A version of this story ran in the July 2013 issue.
Above: Drug-sniffing dogs are a staple of the Sierra Blanca Border Patrol station. Agents check all eastbound traffic
on Interstate 10.
If you know Sierra Blanca only from headlines announcing that some famous musician—Willie Nelson or Snoop Dogg or Fiona Apple or Nelly—has been stopped at the nearby Border Patrol checkpoint and popped for the drugs stashed on their tour bus, you might be disappointed the first time you pass through.
The infamous checkpoint is 88 miles east of El Paso on Interstate 10, and you’ll encounter it after driving through a stretch of desert bereft of anything more interesting than an occasional low mountain, patch of sun-baked grass, or water tower commemorating the decades-old accomplishments of a six-man high-school football team. As you approach, you’ll be funneled into one of two lanes—cars on the left, trucks and buses on the right—and then into the checkpoint itself, marked by a metal roof spanning several lanes of interstate. If you’re like me—white, adult, clean-shaven and short-haired—then your danger-courting celebrity-bust fantasies are unlikely to bear fruit. It’s more likely that your encounter will last seconds.
“You a U.S. citizen?”
Then, with a wave of the hand, you’re free to go.
That won’t be everyone’s experience, of course. It wasn’t Willie Nelson’s. Nelson’s bust made national news when he was arrested in June of last year, and then again when the prosecutor offered to dismiss the charges if the Red Headed Stranger would sing “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” in the Hudspeth County courthouse. (Nelson paid a fine instead.) And it wasn’t the experience of Fiona Apple, who spent the night in Sierra Blanca’s lockup for the stash of hash that agents found on her tour bus. Apple railed against her treatment from the stage in Houston a few nights later, prompting Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Rusty Fleming to fire off a scathing open letter in response, calling Apple “sweetie” and claiming credit for having “jump-started” the career of the eight-time Grammy nominee.
It’s also not the experience of many locals who have to navigate the checkpoint on their way to and from home and work in Sierra Blanca or nearby Van Horn.
There’s not much to draw passersby off I-10 and onto Sierra Blanca’s main drag: a few old hotels with boarded-up windows and marquees promising “inte net”; the remains of the State Theatre, a concrete-and-brick husk with broken glass in its poster casings; and a blue-and-gray retail center where, according to fading lettering on the windows, hunting and fishing supplies were once sold, packages once shipped, power tools once rented, and guns and antiques once purchased.
One place that’s still open is the Hudspeth County Railroad Depot Museum, a big yellow building that opens its doors for a few hours one day a week. The museum celebrates the juncture of the Southern Pacific and Texas Pacific rail lines, which met at this location in 1881, leading to the town’s founding. There’s a red Southern Pacific boxcar parked out front.
A few blocks farther north of the highway you’ll find the sheriff’s office, which also houses the jail. (A metal sign over the entrance reads, “You can not stop a man in the right who keeps on coming.”) The high school and attendant athletic field are nearby, as are rows of mostly small, ranch-style brick houses with DirecTV dishes attached to their roofs. You can drive down almost every street in town and be back on the highway in less than five minutes.
Hard times found Sierra Blanca a long time ago. County Commissioner Wayne West was born in El Paso in 1958 but has lived in Sierra Blanca ever since, and he recalls even as a child watching the town struggle. As the railroad business declined, the town looked to other sources of revenue, and in the early 1990s won a bid to house sewage from New York and New Jersey. Later in the decade, Sierra Blanca found itself at the center of a fight over a proposed—and ultimately defeated—nuclear waste site.
“When I was a kid, between ’62 and ’68, the population decreased drastically,” West tells me. “At one time, there were a couple of doctors, a couple of dentists. The population was about 3,000.”
Today, West says, Sierra Blanca’s population is “about 750, more or less, if the cats and dogs are here.” (The 2010 Census counted 553.) That population supports a few small businesses—an off-ramp gift shop, an Exxon with a Subway inside, and a Mexican restaurant called Michael’s, where most of the town seems to eat breakfast on Sunday mornings. There are four churches.
West is a big man, and friendly. He pats his gut and declares himself “living proof” of the quality of Michael’s fare. He insists that I describe him and his brother, Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West, as the “Dalton Gang”—an inside joke about their father, Dalton West. He seems to know the whereabouts and occupations of every last child who’s grown up in Sierra Blanca during the 20 years he’s so far served as County Commissioner. He’s quick to laugh, but he grows serious when talk turns to the checkpoint, established in the early 1970s.
