A major policy shift is underway on the Mexican border. It’s been called the Berlin Wall, the Wall of Shame and even the Wall of Hate – Muro del Odio. Following the failure of Congress and the Bush administration to forge new immigration policies, those looking north have only the face of Homeland Security to judge us by. That face is the Wall.

Those looking south often see Mexico through a smoke screen of media hysterics and yammering about a “broken border.” They don’t realize that the border isn’t broken, it just bends and sways, like the river and the adaptable people that define it.

The killing of a Texas teen a decade ago by U.S. Marines slowed the pace of militarization, but Sept. 11–inspired fears, a dose of national racism and a redefined national police force known as the Border Patrol have brought the machinery of low-intensity conflict back with a vengeance.

So, I followed the Wall and visited with those who call the Rio Grande River home. They are very, very worried.

The forgotten river

Where we are standing is called Neely’s Crossing, but it is really nowhere. A quiet river, an earthen berm, sun and wind. My guide for the day glides over a barbed-wire fence and heads to water. Here the view of the Rio Grande is clear, but above and below us it slinks away behind voracious salt cedar, mesquite and stout lines of elegant river cane. In the adjacent wetlands and salty flats, a lone set of cattle tracks leads into deep brush 40 miles downstream from El Paso. The tracks lead to El Rio.

Two years ago, this spot was scene to a brief-but-dramatic standoff involving what appeared to be a Mexican Army outfit assisting a marijuana shipment across the river. The crew rode in machine gun–mounted Humvees, observed from this side by an assortment of seriously outgunned U.S. Border Patrol agents, sheriff’s deputies and Texas State Troopers. While no shots were fired, a stranded Humvee was set on fire in the river by the retreating smugglers.

That event made Neely’s Crossing someplace, as far as the feds were concerned. In response, a 4.6-mile fence up to 18 feet high and capable of withstanding the assault of a 10,000-pound vehicle at 40 mph is going up. Border wall ambitions launched by the U.S. Secure Fence Act of 2006 have set an eager Homeland Security boss into a frenzy of land seizures and lawsuits as he tries to wall his way across Texas. To these few secluded miles, add 6.2 miles of fence sandwiching the Presidio Port of Entry and another 120 on the other side of Big Bend National Park and into the Rio Grande Valley.

We’ve been following the river for an hour along Ranch Road 192 and crossed paths with only one other traveler, a local farmer hauling an empty trailer. Bill Addington is taking me to see the farm his family leases farther downstream, part of which they will lose if the proposed wall takes root and grows half as effectively as the introduced tamarisks choking life from the river. But he has something else in mind first.

As we approach Indian Hot Springs, a sacred site now in private hands south of the former home of the region’s most renowned curandera, or natural healer, a dog rushes the car in a blizzard of barking. I can just make out a black hat and a gesture above the rise beside us as we pass below the first house we’ve seen.

“Go ahead and stop here,” Addington says. As I kill the engine the dog turns and pads away and we’re soon standing before three rock-pile graves crested with dark wooden crosses. The remains of Buffalo Soldiers lie here, black Union troops utilized in the war on the native Apache more than a century ago. Others are farther downhill.

Carefully, a mounted cowboy crosses down and up the arroyo to look us over. I relax only after I see he didn’t bother to fill his rifle case before packing over.

He recognizes Addington, naturally, who has had a hand in every fight worth fighting in these lesser-known reaches of Texas. First there was the defeat of the proposed Sierra Blanca nuke dump that cost him his marriage, then the heavy-metal-laced New York City sludge fight, during which the family lumberyard burned down in a questionable fire. Now we have the wall.

Like families across these western reaches of serpentine greenery, a section of El Rio known as the Forgotten River stretching from here to Lake Amistad on the other side of the Big Bend, the cowboy checking us out straddles two worlds. He has a home on both banks. He runs cattle on both sides. His wife is a Mexican national. When I ask his name, he stumbles. Do I want his gringo name or what he goes by?

“Whichever you prefer,” I say. “The name you use.”

The man with swollen, work-shaped hands, leather cowboy hat and black pearl-snap shirt introduces himself as Eddie Roberto Raymundo. We’re to call him Mundo. If the wall comes here, he says, he’ll slip over to Mexico, where there is more freedom.

“I just don’t go along with putting this fence up,” Mundo says. “The Border Patrol, they’re trying to do their best … but when you’re living on the Rio Grande and they’re just right next door to you, what’s the problem of going over to his home to eat or him coming to your house to eat?”

Then, with quintessential Mexican hospitality, he invites us to his house. He brags on the “no chemical” Mexican chicken being served. Not like what you get in U.S. supermarkets, he says. As we talk about walls and fences and neighbors, Mundo, who can’t read or write, sums up the sentiment of the dozens of river residents I am going to meet this week in a phrase. “Nothing’s really perfect,” he says, “but our freedom should be perfect. Your freedom should be a perfect thing.”

Out here, on this little-visited portion of river, that almost seems possible. You have to forgive an old man his flights of American Revolutionary fancy.

