PART TWO IN A SERIES
Champeño — A couple hundred miles downriver from the high desert of Big Bend the mesquite is in bud and huisache trees are exploding with their tight yellow flowers. The river runs wide and deep, with limestone outcroppings spread like shelves over the rushing waters.
There are a handful of rules here in this border wilderness, my host tells me, first being “live and let live.” The second, similar to the first but with a hint of caution, is “mind your own business.”
Loco Lorenzo, as he is known, figured it out pretty quickly when he moved to this small community southeast of Falcon Dam more than a quarter-century ago. He also realized that being an outsider — and the only gringo not in uniform for miles — it would take some doing to convince the local population he was not a narc.
“The way my philosophy was, I had to be the craziest motherfucker here — and I was,” my host tells me enthusiastically, his eyes happy as hamster wheels. “I came and I loved it. It was very
As Lorenzo’s guest here — and in light of Rule Number Two — I don’t ask him to expound, though his impish smile holds my attention.
Running naked through the thorny brush helped establish a reputation. Of course, there was also his habit of carrying a pistol in public when he was clothed. For all the theatrics, Rule Three (along with the fact that he never accepted any potentially lucrative, though illegal, employment offers) perhaps more than anything else accounts for his survival. That being: Don’t shoot.
He’s never judged what he sees here. Illegal crossings and drug smuggling are a way of life.
“People on both sides make their living doing what they have always done. They don’t have no other choice,” he says. “Some things have more value over here, and some things are worth more over there.”
Behind an RV and a collection of half-constructed buildings, the couple sits. I’ve arrived at happy hour, they tell me. With a round of drinks and cooling desert air on the hoof of dusk, I am welcomed.
His wife Barbara, a genial recent Houston transplant, hasn’t slept well for weeks. A steady stream of immigrants moving through the area has kept the dogs vocal. Last night was quiet, though, following a big bust the previous day. Tonight just may be a night for sleep.
Pain by Numbers
I’ve been on the road for a week, visiting with residents who make their home on El Rio and considering how U.S. Homeland Security plans to wall the border will change la frontera. This morning I left a Border Patrol helicopter circling west of Marathon, passing one Ford after another marked by the green-and-white stripe of La Migra. For a hundred miles it seems they patrol the endless lines of barbwire paralleling Highway 90.
In Langtry, population 30, residents are skeptical of wall promises and fearful of federally threatened seizures of private property. Even as some counties have begun to strike agreements with Chertoff for walls masquerading as flood control, here — like most of the state — they have already seen a decrease in border traffic from a stronger Border Patrol presence.
While illegal traffic has recently been diverted up the road to Dryden, Mike Gavlik at the Langtry Depot says inland America’s fear of the border is vastly overblown.
“The people up there like Bill O’Reilly, they don’t have a clue,” he says.
In Del Rio, a woman who works closely with immigrants seeking citizenship laments the changes she has seen across the border. Already it has become increasingly difficult to get papers, much less find a path to citizenship. The Wall pains Diana Abrego of La Clínica de Inmigración.
“Sometimes I feel sad. I think, ‘Oh, my God. This is my country. This is what we’ve become.’ We know Mexico needs to fix its economics, and the United States has a lot to do with that, but unless they work that out they can put up all the walls they want and nothing will happen.”
Where there is work, there is a way.
Laredo Community College professor Keith Bowden recently published a book about the Rio Grande and its river culture, The Tecate Journals. He wonders if the debate is more about contrasting cultures than security concerns.
“Is this about culture, in the sense that these people in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania are saying, ‘Enough, we’re sick of being inundated by Mexican culture and having “tienda” instead of convenience store and Spanish language all over our town,” he asks. “To me there’s a lot of that behind the sentiment that’s for the Border Wall, because I don’t think you can make a reasonable argument that the Wall can do anything for security. Let’s face it, if that is what it’s about, we’d be doing it in Canada.”
In this land without walls, arrests of river crossers have collapsed in sector after sector across the state, just as they have increased in the sector with the nation’s first southern border wall, San Diego.
