By John MacCormack
San Antonio Express-News
LAJITAS, Texas, July 1, 2002 Erected a few months ago at the river crossing just west of town, the metal marker traces the use of the traditional Rio Grande ford from Spanish conquistadors to 20th century “bootleggers, bandits and businessmen.”
“Today, the historic crossing connects two nations and cultures, and is used by tourists and travelers from around the world,” concludes the bright new inscription.
But that ended abruptly in May when the Border Patrol raided Lajitas as part of a broad campaign to close all such informal border crossings in West Texas.
“They came down in force, with unmarked vehicles and a helicopter, and it was ugly, very ugly,” said Rick Page, who operates the Lajitas Trading Post, a magnet for customers from both sides of the Rio Grande since 1899.
“We called it the invasion,” he said. “They came at check-cashing time and rounded people up. It was very intimidating. What we don’t know is why. Is it terrorism? Is it drugs?”
And as petitions circulate in Terlingua, Study Butte and Lajitas asking that the crossing be reopened, all that is certain is that the easygoing cross-border life here has drastically changed.
A stout metal cable blocks vehicles at the crossing. Green and white Border Patrol vehicles regularly monitor the site. And Jose Rodriguez Puentes, the third-generation Mexican boatman who ferried people across the river and who was arrested in the May 10 raid, remains in U.S. custody, awaiting deportation.
Across the river, in San Carlos and Paso Lajitas (Mexican towns linked by blood, economy and tradition to nearby Big Bend communities), restaurants and stores dependent upon U.S. tourists have already closed.
Mexican children who until recently attended the Terlingua school have an uncertain future.
“We can’t even go over there to buy food or go to school,” complained Manuel Benavides, 14, last week as he and some buddies huddled on the Mexican bank.
“Paso Lajitas is almost empty. The people have all gone. Everyone thinks it is unjust,” he called across the ankle-deep stream.
In what to many is the last frontier, where freedom and individualism are prized and federal authorities are merely tolerated, the crackdown has left bitterness.
But to the man who wants to close such unregulated crossings around West Texas, including several in the nearby Big Bend National Park, the actions were justified and long overdue.
“I don’t make the laws. I enforce them, and if I had had the resources five years ago, I would have closed every illegal crossing in the sector,” said Simon Garza Jr., chief of the Marfa Border Patrol Sector.
“I do feel for the people in these communities, but the overriding factor is security for my country. The world is a different place now, and now I am able to respond,” he said.
With 420 miles of river to patrol and the fewest agents of any sector along the Mexican border, the lightly populated Big Bend area has always had the Border Patrol stretched thin.
But, Garza said, the recent addition of 20 new agents, some new patrol vehicles and a helicopter have let him extend his reach to the smaller crossings.
“I want to control the border at the border,” he said, citing a policy already well known in previous Border Patrol operations from El Paso to Brownsville.
Although Garza did not cite any specific drug or terrorist threat centered at Lajitas, he said daily traffic had grown to where it could no longer be overlooked.
“In times past, the biggest threat in Lajitas may have been a few tourists going back and forth, but that evolved to where there were 150 to 175 people crossing a day, and that’s something we could not tolerate,” he said.
Since the attacks of Sept. 11, Garza said, the dangers of any border breach have been terribly magnified. Threats that once might have seemed improbable must now be taken seriously.
“Who on Earth thought there was a threat of someone hijacking an airplane and crashing it into the Twin Towers or the Pentagon?” he asked.
“It’s no secret that the borders here are vast and perhaps are wide open. If some unscrupulous group could find an easy place, they would absolutely take advantage of that. I think it’s naïve not to think so,” he said.
Despite descriptions by the Border Patrol of the Lajitas raids as “routine,” federal authorities for decades turned a blind eye to traffic at such crossings.
From La Linda, a mining ghost town just downriver from the national park all the way west to Porvenir, the Marfa Sector is riddled with crossings that have not been manned by federal personnel for years.
Many of the smaller crossings once had legal status as Class B ports of entry, unstaffed sites where people of legal status could come and go without inspection.
At one time, there were seven such ports in the Big Bend, including Lajitas, Candelaria and Redford. By the mid-1990s, all had been phased out, leaving Presidio the only legal port of entry in the region.
But Presidio is an hour away from Candelaria or Lajitas, and much farther by Mexican roads. And even if the legal status of their ports expired, locals along the border did not change their crossing habits.
Redford, for example, sits across from El Mulato and Las Palomas, Candelaria across from San Antonio del Bravo, Boquillas del Carmen from the Big Bend National Park, and so on.
Often the family and social ties across the river are strong.
In Redford, a tiny farming community downriver from Presidio, locals still walk or ride burros daily back and forth to Mexico, even though the Border Patrol has blocked vehicles from crossing and now runs regular patrols.