“The checkpoint is a necessity, and we understand that,” he says. I ask him how his constituents interact with the Border Patrol agents just outside of town. “Some of the residents feel like they’re almost—but not entirely—being ridiculed as alienistic,” he replies. “They’ll say, ‘Well, I’ve been here a hell of a lot longer than you have. What are you stopping me for?’ And then you start getting into some confrontations that way. That’s what alienates a lot of the locals. That kind of creates a burr under the saddle.”
There are close to 200 agents assigned to the Sierra Blanca checkpoint, and West says no more than a dozen of them live in the town. Most, he says, commute from homes in El Paso.
That drive between Sierra Blanca and El Paso is one that everybody in Hudspeth County knows well. The Exxon station in Sierra Blanca sells a few staples, and there’s a small supermarket in Van Horn, 35 miles to the east, but if a Sierra Blancan needs to stock up on a month’s worth of groceries—or attend a movie theater, or buy a computer, or try on new school clothes—they have to drive the 88 miles west to El Paso. To get back home, they have to answer questions from a Border Patrol agent at the checkpoint, and those interactions can be unpleasant, even downright antagonistic. “It can get pretty vulgar,” West confirms.
After my conversation with West, I drove to Van Horn (pop. 2,050). In the bar at the Hotel El Capitan, I spoke with a Latino man in his late 20s or early 30s who lives in Van Horn. Like West, he was friendly—he struck up a conversation because he liked my hat—and as with West, it didn’t take much prodding to plumb his frustrations with the checkpoint. A mechanic by trade, he drives an SUV with ornate rims, and he told me about Border Patrol agents grilling him about his citizenship while his children slept in the backseat.
It’s possible, he explained, to bypass the checkpoint by exiting the interstate and driving on the access road into Sierra Blanca, but he said Border Patrol agents tend to stop motorists who do so, since avoiding the checkpoint is seen as suspicious. My new friend described an encounter he’d had with an agent who asked him to produce a driver’s license after he refused to answer her questions; checkpoint agents, tasked with finding contraband, don’t have the authority to demand identification. He smiled, proud of himself, as he told me he’d threatened to call the sheriff on the agent for impersonating a peace officer. He was let to pass. While parts of his story seemed like the sort of loose talk you might hear in a bar, the sense of hostility and gamesmanship between locals and checkpoint agents was clearly genuine.
When I followed up about that dynamic, Commissioner West invoked a “homegrown boy” named Mario who joined the Border Patrol working out of Fort Hancock, 35 miles to the west.
“I asked him, ‘Mario, what’s the deal?’ He said, ‘Some of these [agents] are fresh out of the academy, the gun and the badge kind of goes to their head.’ They try to push a little authority. It’s kind of like a power hunger.”
The Department of Homeland Security establishes checkpoints like the one in Sierra Blanca, and DHS subsidiary Border Patrol operates them. When Border Patrol agents find contraband (most often drugs or immigrants), they usually call local law enforcement to make the arrest and house the suspect.
“Because we’re the agency that tends to be the reporting agency, we get the credit, or the criticism, for doing all of this,” explains public information officer Fleming. “That is a federal checkpoint set up by the DHS and run by the Border Patrol. They’re in total control of that—when it’s open, when it’s closed, how they operate it. We have nothing to do with it.”
Fleming professes nothing but respect for the individual Border Patrol agents who work in his town, but he’s clearly got an ax to grind with the Department of Homeland Security and the federal government, which, he says, “do not understand the dynamics down here, and do not understand the lay of the land.”
And while the Snoop Doggs and Fiona Apples of the world draw attention to Sierra Blanca, they’re hardly the people Border Patrol is after. The real targets are smugglers, like the truck driver who was arrested Jan. 22 with 714 pounds of marijuana, or the Greyhound passenger arrested Jan. 27 with $120,000 worth of crystal meth taped to his legs, or the bus passenger later that same day with nearly $400,000 worth of heroin in his bags. That’s almost a million dollars’ worth of drugs in a single week in January.
“We catch 2,800 cases a year from the checkpoint,” Fleming says. “We get an average of 6,000 to 10,000 pounds of dope from the checkpoint annually, and another 70,000 to 90,000 from investigations. But the only time the media pays attention is when we bust a pop star.”
Those pop stars, of course, get to pay their fines and put their indiscretions behind them, complaining about the inconvenience from a safe distance. For the residents of Sierra Blanca, the indignities of life under suspicion are as common as a Sunday drive.