In the Del Rio Sector of the border, apprehensions decreased 46 percent in fiscal 2007 and 38 percent the year before that, according to agency statistics. Likewise, the Rio Grande Valley witnessed a 34-percent decrease last year. The vast majority of drug runners breaching the southern boundary come through official ports of entry.
In fact, the most convincing argument against Homeland Security’s plans for more than 150 miles of fences across Texas is the success of the U.S. Border Patrol — and the failure of five-year-old Homeland Security’s own proposals.
Chertoff and Co. swept into the Texas borderlands with a blizzard of lawsuits, seeking to quickly amass the land it wanted for 700 miles of proposed fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border. The aggressiveness of that effort, and the howls of protest it invoked, inspired U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and U.S. Representative Ciro Rodriguez to push through an amendment requiring Homeland to work more amicably with property owners. That created the political landscape that transformed a proposal for double fences more than a football-field’s distance apart, with security roads and stadium lighting, into a single 18-foot structure — the new “discrete” walls being proposed around official Ports of Entry in towns like Del Rio, Eagle Pass, Laredo, and Roma.
Homeland hopes to fence 370 miles this year — about 150 of those in Texas. Chertoff recently announced that some fence plans could be replaced by high-tech surveillance measures — or a “virtual” wall. However, as he was uttering those words, the U.S. Government Accountability Office was announcing that the $20-million Arizona pilot project spearheaded by Boeing is plagued with problems that will require a minimum of three years to correct. Critics charge Homeland with failing to work with Border Patrol in the first place. Chertoff has responded that Boeing’s SBInet surveillance system does work — though only in “certain types of terrain.”
The lingering question, the unanswered question, is the most obvious one of all: Do walls work?
A Congressional Research Project report updated last summer found that while fencing did reduce traffic in some areas, “there is also strong indication that the fencing, combined with added enforcement, has re-routed illegal immigrants to other less fortified areas of the border.” Areas like the unforgiving Sonoran Desert in Arizona, where hundreds of determined immigrants die each year. Borderwide, deaths are approaching record highs.
Of course, they drown in ones and twos crossing the river here at Champeño, too. And they die on Texas ranches trying to skirt checkpoints to the north.
Battle of Eagle Pass
In a nation increasingly hobbled by massive war debt, the Congressional Research Service last year estimated the price of fencing and maintaining the entire southern border for 25 years at $49 billion — not including the price of labor and land acquisition.
Even if the entire wall policy collapses with the presidential election, as many I have spoken to expect, Eagle Pass Mayor Chad Foster believes his city — the first Texas city sued by Homeland for allegedly denying the agency access — will be walled.
I’m sitting in Foster’s office with a German radio reporter. As the mayor-cum-developer grazes on ultra-light cigarettes we try to shake out the sometimes-confusing linguistics of the debate. “Is it a fence or is it a wall?” the reporter asks. Wall resisters make frequent comparisons to German’s Berlin Wall, that cruel divider fortified for decades by eager machine-gunners, so it is no surprise that German reporters are prowling river communities.
“The point is, we don’t feel that Texas needs physical barriers,” Foster says. “The border of Texas is midstream of a very well-defined river. Anytime we move off of that midpoint, we’re ceding land back to Mexico.”
As they exist today — and they change often, usually with little time for public comment — Homeland plans slice through college campuses, nature preserves, and innumerable family properties. They also run through Eagle Pass’s city park, the site, ironically, of International Friendship Day festivities, where residents of booming Piedras Negras and Eagle Pass convene each year to celebrate their common history.
“Our fathers and forefathers fought to secure the Texas border,” Foster says. “Now our own government is giving property back to Mexico. We have an issue with that. With modern technology we can put a smart bomb down a stovepipe, and you’re telling me we cannot secure the Texas border with technology?”
Well, not with Boeing technology, it appears.