With the sun submitting to the hills, we trace our way back past the Devil’s Backbone to get back to town before dark. Knowing we have tripped untold numbers of buried ground sensors, we’re expecting a green-and-white escort as soon as we get back to blacktop. We’re not disappointed. After the flashing lights in the rearview comes the routine interrogation. Where have we been? What were we doing? It helps to have a local resident and celebrity activist in the car. We’re back on our way even as a second migra wagon approaches for backup.

Back in Sierra Blanca, we pull alongside Addington’s neighbor, a sheriff’s deputy in orthopedic shoes, dark shorts and undershirt. He nearly spits when we mention the wall. “It won’t do a thing,” he says. “It’s a joke.” Even if a fence were the solution, what good is an obscure 4.6-mile fence floating on 2,000 border miles?

Addington argues the ecological solution – removal of the dense salt cedars, which suck millions of gallons from the river while increasing its salinity – could also be the security solution. Their removal would offer law enforcement extended “lines of sight,” making it easy to patrol.

The river, an icon of the American West, has other challenges besides invasive cedars. A decade ago, researchers found 26 toxic chemicals in its lower reaches and pegged the area downstream of El Paso as particularly tainted. State regulators determined that drinking the water or eating the fish could lead to health problems “over the course of a human lifetime.” Of course, river residents for untold lifetimes have made this river their supermarket – and more besides. Mud and reeds from the river are used for building materials. Firewood is gathered along this desert grace in the winter months. There are also healing and ceremonial herbs still sought out in these parts. However, with the fences on the way, a new attitude about how close is too close for U.S. citizens is on display at the river, and immigration sweeps have been stepped up.

The melon fence

The Forgotten River – which loses its swimmability rating after crossing through El Paso for a reach – is discovered again when it connects with the channeled Rio Conchos at the “junction,” or La Junta de los Rios.

If it weren’t for the healthier Conchos flowing from Mexico, the Grand River would never make it to the grapefruit fields of the Rio Grande Valley. Likewise, if it weren’t for the larger, economically humming Ojinaga, Mexico, the town I’m entering, Presidio, would be a much poorer place.

You can see it best at night, when 4,200-population Presidio practically expires and the burning lights of 20,000-population Ojinaga shine clear as tangled starlight. The fields here have been cultivated continuously for thousands of years. In fact, it is thought this spot is the oldest continuously cultivated spot in North America. These days, however, many of the Presidio fields are going fallow.

Presidio County commissioner Carlos Armendariz drives me through his 700-plus acres along the river. Homeland Security hopes to place 3.1-mile hunks of fencing along the levee both above and below the Presidio Port of Entry. With that goes a chunk of the Armendariz farm.

Both the city council and the county commissioners here have passed resolutions opposing the wall. All I speak with here believe it is an insult to their friends, families and neighbors over the bridge. Still, it’s not one of the issues being debated in any of the contested local elections. “What can we do about it?” Armendariz, who himself is facing a challenge for his political title, asks.

He reminds me that Congress gave Department of Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff startling power under the Real ID Act, a provision of which allows Chertoff the legal support to override such inconveniences as the Endangered Species Act and virtually any other federal law that stands to slows his pace.

“It’s like you put a hundred-dollar bill in my pocket,” Armendariz says. “You may say, ‘Give it back,’ but you put it there and I’m going to spend it.”

Not so many years ago Armendariz and his brother, Louis, had 200 acres of melon and 200 acres of onions growing in this alluvial soil. Their payroll fluctuated from $5 million to $7 million each year. As many as 400 so-called “illegal” workers would cross the river directly into the fields – some with temporary worker permits, some without – work the day, and maybe head to the grocery or gas station before returning home again. Getting paid by the crate or sack, the workers earned well above the federally mandated wage, Carlos says. The brothers agree that physical barriers aren’t needed here; good policies are. That includes an open border.

“The fence that we had was right on that patch of cantaloupe, because they would work and then go back home,” Armendariz says. But increased scrutiny of the laborers’ paperwork over time began to reduce the number of workers willing to cross. Pretty soon, the brothers found themselves without a workforce.

“They went on to California and New York. Why? Because immigration was enforcing this law here but not out there,” Armendariz insists.

Now the brothers plant alfalfa, something they can plant and harvest on their own with some aging farm equipment. Still, vast sections of their land have been taken over by brush.

“This land has been under cultivation for more than 500 years, and the wall is going to take care of that,” his brother Louis says. “Fences don’t make friends. Good relations, respect, is the best wall that anybody can have.”

Terror from within

Good relations with the many federal agencies here have been hard to maintain through the years. There are numerous reasons for this, but none as obvious as what happened in Redford in 1997.

You can blame the bullet, or the shooter, or even the innocent victim. Most folks here will tell you that bureaucratic ignorance was to blame for the U.S. Marines in night-vision goggles and bush suits. They came to hunt drug runners in this sleepy river town. They shot and killed a beloved high-schooler instead.

