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The Open Border


In mid-December I revisited Sarita, a place in the open, flat range country on Texas Route 77, where the only building is a wooden shed—a long converted trailer that houses the US Border Patrol. The Rio Grande and Mexico lie about sixty miles south, but the Sarita checkpoint is the last stop on the road out of the Rio Grande Valley. Many Texans, and most illegal aliens, consider it the real border of the United States.

When I was there last summer the shack seemed to shimmer in the tropical heat, but now a frigid wind howls across the road, rattling the cars and trucks that have been impounded in the parking lot for having transported aliens and drugs. At the door of the shed, a border patrol agent politely asks each motorist passing through, “Are you a US citizen?” He waves most on, but he also opens trunks, taps the sides of doors, climbs inside trailer trucks to inspect the cargo.

Night falls. Whenever the agent orders a vehicle to park, more agents emerge from the shed with flashlights to examine the trunks and trailers for contraband. Usually a dog helps them, but the dog is sick tonight, so the agents themselves crouch and sniff over the cargo and over the opened luggage racks of buses.

The agents, wearing olive drab and stocking caps against the cold, are mostly bilingual Mexican-Americans: they have a tough manner and much experience with the drug trade. A sixth sense seems to tell them when something is amiss, and they are trained to detect the signs of stress—breathless speech, sweating palms, twitching muscles—that betray the smuggler.

Tonight’s catch is like most others. Between sunset and midnight, three drug traffickers, all handcuffed, are taken inside the shed—a Mexican-American truck driver; a black bus passenger; and a blond motorist, long-haired, a junkie, his hands brown from pot, his arms full of holes, whom the border patrolmen immediately label “Charles Manson.” The contraband they carried seems to fill the office—nearly $300,000 worth of marijuana, grown in Mexico and tightly packed in bales of plastic. No cocaine is found tonight, but cocaine seizures worth many millions are not uncommon at this checkpoint.

A seismic sensor hidden in the ground miles away beeps on a computer and signals that someone has been trying to bypass the checkpoint. I get into a dilapidated truck with a pair of patrolmen and we ride into open fields beneath a half-moon. We crouch in the sparse vegetation, waiting for the illegal aliens who the agents know are out there somewhere, moving northward on narrow trails, led probably by a coyote, a smuggler whom they pay to lead them around the checkpoint. No luck; they elude us and escape to the north. When the beeper sounds again the agents do better: they find a dozen aliens squatting in the grass, and when the agents seize them they offer no resistance. They are dressed in summer clothes, and carry a bottle of orange soda to give them energy. One youth wears a medal of the Holy Virgin of Guadalupe. “No me servió—She didn’t help me,” he laughs.

These aliens are mostly Mexican; they will be back in Mexico by dawn. They are led to a murky, windowless cell at the end of the shed along with a young Honduran and an elderly Salvadoran, an evangelical who holds up a Bible as his passport and reads relentlessly to his fellow captives, who fall asleep on the floor.

An hour before dawn, I accompany a pair of agents to check the freight train that passes northward each night on the tracks nearby. It may carry concealed drugs or convey scores of aliens from the border, men, women, and small children, hidden in open gravel gondolas or locked in box cars, or lying down on the roofs or on bars between the wheels. Sometimes the aliens lose their grip and are crushed to death; others suffocate when the sealed cars are left to idle in the sun.

The train rolls slowly on, but I stop counting at a hundred cars. Tonight’s check is cursory: the border patrol is undermanned, and the fierce wind nearly blows the agents off as they leap from roof to roof, seeking aliens they cannot find.

We return to the shed. Soon after dawn, a middle-aged Cuban man driving north from Brownsville in a rented car is arrested with two young women, a boy of nineteen, and a little girl. The Cuban is a legal resident of the US, but his passengers are Nicaraguans with false papers. Trembling, the Cuban is locked up in the tiny felons’ cell with the three drug traffickers: he risks losing his residence permit and may face deportation. The boy is confined with the evangelical Salvadoran, who reads to him from the Bible. The women are locked in the female detention room with the restless child.

Later, in the office amid bales of marijuana, the Nicaraguans are “processed” by the US Border Patrol. The agents read them their rights in Spanish and present them with copious forms to sign. They are from León in western Nicaragua. They say, “We’ve come so far. We were going to Miami.” The child jumps up and down, hugging my boots, but her elders are weeping. “After all they did to us in Mexico…,” her mother says. I tell her that the border patrol are more merciful than the Mexican police.


