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MARFA — Comfortable walking shoes and a hat for sun protection were highly recommended. I was asked to pack a lunch and bring water. I was given directions and told I could bring a camera.

 At 8:45 a.m. on a cloudy Thursday, I entered U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol Marfa Sector and met with public affairs officer Bill Brooks and patrol agent in charge of Marfa station, Dan Harris. 

 I signed a release and wrote down the name and phone number of whom to contact — just in case. Brooks, Harris and I were going on a “ride-along” to the Rio Grande, the river that serves as a natural border between the United States and Mexico.

We would be riding in an unmarked Chevy Tahoe, loaded with emergency medical equipment, a disaster preparedness kit, protective clothing and gear, flares and lighting. 

There were MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and water to last for two to three days. And there were flak jackets, one for Brooks and one for me. Harris, already wearing a bulletproof vest, said, “If I tell you to put one on, just slip it over your head.” 

The Tahoe was equipped with a computer system connected to GPS mapping technology. There was radio equipment that lets agents stay in contact with headquarters, the sheriff's office and highway patrol. And there was the red button.  

Harris explained, “If, for some reason, Bill and I are incapacitated, just push the red button. You don’t have to talk or do anything else. Help will come.”

That being said, we fastened our seat belts and headed toward Mexico.

CBP, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, is the front line of the United States’ war on terrorism. The agency also handles traditional border-related responsibilities: stopping the flow of illegal drugs and illegal aliens, securing legitimate trade and travel, protecting the U.S. food supply and agricultural industry.

CBP manages 317 ports of entry and 20 sectors with 33 border checkpoints situated between those ports. Five sectors are located in Texas: Del Rio, El Paso, Laredo, Marfa and McAllen. Each sector is divided into stations. 

Marfa Sector covers more than 165,000 square miles and encompasses 155 counties in Texas and Oklahoma. It is the largest in geographical area of any sector along the Southwest border. Agents in Marfa Sector are responsible for more than 510 miles along the Rio Grande.

The sector’s Marfa station covers an area the size of Connecticut and includes more than 68 miles along the Rio Grande. An agent can easily cover 200 to 300 miles in a shift. 

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Outside Marfa, Harris picked up Ranch Road 2810, known as smuggler’s road. “A considerable amount of our enforcement activities takes place along here,” he said.

We were headed to Ruidosa and then to Candelaria. A light rain had begun to fall. Harris, who throughout our trip monitored and responded to area radio communication, contacted agents farther down the line to check on weather and flash-flood possibilities closer to the border. 

So far, the roads were clear. No washouts. No flooding. Rain in the mountains eventually flows downhill to the river. Without warning, dry creek beds can fill with raging water and leave people stranded.

“Sometimes, due to a wash, we have to build a road to get to where we need to go,” Harris said. “That’s why we’re equipped with shovels and a pick ax.”

Harris, who is married and has a 7-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, was born in Denver City, Texas. He coaches youth baseball and is a Cub Scout leader. He has been with the border patrol for more than a decade and with Marfa Sector for the past year.

“I’m the sixth generation of law enforcement officers in my family. I’m named after my great-grandfather, a Texas Ranger who died in the line of duty,” he said. “I’ve wanted to be with the border patrol since childhood.”

Brooks, who is married and has three grown daughters, has lived most of his life in West Texas. He was in the Army for nine years, and part of that time was spent in Vietnam. He has been with the border patrol for three years. His voice softens whenever he talks about his eight-year-old grandson. 

Harris pointed out Chinati Peak (elevation 7,730) as we headed toward the Sierra Vieja Mountains, a natural deterrent against smugglers. Weather is another obstacle. Temperatures can reach 125 degrees in summer and drop below freezing in winter.

An increase in precipitation over the last two years has made the landscape greener than usual. Wildlife is abundant. The area is hauntingly beautiful, remote, desolate. Therefore, the Dodge pickup truck, parked ahead on the side of the road, with a driver at the wheel, seemed out of place.

Harris radioed in to check on the license number as he parked behind the Dodge. He got out of the Tahoe and approached the driver.

The man was waiting to meet with a rancher who had hired him to repair leaking water tanks. His license number and story checked out. We continued on our way.

“We rely on the ranchers. We work in their back yard. We know the locals well. We know what they drive. We know who belongs here. We’re trained to spot anything out of the ordinary,” Harris said.

Knowing who belongs in the area and who doesn’t stems partially from the agents’ involvement in the community. Marfa station has an Explorer Post that trains teen-agers and young adults in life skills. 

The border patrol sponsors football and baseball teams. Agents serve as mentors to area youngsters. And there is always charity work around the holidays.

If a person living in Candelaria dials 911, there’s a good chance border patrol will be the first to respond. They help with wild fires, administer emergency first aid whenever and wherever it’s needed and frequently search for campers lost in Big Bend National Park. None of this is the border patrol’s responsibility, but that does not seem to matter.

