When Linda Walker drives north on Highway 118 from her West Texas home in Terlingua toward Alpine, she spots the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint ahead and thinks to herself, "Do I have time today?" Does she have time, she asks, to get “belligerent” with the agents, in their now ubiquitous green fatigues, who will inevitably ask about her citizenship? And that's not all.
“They’ll ask where you’re coming from, where you’re going,” says Walker, who owns Big Bend Stables in Study Butte and the Lajitas Stables. “Their new question is, ‘Have you seen anything suspicious?’ You drive out of here in the evening and there’s a good chance there’s going to be a patrolman right on your ass to pull you over because he doesn’t have anything better to do.”
Border Patrol agents say they stick only to asking about citizenship when questioning drivers; Walker says she gets grilled for much more. She is what agents call a “crabby” local — and as their ranks have swelled in Brewster and Presidio counties, so has the number of crabby locals who would just as soon be left alone.
Since 2006, about 500 additional agents have been assigned to the Border Patrol’s sprawling Marfa Sector, which covers 165,000 square miles, including 510 miles of border. The sector now has about 700 agents. The Border Patrol has massively stepped up its recruitment efforts in the last four years, upping the number of agents nationwide from 12,000 to 20,000, says Marfa Sector spokesman Bill Brooks. While they have always patrolled the southernmost regions of Brewster County, most were assigned to the northern towns of Alpine and Marathon until recently. Today, they patrol closer to the Rio Grande in remote places like Terlingua. “Before, we had to sit and wait for [illegal traffickers] to come to us,” Brooks says. “Now we can catch them a little quicker, or get behind them.”
To be sure, many residents here feel safer with more agents scanning for drug traffickers. But others who have lived for decades in these isolated areas see all the added security as overkill in what is a relatively safe region. The only populated border cities of any size for hundreds of miles are Presidio and Ojinaga, and together those communities number fewer than 30,000. The rugged landscape here — jagged mountains and brutal desert line both sides of the Rio Grande — keeps the drug trafficking significantly lower than in other border areas. Marfa Sector agents have made 4,384 arrests since October of last year, drastically lower than their counterparts in Tucson, the busiest border sector, who made more than 183,000. The area’s isolation and foreboding terrain have also kept the drug cartels from infiltrating the Mexican lands across the river from Brewster County, though some still manage to make it across.
“These counties have been significant drug corridors, but because we’re so huge and spread out, a lot of activity goes unnoticed,” says Brewster County Judge Val Beard. “We still have traffic, but nothing like the levels of other areas.”
Bored on the Border
Most of the new Border Patrol agents come from all corners of the United States and are unfamiliar with the laid-back flow of rural country living, residents say. Veteran agents — the ones folks have come to know as neighbors — grew up in the area, mostly in towns like Alpine, Marfa and Fort Davis, and they are active members of their communities. Those larger towns also are accustomed to seeing agents tooling around in their white SUVs, touring area schools, eating at local restaurants and coaching little league baseball games. In far-flung border outposts like Terlingua, the new agents don't quite fit in.
Brent Charlesworth, who manages Paisano Cattle Company ranch in Marathon, along Highway 385, and serves on the Marathon school board, says the new agents have not made an effort to ingratiate themselves to his community. Border Patrol agents have destroyed gates and cattle guards on his ranch, he says. (Agents are legally allowed to patrol private ranch land within 25 miles of the river, but Charlesworth's land is further north, so he has limited the agency’s access to Paisano ranch.)
“The government hired so many so fast that they don’t have an etiquette or bedside manner of country life,” Charlesworth says. “There’s a different way you talk to ranchers and people who live here and make their livings in small town communities.”
Border Patrol Agent Robert Dominguez, a Marfa native who is a supervisor in the Marfa Sector, says it takes time and commitment to get used to life out that way. It took him four years to memorize the landmarks and navigate the threatening desert and mountains. He still doesn’t know every nook and cranny. Many of the new agents and their families find the sector’s remoteness and isolation challenging, he says.
As agents have moved south, residents of the towns of Terlingua, Study Butte and Lajitas have had to adjust to more faces of authority. In the past, Border Patrol agents were few and far between along the river in and around Big Bend National Park. Mike Long, owner of the Desert Sports river tour shop in Terlingua, says that when he first moved out in 1986, he saw a Border Patrol car every few days. Now he sees several every day parked alongside the highway, occupied by young, bored-looking agents.
“We see them all over the place,” he says. “The new kids in the area don’t seem as approachable as the old agents.”
Line in the sand
Locals say their opinions about Border Patrol turned radically negative in 2002, when the three unofficial river crossings, called Class B ports of entry, were unexpectedly shut down. The crossings — one at Boquillas Canyon on the east end of Big Bend National Park, one at Santa Elena Canyon on the west side of the park and one at Lajitas about 15 miles further west — were used by locals in both Mexico and Texas to get to work and trade goods. Visitors to the area parks could take day trips to the hamlets across the river for a slice of rural Mexican culture. Though the crossings were officially closed in 1996, the new regulation wasn’t enforced until after 9/11. Now, residents must travel 300 miles east to Del Rio or 60 miles west to Presidio to cross the border at a port of entry.
Walker, who feels so safe in Terlingua that she doesn’t lock her doors, says the closings ended essential contact with the town’s Mexican neighbors. The Mexican villages relied on visitors from the United States filling their restaurants and small shops, and since 2002, many businesses have been abandoned.
“We stopped having that free communication, and when you limit access to each other, you begin to limit understanding, cooperation and coordination,” Walker says.
Many Terlingua residents say Border Patrol agents have fueled local resentment by stopping drivers without reason. They say agents have nothing better to do than harass the locals. Border Patrol spokesman Brooks counters that federal law requires agents to articulate their reasons for stopping drivers. They only pull people over, he says, for reasonable suspicion of a crime.
“I see them sitting around waiting for something to happen, waiting for a call,” says Cindy Burns, a Terlingua resident who works at Desert Sports. “The area is so harsh and unfriendly that they rarely got out of their air-conditioned cars.”
Burns, who says she makes an effort to wave to agents, says they don’t make much effort to improve their status in the community. “I think they know that they’re not well-liked, but you don’t see them having coffee and striking up conversation with the table next to them.”
Brooks says Marfa Sector agents are trying to improve their relationships in the tiny border communities. They’re planning open houses at their stations, where locals can learn more about the job. The Border Patrol has also recently acquired its own ambulances, which are available to the local emergency service stations to use when their own ambulances aren’t available, he says.
Greg Hennington, the chief of Terlingua Fire and EMS Services, a member of the Brewster County tourism council and the owner of Far Flung Outdoor Center in Terlingua, says he's had a long-standing positive relationship with Border Patrol. Agents have been on hand to help in emergency medical situations, and tourists visiting the Big Bend area have told him the multitude of agents make them more comfortable. "Their presence is more visible these days because of Sept. 11, but the world has changed," Hennington says. "[Terlingua Fire and EMS] have a 300-square-mile service area, and it's nice to have another set of hands around."
Hennington says he's worked closely with Border Patrol agents in Terlingua, Marfa and Alpine in the 17 years he's lived in the area and that he understands they have a job to do. "There's always a learning curve," he says.
Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to reflect an initial reporting error in the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents assigned to the Marfa Sector. Citing security concerns, the agency initially declined to provide the specific number of agents assigned to the sector, but subsequently a Border Patrol spokesman said the number of agents increased by about 500 since 2006, and now there are about 700 agents in the Marfa Sector.