In ‘The Line Becomes a River,’ Plumbing the Depths of the Border War’s Human Toll

Francisco Cantú’s confessions mimic the desert landscape he patrols: haunting but elegant, with glimmers of humor for reprieve.

A stretch of border fence in Hidalgo County.
A stretch of border fence in Hidalgo County. Jen Reel

It’s Christmas Eve, and Francisco Cantú and his mother are drinking eggnog with brandy around a miniature tree. Mom, a retired National Park Service ranger, is trying to understand why — after graduating with honors from American University — her mijo is training to be a Border Patrol agent. Isn’t that sort of work, she delicately asks, beneath him?

Cantú is quick to defend his career choice. Despite growing up near the Arizona-Mexico border and having a grandfather who crossed over during the Mexican Revolution, he argues that he mainly knows the region from books. Now he seeks a perspective that can only be found “out in the field.” Besides, imagine the comfort he could offer migrants, speaking with them in their own language with a knowledge of their homeland. Maybe he could infuse some humanity into the situation.

line becomes a river, francisco cantu, books, border
The Line Becomes A River: Dispatches From the Border by Francisco Cantú
Riverhead Books
$26; 256 pages

“It’s a paramilitary police force,” Mom objects.

“I know you’re afraid the job will turn me into someone brutal and callous,” he says. [But] “stepping into a system doesn’t mean that the system becomes you.”

Or does it?

That is the question coursing through The Line Becomes a River. Cantú isn’t the first agent to write a memoir, but he radically departs from the milieu. Whereas other narrators sound like they’re yakking away in a bar, one hand on their holster and the other gripping a whiskey, Cantú seems to be composing beneath a dangling light bulb in a barren room. Yet the only interrogator on the premises is the one residing within. His subsequent confessions take the form of vignettes that range in length from a paragraph to several pages and mimic the desert landscape he patrols: haunting but elegant, with glimmers of humor for reprieve.

Rarely has a book about the border received so much attention prior to publication. Last spring, This American Life devoted nearly half an hour of airwaves to Cantú reading its passages. His visceral prose has also won both a Whiting Award and a Pushcart Prize. Readers are no doubt responding to how devastatingly Cantú critiques border security without ever mentioning its policies, probing instead the consciences of those who enforce them.

If you had to get caught sneaking across la linea, Cantú is the agent you’d want to meet. He assists a fellow Selena fan by hiding her fake green card from his colleagues. He gives a bare-chested migrant the shirt off his back and then treats him to McDonald’s. He always has bottled water at the ready. When a woman calls him “muy humanitario” after he rubs ointment onto the blisters on her feet, however, he says no, he is not.

But with the exception of the yellow bird he shoots down to “prove to myself that I could take a life, even one this small,” Cantú never articulates his thoughts during moments of transgression. When he and other agents track down freshly vacated campsites and “dump [the migrants’] backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze,” Cantú switches from first-person “I” narration to a collective “we.” Is he shrugging off responsibility? Re-enacting the herd mentality that enables soldiers to do the previously unthinkable? Or is he holding his tax-paying/salary-enabling readers accountable as well? It’s not clear. Such emotional ambiguity is the book’s chief flaw.

What we witness instead is the cumulative toll such experiences take on the psyche. Just as Ted Conover captures the “soul ache” of warehousing human beings in his prison memoir, Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, so too does Cantú elucidate the moral injury of deporting them. No matter that, in the hierarchy of human suffering, law enforcement officers might occupy a rung at the lower end of the scale. There is a reason Border Patrol agents have a suicide rate twice the national average. Try measuring your own pulse after a long night at the bottom of a canyon, listening over the scanner as smugglers monitor your every move and then driving home to find a stranger with a shaved head covered with tattoos awaiting your arrival. Or consider why Cantú’s colleagues sign up to be agents in the first place. They aren’t exactly pursuing “perspective.” As his coworker Beto puts it, “the only ones doing well [in my hometown] were either getting paid by the cartels or getting paid to take them down.”

A year into his service, which stretches from 2008 to 2012 (that is, at the height of narco-violence in Mexico), Cantú retreats to the city for a desk job at sector intel. Besides fielding calls and writing reports, his main duty is to “look busy, keep your boots polished, your uniform pressed, and mind your sirs and ma’ams.” It seems fairly low-key — until his inbox starts filling with Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) photos of “human bodies that had been disassembled, their parts scattered, separated, jumbled together and hidden away or put on display as if in accordance with some grim and ancient ritual.” Hence begins Cantú’s descent into blue. His dreams grow increasingly disturbing, of caves littered with severed arms and legs. Time and again, a wolf appears. The narrator stands paralyzed as the animal paws his chest and sticks its tongue inside his mouth. A dentist warns him about the dangers of teeth-grinding, while his mother cautions: “You can’t exist within a system for that long without being implicated, without absorbing its poison.” Cantú keeps his suffering to himself, which only intensifies it.

Call it soul-repair, call it atonement, but it is quenching indeed when Cantú turns this empathetic tide back to the migrants in the final section of the book. Soon after leaving the Border Patrol (first for a Fulbright, then for a MFA), he befriends José, a hard-working Oaxaqueño with a wife and three boys. It’s no surprise when tragedy strikes, but you still feel it keenly. So does Cantú, who somehow never imagined what happened to migrants after he and his colleagues ruined their plans. In a courthouse full of the soon-to-be-deported, he stares up at a massive seal of the United States and notes the “giant eagle with its head turned as if to look away.” Then he catches the eye of the attending Border Patrol agent, “who glared at me as if I were somehow allied against him.”

You can almost see Mom shaking her head sadly as her mijo realizes he has become “a part of this thing that crushes.” The lines on the map have morphed into a river that nearly drowns him. The achievement of this book is how deftly Cantú reels us in, cold and wet behind him.    

Stephanie Elizondo Griest is the author of All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands.

Francisco Cantú will read from The Line Becomes a River at three Texas bookstores. He’ll be in Houston at Brazos Bookstore on February 7, in Dallas at Interabang Books on February 8, and in Austin at BookPeople on February 12 (all at 7 p.m.).

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