It was here, five years ago that Esequiel Hernandez, an 18-year-old local boy out herding goats, was shot to death by U.S. Marines on secret drug patrol beside the river.
Old wounds have never healed, and sensitivity to any armed federal presence remains high. The new Border Patrol policy is seen by some as a step toward the remilitarization of the border.
“It’s pure mean-spiritedness. It’s gunboat diplomacy,” growled Enrique Madrid, 54, a longtime local resident.
“There have been human beings in the Big Bend for 12,000 years, and they have been using those crossings for just as long. To think you can shut down a crossing that ancient is just cultural ignorance,” he said.
“The border is just a political boundary. It just separates a society that is the same on both sides - the same people, language and religion,” he said.
Father Melvin LaFollette, a retired priest in Redford who served the faithful on both sides of the Rio Grande using many of the local crossings, said it is absurd to close them.
“Everyone thinks it is crazy. To say there is no legal place to cross the Rio Grande between Del Rio and Presidio is just plain crazy. There used to be legal crossings,” he said.
“Their excuse for closing the Class B ports was they didn’t have enough staff. Well now they’ve got plenty of staff, and they should facilitate people who have legal reasons to cross back and forth.”
Nearby Mexican residents of El Mulato, Las Palomas and Loma de Juárez still regularly come to Redford to pick up their mail, make phone calls or attend church, but with heightened anxiety.
Diana Valenzuela, whose home sits right next to the traditional crossing, said the new policy has also alarmed local people and crimped their habits and customs.
“I used to cross over on Sundays. My mother-in-law lives in Las Palomas, and that’s the day we all get together,” she said.
“She used to come over, but she’s 80-something and she doesn’t want to deal with it. They make her nervous,” said Valenzuela of the increased patrols.
“Terrorists? Not here. Drugs? I’m sure it has to be coming through on any part of the border, but most of it will be down at the port of entry (in Presidio).
“As far as being afraid of drug traffickers, we’re more afraid of what the Border Patrol or some deputy sheriff might do,” she said.
To the west, in the Big Bend National Park, a stern warning sign now advises tourists against making the popular boat trip over to Boquillas del Carmen, where a few dollars bought a donkey ride, a souvenir or two and a cold drink in Falcon’s store.
Now, a trip to Mexico could buy someone something else.
“If you enter the U.S. within the Big Bend National Park, you may be liable for a fine of not more than $5,000 or imprisonment of not more than one year or both,” reads the sign posted by the boatman’s vacant river bank lean-to.
Other crossings to Santa Elena and San Vicente are also closed, said Frank Deckert, superintendent of the park which annually hosts “Good Neighbor Day,” inviting all Mexicans from the towns across the river to a summer bash.
“Our position all along is that we’d like to see the traditional uses of the crossings re-established,” Deckert said. “We’re discussing this off and on with both Customs and Border Patrol. We recognize their concerns, but I’m looking for outcomes, not positions.
“Does closing these borders make it better or worse for terrorism? Our position is, it may make it worse. We’d rather have them as friends than thinking of us as the enemy.”
In the tiny campground store at Rio Grande Village, where citizens of Boquillas used to come daily to buy frozen meat, milk and other essentials, none have appeared for over a month.
“My business is down 40-50 percent because of the drop in Mexican trade,” said Gary Martin, 38, who also has a highly personal stake in the ongoing debate.
“My wife is from San Vicente, and we used to go over there every two weeks and visit her family, bring them food, and now we can’t do it.
“We also have a 3-month-old baby, and my wife’s mother loved seeing that baby every two weeks. No longer. Like I said, they’re hurting the good people, not the bad people.”
To Brewster County Judge Val Beard, all the commotion and angry reaction over the Border Patrol crackdown on Lajitas has put a sharp focus on the need for additional legal crossings.
“We’re in an awkward, ridiculous situation, where people who have legitimate business to conduct across the border here cannot do so,” she said.
“There has to be a better way than completely open crossings like we had or totally closed crossings like we have now. We need several legal crossings in Brewster County,” she said.
A petition is now making the rounds on both sides of the river asking that the Lajitas crossing be reopened, and its backers are hoping that an administrative remedy can be found.
“They have come up with solutions to situations on the Canadian border identical to what we have here. Why can’t they do it here as well?” asked Pat Kerns, a lawyer and a major in the Air Force Reserve.
“Our community is very united on this. We think there has to be a solution, and we’ll work through legal channels to find one. This is one community. It’s not just us and a bunch of illegal aliens,” she said.
Garza, the chief of the Border Patrol Sector, said he will support any such outcome, but until one arrives, he will try and keep the crossing closed.
“If someone can come up with an administrative solution and get legal crossings established at any of these locations, I will support it. It’s a marvelous solution,” he said.
“But in the meantime, I have no choice but to cover the border, and enforce the law.”