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In the Jailhouse Now

When country music icon Willie Nelson got arrested for marijuana possession last week, he wasn’t the only Texas legend who figured in the story. Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West, who put Willie in the local pokey, is a reigning symbol of the years-long fight over border security and immigration.

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When country music icon Willie Nelson got arrested for marijuana possession in far West Texas last week, he wasn’t the only Texas legend who figured in the story. Paunchy, Stetson-wearing Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West, who put Willie in the local pokey, is a reigning symbol of the years-long fight over border security and immigration in Texas. No stranger to the media, he’s made appearances on national television, before Congress and at the state Capitol in Austin, sharing colorful stories about a war in his rural outpost — about piles of drugs, a Mexican military invasion and even potential terrorists.

While there’s no reason to doubt West’s account of arresting Willie — the Border Patrol backs him up, as does the singer’s history — some question whether his other salty tales are based firmly in reality or instead are constructed to drive millions in state and federal money to his department’s coffers. “It’s about turf, jurisdiction, that kind of stuff,” says Tony Payan, a border expert who teaches political science at the University of Texas at El Paso. “It’s about prestige and fame, and it’s about resources.”

West's supporters, though, say he's simply trying to protect his small border community.

West is chairman of the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition, a group he helped start in 2005 along with then-El Paso County Sheriff Leo Samaniego. The coalition formed to help sheriffs in rural Texas border areas present a unified and amplified voice to lawmakers as they lobbied for more resources. West’s has been among the loudest of those voices. In January 2006, he helped stoke national outrage over escalating violence along the border and illegal immigration when he produced a videotape of a standoff between his deputies and alleged Mexican soldiers he said were protecting drug runners. Though the Mexican government denied the allegations and others suggested that the men could have been smugglers simply dressed as soldiers, West remained unconvinced. “I have no political agenda, or a personal agenda, nor is this my 15 minutes of fame,” West told The Dallas Morning News at the time. “This is plain and simple a matter about security, about protecting our county and our country.”

In February of that year, he told a congressional panel it wouldn’t be long before cartels would rig their drug loads with detonators set to explode if seized by law enforcement. The next month, he told a California newspaper, the San Bernardino County Sun, that he worried the cartels had hired hit men to kill U.S. law enforcement. “I’d like for the general public to pray for us,” West said.

Making their case for more border security dollars, West and other border sheriffs told lawmakers they worried that terrorists from the Middle East were working with cartel leaders to exploit the border. And West, railing against the federal government’s inaction on the border, told CNN's Lou Dobbs in September 2007 that with 25 men he could shut down the border.

West and other border sheriffs’ message that they were outgunned and outmanned fell on receptive in ears in Washington and in Austin. Gov. Rick Perry and Texas lawmakers have spent more than $200 million on state-led border security initiatives since 2005. And Washington has sent border sheriffs millions more to help beef up their patrols and buy equipment.

Since 2005, West has hired five additional deputies, taking the total number from 12 to 17 in the 5,000-square-mile rural county. Converted semi-trailers with bunk beds and a kitchen for deputies on patrol sit outside the Hudspeth County Sheriff's Office along with custom-painted trucks. The number of crimes in Hudspeth County was cut in half from 48 to 24, between 2005 to 2009, according to Uniform Crime Reporting data.

But even as patrols increased and crime dropped in his county, West’s reports of fear, drug smuggling and mayhem continued. During a February 2009 appearance on Fox News, where host Glenn Beck called him a “Texas legend,” West said he was pleading with lawmakers for permission to set up his own border checkpoints because U.S. Border Patrol agents weren’t doing a good enough job of finding drugs and stopping them from entering the country. In April of this year, West made national news again when he told local farmers to arm themselves. “As they say, the old story is, it's better to be tried by 12 than carried by six. Damn it, I don't want to see six people carrying you,” West said during a town hall meeting attended by a National Public Radio reporter. And in July, West told Nightline that his county is under siege. "Oh, it's war," he said. "They put out a contract on me and all the deputies. At one time I was worth probably a quarter-million dollars."

There is surely violence, horrific killings and rampant fear just across the border in the small Mexican towns in the Juárez Valley, but lifelong Hudspeth County resident Bill Addington says his home is safer than ever. He still goes fishing on the Rio Grande. His biggest fear is not Mexican cartel thugs but getting in a traffic accident at the always-backed-up Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 10 in the tiny town of Sierra Blanca — the one where Willie was busted.

Border Patrol spokesman Bill Brooks says that when Willie’s tour bus door was opened for a routine search at the checkpoint, agents smelled the pungent aroma of marijuana. They found about 6 ounces of pot and called West to arrest Willie and two other men. It's no wonder Willie got caught, Addington says: There are hundreds more Border Patrol agents and other law enforcement officers in the region than ever before. “It’s overprotected in my opinion,” Addington says. “You can’t go anywhere. You get stopped no matter who you are.”

Addington, who lives not far from West in Sierra Blanca, says he likes the sheriff and has voted for him over the years. But West's portrayal of Hudspeth County as overrun with drug smuggling and violence is a mischaracterization, he says. The closest thing to spillover violence in Hudspeth County happened in May of this year, when a shootout erupted on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. One person died; four others who were injured made it across the river and had to be transported to the hospital in El Paso.

Addington says he believes West is using fears about the border to pad his department’s budget. “It’s like a feeding frenzy for federal dollars, and that’s what they’re after,” he says. He worries that West’s continued talk on national television and especially in Washington, D.C., will lead to more militarization on the border.

Even across from the most dangerous parts of the Mexican border, UTEP expert Payan says the violence has not spilled north into Texas. “It has not happened at all, and Hudspeth County seems to me to follow the trend of most border counties, which are relatively quiet and safe,” he says. Contrary to rural sheriffs’ reports, Payan says, most of the drugs smuggled into the United States come through congested urban ports of entry, not through the open expanses of the hinterland, where the terrain is treacherous and law enforcement presence has increased. The continued bloodshed in nearby Mexico, though, has given sheriffs like West an opportunity to build “a whole cottage industry around this imagined threat,” he says.

As long as the perceived threat remains and lawmakers continue sending money to outspoken sheriffs, Payan believes West and his signature hat will likely keep making regular appearances in headlines, on television and in the halls of Congress and the Legislature. “He operates very well within the Texas context,” he says.

West did not respond to interview requests for this story, but Don Reay, executive director of the Sheriff's Coalition, says the longtime lawman is doing his best to protect the community before tragedy strikes. “Knowing that Sheriff West is on the ground every day, out there talking to people in the community … I would think Sheriff West is well-founded in his opinions,” Reay says. The border sheriffs define spillover as not just actual violence, he says, but the threat of it and the fear the threat creates in border communities. “We do not think you have to have blood in the streets in order for a community to be impacted,” Reay says.

People are free to have their opinions about the level of violence on the border, Reay says, acknowledging that some have criticized West’s portrayal of the situation. And he says people will probably have mixed opinions about the Willie arrest, too. West booked Willie into the small Hudspeth County Jail, and, with characteristic bravado, he told the El Paso Times that if the singer is sentenced to time in the clink, he can “wear the stripy uniforms just like the other ones do.”

The sheriff can handle the criticism of his border security approach just like he’ll deal with whatever blowback he’ll get from arresting the Red Headed Stranger, Reay says. “He’ll either be goat or hero, depending on the person.”

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