and a middle-aged Anglo with a belly and a mustache.
That makes eight law-enforcement officials hunting for one dead body—not counting the chopper. Then again, the Chihuahuan landscape makes the odds of finding a body about as good as winning a lottery. It resembles an ocean drained of water, dotted with flames of orange flowers from fingerlike ocotillo cacti.
West’s deputies have come prepared. They produce an ice chest full of sodas, Gatorade and water. They offer brown paper bags filled with tinfoil-wrapped burritos. West says they’ve been made by some of the female inmates in his county jail. “It’s no good,” he says, making a mock-sour face as he opens a chicken mole burrito. “I’m going to fire the cook.”
After eating, West climbs behind the wheel of an ATV called a “mule,” which looks like the Humvee version of a golf cart.The two federal agents take the other Humvee cart, while West’s deputies mount four-wheel ATVs. We head toward the last place the Mexicans saw their companion, a hunting cabin next to a creek.
The sheriff drives the mule with abandon. He rolls over 6-foot ocotillos like they were toothpicks. Then he charges down a steep incline toward a riverbed. I notice his deputies and the two federal agents lagging behind, waiting to see if West makes it. “Maybe I should get out here and walk,” I say.
“Are you chickening out on me, too?” the sheriff asks, gesturing dismissively toward the deputies.
I decide to walk. West gives a cattle-herding whoop and floors the gas. The ATV does its best to scramble up the other side of the riverbed, then slides backward with a groan and bottoms out in the sand. “Dang,” the sheriff mutters, his face red from exertion. “Grab some shovels. We’re going to have to fill in the riverbed.”
After about 45 minutes, the deputies have filled the riverbed with enough sand to get West’s ATV up the other side. Meantime, one of the deputies has found an easy crossing further down the riverbed. He rolls up on his ATV on the other side.
No one says anything. West floors the gas pedal and charges up the bank. The rest of the deputies and the federal agents follow, heaving their ATVs up the incline.
The deputies race around and ahead of one another on their ATVs, cracking jokes. The two federal agents follow behind, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the front seat of their ATV. “Aw, looks like they’re on a date,” West says loudly.
About an hour later, we arrive at the hunting cabin, a tin-roofed shack near an old windmill. Two green-and-white Border Patrol trucks are already there. Two Latino officers in their early 20s wait outside. They are new to this border, their “yes sirs” and “no sirs” in stark contrast to the
heriff’s deputies, who break out the cooler aga
n and down the remaining burritos.
To West’s way of thinking, the patrol spends too much time looking for footprints in the sand near the interstate, and too little on the river. “What I need for them to do is get their butts down on the river and hold that line,” he’d told me earlier that day. “When that line is breached, we’ll be happy to back you up and pick up what’s breached that line.
“They’ll tell you they make a calculated pass by the river,” West said, “but then once they’re gone it’s like a Cheech and Chong movie.”
Finishing their Gatorades, the deputies fan out into the desert to look for the missing man. The sheriff goes inside the cabin. He points to a wooden sign with red painted letters in Spanish, saying: “Welcome, come in and enjoy yourselves. This is the house of a poor man. You can use it but don’t destroy it! Vaya con dios, El Gringo.”
The white walls are covered with hundreds of names and dates, written in charcoal and pencil, going back to 1907. One woman had carefully written her family’s names across the wall: “Rosy Peres, su hijo Evedi y su esposo Favio.” An old tin chest sits on the floor, containing cooking oil, soup cans, sardines and other dry goods. In another room are some old camp beds.
“You’ve got to have a heart for these people,” West says. “Why can’t we take the approach of the Bracero Program [which ran from the 1940s to the 1960s], where they can work here for so many years, and if they decide to assimilate and become American citizens, then allow them that opportunity.” He sits back in an old wooden chair. “You are allowed to come and participate in the luxuries we have as American citizens, but if you violate our laws, then you are out of here. It’s as simple as that.”
If many Americans think “Texas-Mexico border” and envision a war zone, it’s thanks in no small part to the stories spread by border sheriffs like West and Zapata County’s Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez. Gonzalez, who organized the first meeting of the sheriff’s coalition in 2005, has been a higher-profile media figure than West. In November 2005, shortly before the “Al-Qaeda terrorist” story started to spread, Gonzalez took NBC reporter Rita Cosby (wearing a bulletproof vest) down to the Rio Grande at night. He was armed with a pistol and an AR-15. Along for the fun was Congressman Ted Poe, a Republican from Temple.
Gonzalez memorably told Cosby and her viewers that just on the other side of the river, drug lords were grinding up men and feeding the meat to dogs.
“I think most people are really unaware of the war zone here in the Texas-Mexican border, especially in this location,” Poe said. “More than likely the next terrorist attacker will come across the southern border.”