Eagle Pass was skeptical from the start. Almost three years ago, the council here passed a resolution opposing any fence construction on the border. An early Border Patrol proposal to eradicate the river cane, build better patrol roads around the port, bridge a small creek, and install 15 light towers around the city park, was supported by Foster. “I thought it was a wonderful idea,” he tells us. However, the 10-foot-high “decorative fence” that went along with the package was anathema.
A follow-up meeting with Customs and Border Protection suggested all involved agencies had agreed to the project’s scope without the fence, he says. Still, two of the five council members voted against it.
“They flat out said, ‘We don’t trust them,’” says Foster. After the Hutchison amendment, the city wrote Homeland several times requesting a meeting but received no response. Homeland then sued the city to take 131 acres by eminent domain for a “permanent easement,” putting up $100 for compensation.
On a tour of the river, a U.S. Border Patrol truck sits idle in the distance. A line of surveyor’s stakes stretch beside the dirt road, which runs along thick clumps of river cane hiding the Rio Grande. Each stake is tagged with a plastic orange ribbon. “Proposed Fence” is written along their sides.
Beneath these markers is the city of Eagle Pass’s sewer line. At a canebrake we can see the city’s water intake. Beyond, a proposed new subdivision of about 70 acres is cut in half. As we round a short rise onto Foster’s property, we come upon cedar posts that have been flattened by vehicle traffic.
“I was going to have to open the gate, but Border Patrol just saved us the trouble,” Foster says before speed-dialing his attorney.
Levy by levy
As I enter the Rio Grande Valley, I soon discover an island of familial memory increasingly encroached upon by high-dollar suburban sprawl to the north and federal eminent-domain threats to the south. Living on the remains of vast tracts granted by the Spanish Crown in 1767, the families of Granjeno can trace kinship to one another by counting back a few fathers on this hand, a grandmother or two on the other. Through the years, the original grant of up to 18,000 acres has been whittled down to a mere 75. (“We didn’t know we had rights,” one elderly resident tells me.) In 1996 the community incorporated to
So when the federal government came seeking permission to access property here to stake out a proposed border wall, all but a few refused. The government was sharing little information about the project, so residents had to go fishing.
“We never knew what they were going to do, because apparently the Department of Homeland Security is very secretive,” says Reynaldo Anzaldua, a former Customs agent who is fighting to protect his property.
Though families here predate the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and weathered the Mexican War of Independence, the Texas Revolution, and the Mexican-American War, they still find themselves having to prove their right to exist. After Reynaldo was quoted in the Los Angeles Times saying, correctly, that, “We didn’t come to the U.S. The U.S. came to us,” one anonymous emailer ridiculously urged him to “Go back where you came from.” If any U.S. community is where it came from, it’s this one. It is the border that has shifted, and continues to do so.
Granjeno resident Gloria Garza drives me over the levy that backs up to her property and onto a second levy overlooking the Rio Grande. Between the two are several hundred yards of empty fields. Were the fence up today, we would be a levy away from what would effectively become the new southern boundary of the United States. Homeland’s proposed fence stops at a trade bridge under construction on the west side of Granjeno. West of the bridge, no wall is proposed for land owned by Dallas billionaire and Bush family confidante Ray Hunt, compounding the bitterness of the situation.
Across the valley, communities are under siege. While Homeland’s Environmental Impact Statement says the agency needs 508 acres for 70 miles of planned fence, nowhere does it share just how many square miles of U.S. territory will be locked on the other side — an abandoned No Man’s Land.
Though they still don’t welcome the Wall, folks here tend to feel they have dodged a bullet. The original alignment of double fencing would have sliced their properties in half, or worse. Today, the proposed 60-foot-swath will impact them, even steal a couple houses, but it is an improvement, they say. Flood lighting may be intrusive, but more property would be preserved intact.
Still, Reynaldo worries about more guns coming to this area. A relative of his still hunts from time to time in the wide-open fields to the south, he says. Occasionally there are arguments with Border Patrol agents, when one side or the other will “get feisty.”
“You get somebody like Blackwater down here — they’re likely to shoot him,” Reynaldo says.
