High and Dry

Eros Hoagland
A US Border Patrol agent, New Mexico, 2009; photograph by Eros Hoagland from his book Reckoning: At the Frontier, published by Kehrer in 2014

On the first page of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, Francisco Cantú uses the phrase “broken earth” to describe the parched ground beneath his feet. It’s an appropriate expression with which to open his account of policing the US–Mexico borderland—an area that the writer Gloria Anzaldúa has described as “una herida abierta,” an open wound, “where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.”1

Cantú is from a mostly Mexican family. He was born in Arizona to a mother who worked as a park ranger and feels a deep connection to the landscape, fauna, and charisma of frontier country. In 2008, against his mother’s counsel, he decided to serve the state in a different way: by joining the Border Patrol. He told her he was tired of reading books about the border and wanted to have a part in its story. During his training, he writes, he was shown lurid scenes of torture and execution by Mexican narco cartels, and told, “This is what you’re up against.”

It becomes clear early on that the Border Patrol agents are not really after major drug traffickers. Cantú’s supervisor warns him, “You don’t want to bring in any bodies with your dope if you can help it. Suspects mean you have a smuggling case on your hands, and that’s a hell of a lot of paperwork.” As a result, as Cantú later tells a friend, “We mostly arrested the little people—smugglers, scouts, mules, coyotes….Mostly I arrested migrants, I confessed. People looking for a better life.” Cantú comes across no serious narcos and only one young man who wants to sell heroin in single doses to make a buck. By and large Cantú and his colleagues arrest people who, as they tell him, just “want to work” in America.

The Line Becomes a River is the story of the four years Cantú spent patrolling. The first of the book’s three parts recounts his daily experiences on the beat. Cantú’s fellow agents indulge in “senseless acts of defilement” and recreational vulgarity:

[Agent] Hart giggled and shouted to us as he pissed on a pile of ransacked [migrants’] belongings….It’s true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth, that we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert and set ablaze.

There is a motive here: “The idea is that when they come out from their hiding places, when they regroup and return to find their stockpiles ransacked and stripped, they’ll realize their situation, that they’re fucked, that it’s hopeless.”

Other abuses are less purposeful: Cantú’s colleagues set cacti ablaze in…

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