Herding goats near the family home on an unremarkable night, Esequiel Hernandez Jr. had no reason to believe he was being observed by anything other than a curious coyote or a rabbit when he shot into the brush with his granddad’s .22 rifle. But the 18-year-old’s bullet was answered by a hidden patrol that had been tracking the boy for more than 20 minutes. The killing was a national scandal. Troops were pulled out. Grand jury investigations were launched. And local Redford residents were testifying in Washington, D.C.

For a while at least, as the federal attorneys finished working out their $2 million settlement with the Hernandez family, things did quiet down. Lately, however, surveillance has increased dramatically, locals say. Just as it had before the shooting.

Up a dusty drive and past a series of chicken coops and fenced-off gardens, I find Father Mel, the area’s retired circuit-riding priest. Any given Sunday, until he retired a few years ago, Father Mel La Follette would put 200 miles on his truck, serving congregations up and down both sides of the river.

As part of the Redford Citizens Committee for Justice, he was with the delegation that spoke with then-Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey and a raft of Congress members.

As I enter his home, Father Mel has satellite radio news playing and C-SPAN muted on the tube. Like most of those still living in Redford, he has become more politically engaged since the shooting.

“I don’t know how long they had Marines hiding before they shot somebody, but there was a definite change in tone, and then they shot, they shot our boy.”

Given the briefings the Marines received, the shooting was almost inevitable.

“They come in with all their weapons and have been told that everybody here is a drug dealer and it’s a hostile population and nobody can be up to any good. … They also were told people often use a herd of goats to shield their illegal activities,” La Follette tells me.

Now with Homeland Security and the Border Patrol preparing to secure what amounts to a new border along proposed fence line, a hundred yards from the actual international boundary of the river’s center, there have come increased police actions. The arrest of one Redford man on charges of terroristic threat when he tried to shout a Border Patrol agent off his land doesn’t sit well with locals. A series of immigration sweeps around the Terlingua Ghost Town on the edge of Big Bend National Park, about 50 miles further downriver, chafes too.

The raids reminds residents of the period of conflict that descended on them in 2002 when the Border Patrol shut down a string of “unofficial” crossings up and down this river region, and immigration raids included dark helicopters overhead and unpleasant scenes below.

When it comes to all things border, residents of the interior and the national representatives they elect are “so totally out of touch, they might as well be from Mars,” Father Mel says. “Even some of the people who live farther up in Texas don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Across the street at the post office, Rosendo Evaro, a lifelong Redford resident, chats with me in the afternoon sun.

“I tell you in my whole life, in 75 years, there was only one Congressman that came over here, him and his wife, shaking hands with every family, to every house, and that was Congressman [Richard] White. At least he got an idea if we had pigs or chickens or what, right? But in Washington? Shit. They don’t know nothing. They say that all Presidio County is nothing but bootleggers.” He laughs, but it is obvious he is troubled by the pain that implemented ignorance has caused. “Since they are big shots, everybody believes them. But, I don’t know, this is the most peaceful place on earth.”

Evaro suggests that the Border Patrol operates the same way Texas Rangers did years ago. “Same way Texas Rangers would kill Mexicans 100 years ago so the checks would keep coming, that’s the way the Border Patrol does their job.”

It’s not just memories of injustices against Mexicans that fuel resentment here. There are also those awakening to earlier identities – indigenous identities.

Roberto Lujan pulls an O’Doul’s from the cooler. The lights from the port, from Ojinaga, blaze on the dark horizon as we lean against the vehicles in the carport.

Lujan’s grandfather came from a pueblo not far from here, across the river. He worked the mercury mines of Terlingua before gravitating north to Alpine.

When Roberto entered school, the town was still segregated. The only Anglos he ever met before the schools finally merged in 1969 (a full 15 years after the Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal” an injustice) were the white special-ed students that for whatever reason were shipped south to Hispanic Centennial School.

While Lujan’s family has continued to splinter and spread across the country, he is the only one who has returned to the border.

His study of his family history has helped him to investigate and embrace his roots as a Jumano Apache. That in turn has given him a new perspective on the military forts that spawned towns such as Fort Hancock, Fort Davis and Fort Stockton. He calls them the “extermination camps of indigenous ancestry.”

“Now we have Border Patrol posts. They’re very reminiscent of what we had back then. It’s like to keep people on the rez,” he says. “You literally have to check out of here on Highway 118.”

The same goes for any of the northbound roads from here. The flashing lights of the checkpoints mean you must stop. You must declare your citizenship. Then you are also asked where you are coming from and where you are going. It’s up to the officer where those questions stop. Then you are either on your way, allowing a search of your vehicle, or, if you refuse the search, settling in for a long wait on the search warrant from town.

For veterans like Lujan, it’s insulting.

“We’re not criminals. We’re traveling on a highway that was paid by our tax dollars.”

Meanwhile, the Border Patrol is working to hire 4,000 new agents – agents whose first posting is the American Southwest, agents whose mission is no longer principally drugs and illegal immigration, but hunting terrorists. Recruitment brochures call this borderland the “front line on the war on terror.” Unfortunately, there are thousands of river residents who live on that “front line.” And the worst terrors they’ve seen have come from within.

A version of this story first appeared in the San Antonio Current.

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