My night with the border patrol at Sarita marked the end of a journey that began last summer in the Rio Grande Valley and led me deep into Mexico. The valley, extending along the border roughly from Rio Grande City in the west to Brownsville near the Gulf of Mexico, is like a tiny nation. The residents on the Texan side of the river are mostly Mexican in origin (there are few blacks), and while many are bilingual the predominant tongue is Spanish. Brownsville, the US city closest to Central America, attracts multitudes of Central Americans. Across the narrow, twisting river from Brownsville one can see the Mexican city of Matamoros, known for its violence.1

In the normal climate of intense, wet heat, the scenes of daily life along the river—near the International Gateway Bridge and the Brownsville and Matamoros Bridge not far away—may shock the visitor. Naked Mexican men can be seen standing on the opposite bank, waiting to wade across once the US Border Patrol passes. They swim with their clothes in plastic bags on top of their heads, wait in the high grass for their bodies to dry, then dress again. They discard the plastic bags—the shore is littered with them—and then dash toward downtown Brownsville, where they try to blend with the population. Pregnant women wade across the river to have their babies in Brownsville so that they will be US citizens.

Some of the aliens are poor Mexicans from the interior seeking work in the US. Some are “river rats” from Matamoros who spend much of their lives going back and forth between the two border towns. Gangs of undernourished children regularly cross the river to the Amigoland Mall, where they steal not only T-shirts and candy bars, but also gold paint, chrome paint, liquid cement, and glue. They pour the chemicals into Coca-Cola cans and sniff them. The fumes often destroy the membranes of their nostrils, damage their brain cells, and can turn them into idiots. Adult glue-sniffers and drunkards can be found in Hope Park, by the Gateway Bridge, where they knife and rob one another, as well as unlucky refugees who pass their way. At night, on the bridge, gangs of smartly dressed transvestites often rush past the US Customs; some escape arrest, and walk to Market Square, where they loiter on corners, soliciting sexual partners. The Brownsville police told me that dozens of bodies turn up in the river each year, drowned in crossing or dumped there in the drug wars.

Nearly all Mexicans caught by the US Border Patrol are “VR’d.” This means that the Mexican, unless caught committing a crime, waives his right to appear before an immigration judge and accepts immediate “Voluntary Return.” At the border patrol station, or more often in an enclosed van, the agent fills out a multiplicate I-213 form with the alien’s vital particulars, and the Mexican signs another form, an I-274. This can turn into a ritual, with a dozen Mexicans laughing and signing at the same time because it is largely meaningless. They are driven to the bridge where they walk into Mexico, and within half an hour all of them may be back in the United States. A Mexican may cross the river six times a day, but whenever he is caught again he must be “processed”—entangling the patrolman in more paper work as other illegal aliens run free.

In mid-November, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) announced that along the southwestern border from Texas to California it had made nearly one million arrests in 1988 and nearly nine hundred thousand during the first ten months of 1989. The US Census Bureau estimates (conservatively) that between 2.5 and 3 million Central and South Americans are living in the United States, and that most of them arrived during the last decade. The border patrol officials I talked to told me they estimate that during the last two years at least 100,000 Central Americans have illegally entered the Rio Grande Valley.

They come from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala. Fleeing war and misery in their homelands, they soon meet misery of other kinds. Many come by bus, but others walk and hitch rides. Having sold all their possessions, they may carry hundreds or thousands of dollars, but in Guatemala they are sometimes robbed by the police and army. A worse experience awaits them in Mexico, as they proceed a thousand miles up the Gulf Coast from Villahermosa to Vera Cruz to Tampico toward Matamoros and Texas.

In Brownsville, dozens of Central Americans told me chilling tales of how, at bus stations, the Mexican municipal and judicial police often rob them of all they have. On the roads, the federal police not only rob them but drag pretty young women to cement rooms and rape them. When the migrants have no more money, coyotes and taxi drivers, working with the police, sometimes hold them hostage in slums and farmhouses until their families in the US wire them money for ransoms. 2 Some women must sell their bodies to policemen in order to continue up the coast or across the Rio Grande.

In Matamoros, I met thirty-five Salvadoran young men and children locked up in the municipal jail and about to be deported because they could pay no bribes. Coyotes loiter at the Matamoros bus station, claiming they can deliver migrants to Houston for $1,000 or more. Throughout Mexico, many of the migrants have nothing to eat as they move northward. Entire families reach the Rio Grande carrying infants sick from diarrhea and dehydration. Yet on the banks of the river, more terrors await them.

  1. 1

    The Matamoros region was the scene last spring of the infamous satanic cult murders in which an American student was killed. See Gary Cartwright, “The Work of the Devil,” in Texas Monthly (June 1989).

  2. 2

    For more details of this bondage, see Robert Kahn, “Matamoros police ‘selling’ refugees,” in The Brownsville Herald (March 13–14, 1989).

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