With that, Cosby segued into a live interview with Duncan Hunter, a former Republican congressman from California, who talked about his proposal to build a 2,000-mile, triple-layered border fence from San Diego to Brownsville. It was “the answer,” he said, to the nightmare in Zapata County that Gonzalez had just spelled out.
“That’s what we had between Tijuana and San Diego,” Hunter said. “Ten years ago, that was a no-man’s land. We had the robbing, raping, murdering. We had gangs that roamed that area between America and Mexico. And we had that scraggly barbed-wire fence, like the one you showed near Nuevo Laredo.”
In August 2006, Gonzalez told Fox News’ Sean Hannity that al-Qaeda members were learning Spanish in Mexico to blend in with undocumented immigrants and swim across the Rio Grande. Hannity drew that unsubstantiated fact out to its logical extension:
Hannity: Now, I just am speculating. You’re the law-enforcement expert here. But if they’re coming from al-Qaida-linked countries, or countries where we know al-Qaida is operating, if they’re going through this enormous effort to learn Spanish, to blend into the community, and then being smuggled across, we’ve got to assume and believe that we’re fairly certain that they’re here to create terror cells in the United States and commit acts of terrorism. Wouldn’t that be right?
Gonzalez: Well, that’s correct. A lot of the things that we’re seeing along the border are these people are being smuggled into the country with armed guards, bodyguards. Several persons have reported these people coming into the country with three or four individuals that are armed, bringing them into the country. A person looking for employment in the United States would not need to hire a coyote of that higher caliber to bring them into the country.
Gonzalez now heads the Southwest Border Sheriff’s Coalition, which includes sheriffs from Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. I catch up with him in late September at the coalition’s conference in Yuma, Arizona, where he is serving as emcee. Asked about the claims he’s made over the years regarding terrorists, Gonzalez says it came from “intelligence” he received as a law-enforcement officer. When I ask whether it is possible to see any, he says it can’t be shared with non-law enforcement.
Lupe Treviño, sheriff of Hidalgo County, is among the coalition members who say that the inflammatory rhetoric has brought the coalition and the border region nothing but a lot of headlines and bad publicity. “One of the things you have to be careful about is, if you are going to give your perspective and you want somebody to take you serious, you need to have your evidence, your statistics, to show that you aren’t making this up and it is really happening,” he says.
Treviño has also testified before Congress, offering a different take than Gonzalez or West on the border’s vulnerabilities. He says most members of Congress assume he lives in a “battle zone.” Few realize that his county, the second-most populous on the Texas border, was ranked as the state’s fourth-safest last year.
Frustrated with misrepresentation of border realities, Treviño created an hour-long PowerPoint presentation called “Border Violence: Rhetoric vs. Reality.” He makes his case at luncheons and to any audience that will listen.
“As an American, of course I am concerned about terrorism, but do you think my deputies have time to post themselves on the river to look for Osama bin Laden?” he says. His department receives a call for assistance every four minutes on average, Treviño adds. Besides, “I’m not going to drop my homicides and my robbery investigations so that I can help Border Patrol keep terrorists out of the country.”
It is getting late in the desert. “Let’s go,” West says, exiting the cabin. He hops into his ATV and motions for us to join him. “I want to show you Mexico,” he says, hitting the gas. We crest a small butte, and the sun is hanging low. Suddenly the ATV makes a whump and then a thumping noise. Flat tire. “Dang,” the sheriff says, pulling out a can of fix-a-flat he’s already used twice today. He shoots the white foam into the deflated tire. No luck. West kicks the dust with his Wallaby boot and radios for help.
Nobody answers. The sound of the Border Star chopper echoes off the mountainsides. “Maybe I can get them to give you a ride back to my office,” West says. After he negotiates with the pilot for a while, the chopper heads east. “The Border Patrol agents are lost, and they are trying to find them,” he says, annoyed. “There’s also a storm, and they’ve got to get back.”
Eventually one of the young deputies rides up on his ATV. They haven’t found the body. The sky is growing dark with ominous clouds, and the wind is whipping up. Without saying much, the officers get back on their vehicles and head into a rainstorm. Back at the windmill, the rain has stopped. The deputies load the ATVs back on the trailer. It’s nearly dark, but the men linger, elbows propped on truck beds, talking about sports and the weather. The stony-faced Ranger and the ICE agent dip into cans of chewing tobacco and spit into the dust.
“You boys have to go home sometime, or your wives are going to divorce you,” West says, guffawing. But he is in no hurry, either. His wife phoned earlier to remind him about a school function he’d promised to attend that evening.
“Do you have any other questions?” he asks me in a hopeful tone. I can’t think of any.
Two weeks later, I get an e-mail from the sheriff. The subject is “Body in Mountain.” West wrote:
“I just wanted to let you know we found the body. He was about two miles north east of the little house. We had to walk about a mile and a half to get him, but we made it for a bunch of old guys. The family can feel better knowing this information I guess. Take care and God Bless. Tu amigo, Sheriff West.”