Sunday, September 14, 2008

River draws a muddy line on Texas' unfenced border

Associated Press / Houston Chronicle
September 14, 2008

REDFORD, Texas — The Rio Grande takes a wide southern detour when it hits West Texas, as if unwilling to draw too straight a line between the U.S. and Mexico. Locals along this remote stretch of shallow river share the feeling.

People living on both sides of the Big Bend, as the curve is known, are glad to be mostly skipped over by plans for 700 miles of new fence along the U.S.-Mexico border — even if their unspoiled desert boundary risks drawing more illegal traffic as the rest of the line is sealed off.

"The river doesn't divide us here," said local historian Enrique Madrid, raising his voice over the joyful screams of kids, from both sides of Rio Grande, whacking at a pinata during a recent birthday party in the tiny river hamlet of Redford.

"We've crossed it long before the United States existed," he continued. "And we'll be crossing it a long time after the United States disappears."

New walls are doubling up existing barriers in California, closing wide desert valleys in Arizona and New Mexico and fencing off more populated areas of the South Texas riverbank. The new construction will leave some 630 miles along the Big Bend as the longest unfenced piece of southern U.S. frontier.

Here the Rio Grande cuts an elegantly simple border, splitting the two countries into cane-choked banks or towering limestone cliffs. The wet line in the sand means nothing to the desert's circling buzzards and migrating black bears, but it complicates life for the two-nation families and isolated local economies that need both halves of this desert to survive.

Redford, a knot of adobe homes and alfalfa fields some 300 miles downriver from El Paso, made headlines in 1997 when U.S. Marines on a secret anti-drug mission mistakenly gunned down a local high school student, Esequiel Hernandez, Jr., as he herded goats along the Texas bank.
His death prompted the cancellation of U.S. military anti-drug operations amid heated debate over whether soldiers trained to kill foreign enemies can sort friend from foe along America's often uncertain edges.

The alliances are tangled even within Hernandez's own family: A brother has pleaded guilty to smuggling immigrants, while a nephew is applying to the Border Patrol.

Such is life along this skinny stretch of the river, where native peoples built the first settlement on the site of present-day Redford around 1200 A.D.

Local residents crossed freely with the Border Patrol's tacit permission until 2001. Following the 9/11 attacks, agents declared the crossing closed and blockaded its bank with a few small boulders.

The rocks do not stop Amado Bustamante, 79, who lives across from Redford in the Mexican village of El Mulato, from wading across once a month to buy a box of lard.

"It's cheaper" on the Texas side, he said with a smile. "And they haven't caught us yet."

With only 373 agents to cover 510 miles of river, the Border Patrol's Marfa Sector tends to play its defense well behind the line, focusing on highway checkpoints between the border and Interstate 10, a hundred miles or more to the north. Agents also patrol back roads through mountain ranges stretching as much as 5,000 feet above both sides of the river. They visit traditional crossings like Redford as time permits.

"Nature has kindly fenced a lot of this area for us," says Chief Patrol Agent John Smietana.
"We're not able to cover, or even get to, the river in a lot of places on a regular basis. So it is possible to cross the river very easily in some of those places. The hard part is then getting from the river up to one of the roads to get away."

Anecdotal evidence suggests more migrants and smugglers may be willing to try.

Trend-spotting is difficult in the Big Bend since its relatively small enforcement numbers can be tipped by one big bust. But marijuana seizures are up 16 percent this year while the Border Patrol has rescued 11 stranded migrants — more saved than any year on record, though still a trickle compared to the hundreds rescued each year farther west in Arizona.

Other indicators are harder to miss. Ojinaga, a small Mexican border city across from Presidio, just upriver from Redford, has seen an unheard-of 10 drug-related killings so far this year — the last two in a midday hail of bullets on a main street.

The violence has kept to the Mexican side, even as the smuggling crosses over. In March, Border Patrol investigators broke up a local migrant smuggling operation that employed Francisco Hernandez, brother of the late Esequiel, and his wife, Paula.

Hernandez admitted bringing at least 29 migrants through the Redford crossing over the last three years, allegedly receiving $400 per person from the ringleader, Jose Franco of Odessa. Franco then paid a local cowboy to drive them on ranch roads around a Border Patrol checkpoint, according to court documents.

The cowboy was released without charge after helping investigators set up the sting that brought the group down. In August, Franco received a reduced 21-month sentence after testifying against the Hernandez couple, whose small Redford home faces likely government seizure. Both pleaded guilty to transporting illegal aliens, and face sentencing this month. Court documents allege Paula gave dry clothes to migrants after they crossed the river.

The cowboy — who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from others involved — said word had spread quickly of an easy crossing on the Big Bend's back roads, where migrants did not need to risk a long desert hike or crowd dangerously into sealed tractor-trailers.

"Word of mouth would get around that not only was it safe, but they were treated well," the cowboy said. Migrants generally rode north on the floor of a Chevy Suburban with a sheet over their heads, he said. "They weren't wrapped up in carpets. They were fed. They were able to go to the bathroom."

Smuggling wages are tempting in Presidio County, one of the poorest in the country, where a third of the 8,000 residents live in poverty.

A year after Esequiel's death, the Hernandez family won a $1.9 million wrongful death settlement from the government. But the money was set aside to care for his aging parents, and Francisco never saw much of it, according to his older brother Margarito Hernandez, Sr., a police officer in Presidio.

Francisco "doesn't have a steady job, and he's got five kids," said Margarito. "Those are factors people will take advantage of, if they know you're in need."

The Border Patrol now plans to double its Marfa Sector agents and install vehicle barriers at 30 illegal Big Bend crossings, including Redford's. Six miles of proposed fence flanking Presidio have been postponed after construction bids came in over budget.

But these barriers will not stop locals from splashing through a boundary their forebears have crossed for centuries.

Margarito Hernandez Jr., son of the Presidio policeman, remembers pedaling bikes with his cousins into the Rio Grande "just to see who could actually get to the other side."

Chatting at the birthday party, Margarito, 19, said he has applied to the Border Patrol and dreams of being posted to his family's often unpatrolled hometown as an agent who understands just how muddy a line the river can be.

He nodded his cowboy hat towards a low rise over the river where a white cross marks the spot Esequiel was killed.

"I don't see why an agent couldn't be up there on that hill."

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