It’s not an unfounded fear. Blackwater USA has been lobbying hard for a contract to train the thousands of new border agents approved by Congress at a proposed 824-acre facility in California.
Meeting in heaven
It’s 8:47 in the morning and I’m sitting by the river, marveling over this land, exploring the remote beauty of Champeño, binoculars in hand. Green Jays have replaced the Boat-tailed Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds at the feeders. The air is filled with song.
A motorboat slides into view. A man stands in the prow with a shotgun resting on his thigh. His posture and green baseball cap suggest U.S. Fish & Wildlife or Border Patrol, but I am witnessing my first smuggling operation in paradise. The boat settles against the far shore and more than a dozen crouching women and men climb on as the man on watch dashes into the scrub.
The boat turns back for a small launch about 50 yards from me. After the passengers have streamed beneath the mesquite canopy, the boat circles for about 10 minutes before returning to the U.S. bank, picking up a lone passenger with a small bag and disappearing beyond a distant bend.
Lorenzo and Barbara rent rooms to birders here on the edge of Starr County. For all of the (mostly) nocturnal river traffic, they are happy that Homeland’s plans haven’t reached their bank. For now, they watch Roma, where four miles of fence are slated for construction. Like many others throughout the river’s reaches, they see the piecemeal approach as a foot in the door. If any of the proposed fence sections are built, it is only a matter of time, Barbara says, before she’s “bumping my nose on the fence anytime I go outside.”
Their neighbor, a Michigan native and kayak enthusiast whose father grew up in this area, says he has never felt at risk, even when he uncovered a coyote and camp of immigrants hidden in the river cane. The coyote asked timidly, “ Puedo pasar?” Rene Garcia stepped back and a human train of close to 70 meandered past.
“I have friends in Michigan who ask ‘Aren’t you scared?’ he says. “But it’s no different than my hometown. If you look for trouble, you’ll find it.”
Lorenzo has had time to acquaint himself with the human economics of border life; Barbara still weeps regularly over what she sees. While she praises the local Border Patrol agents (“I tell them every day we love them. They have a hard job.”) and would like to see the drug-running and illegal crossing stopped, she knows the issues that drive these activities can’t be fixed with a wall.
“We’ve had people come up and I’ve cried,” she says. “We’ve fed ’em and doctored ’em and told ’em they have to go on. We can’t keep them here ’cause that’d be illegal. We’ve done that many, many times.
“I don’t care if you’re a Christian or not, when you get to Heaven and you see these people, what will you say?”
At this compound of cement-block bridges, excavated footpaths, and hollow two-story towers of sheet metal overlooking the river, I am increasingly convinced I have found in Loco Lorenzo the Hunter S. Thompson of outlaw engineering.
“If anyone is going to build a goddamn wall, I’ll build the goddamn wall,” he says. “They can build a wall 50-feet high. If there’s a market, they will find a way. Prohibition did not work.”
“The thing is,” Barbara adds, “I feel pretty safe right now. But if they were going to start, show up here — over my dead body. Because that’s how it would be. I’ve just worked too hard.” •
March against the Wall
A week-long, 63-mile walk intended to impact the Presidential Primary debate led by Del Rio resident Jay Johnson-Castro wrapped up Sunday at La Lomita with an invocation and blessing of sanctified Rio Grande water. A larger march kicks off this Saturday and runs through Spring Break. Join in the 9-day, 115-mile march from Roma to Brownsville and help bring the Wall to a halt. Here’s the schedule:
March 8: Roma to Rio Grande City
March 9: Rio Grande City to La Grulla
March 10: La Grulla to La Joya
March 11: La Joya to La Lomita
March 12: La Lomita to Las Milpas
March 13: Las Milpas to Progreso
March 14: Progreso to Los Indios
March 15: Los Indios to Ranchito
March 16: Ranchito to Brownsville
For more information:
Follow Greg’s travels and conversations on his border blog, view video clips, join the debate on U.S. border policy, and meet more of the people whose lives are directly impacted by the Wall.
Online @ murodelodio.com