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Texas maps mark the spot where Ranch Road 2810 suddenly runs out of pavement. The maps do not show that the surrounding landscape changes as abruptly. We had entered one of the most remote parts of Texas. 

The GPS screen was void of all markers that signified ranch houses and out buildings. There were no power lines, no telephone wires. Along the side of the road were deep ravines, filled with water. In places, our top speed was 10 mph.

Brooks said the border patrol is equipped with all kinds of vehicles — from sedans to Hummers — but horses and helicopters are often used in this terrain. 

Harris, who knows the land as if it were his back yard, said agents who are not from West Texas sometimes find the landscape overwhelming. “If you can work here, you can work anywhere,” he said. “We joke that if an agent has been bad, we’ll send him to Presidio.”

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At Ruidosa (population 43), we picked up ranch road 170 and traveled parallel to the Rio Grande toward Candelaria (population 55). It sits across the river from San Antonio del Bravo, known by border patrol agents as “drug dealers’ Mecca.” 

At one point, Harris turned off the paved road and hit sandy soil muddy from recent rains. Saltcedar — thick and impenetrable — towered over the Tahoe, brushed against its sides and snapped at its mirrors. 

Two teen-agers appeared out of nowhere. Harris radioed as he stopped the truck. He got out, pushed the vegetation aside and headed toward the teens. 

At the same time, a border patrol vehicle pulled in behind us and two agents joined Harris. Their arrival was so sudden, I wondered if they had fallen from the sky. Obviously, the United States has a heavy presence at the border. Agents are there, and they mean business.

Brooks said, so far this year, Marfa Sector has seized 51,837 pounds of marijuana, an increase of 28.5 percent over 2004. The sector has apprehended 6,770 illegals, an increase of 4.8 percent over the previous year. Anyone from Mexico who is apprehended is returned to Mexico the same day. The border patrol does not have facilities to house them, other than for a short term. 

At the end of the day, the Mexicans are taken by bus to the bridge at Presidio and turned over to Immigration and Customs. Unescorted women and children are turned over to the Mexican Consulate at Presidio. Criminals and those who are not Mexican are sent to facilities designed for that purpose, Brooks said.

Harris returned to the Tahoe. The teen-agers had been sent on their way. The other agents got in their vehicle and followed us down the road to an opening in the vegetation. There, in plain sight, was the Candelaria footbridge. “The narcotics trade flourishes here,” Harris said as we got out of the Tahoe. 

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Rain had raised the humidity. The sound of insects broke the silence. Cloud cover was a blessing. 

Summer temperatures get so high, agents are not required to wear bulletproof vests. Every day, when they dress for work, they weigh the factors. Wear a vest and risk heat stroke, or go without a vest and risk getting shot.

The footbridge is made of used car parts and bits and pieces of old wood. In places, the wood has rotted through. From the middle of the bridge, where border patrol jurisdiction ends, I could have tossed a stone and hit Mexico. 

Pickup trucks were parked across the river. Two were empty. One had a driver sitting behind the wheel. He never looked at us and eventually drove away.  

“We keep tearing the bridge down. They keep building it back up,” Harris said. “There are spots along here where there’s less vegetation. When the water is low, people can walk across.”

The border patrol leases a once-active schoolhouse and a teacher’s residence in Candelaria for use as an outpost or substation. Lack of funding closed the school. The teacher retired and moved away. Children are now bused 70 miles to Presidio. 

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Brooks, Harris and I settled in the teacher’s house for lunch. The other two agents joined us. Amenities were minimal: main room, kitchen, bathroom. Everything has to be brought in. There are no stores. Fuel is scarce. One of the agents said, “you can use a quarter tank of gas just to go get gas.” 

Single beds lined the walls in the main room. Their mattresses were bare. In the center of the room was a long bench that served as our table. We pulled up anything that could pass for a chair and opened our lunches.

Brooks said whenever possible, two or more agents stay at the house for weeks at a time — forward deployment. This close to the river, it is good to have a presence. 

The four men fell into easy conversation. Camaraderie was palpable. Like any long-term relationship, a shared past enabled them to finish one another’s sentences. They talked business. They teased and laughed together.

Later, Harris said people outside law enforcement don’t always understand the camaraderie. When lives are at stake, a special bond develops. It starts in training and keeps getting stronger.

“You rely on the other agents to help you come home safely every day,” he said. “There is inherent danger in our work. We say ‘green shirts will take care of green shirts’ (a reference to their uniforms). Your fellow agents are your best buddies.”  

Since 1924, when the border patrol became an agency, 96 agents have been killed in the line of duty. The leading cause of death is homicide, followed by vehicle accidents. Harris said 1998 was the agency’s worst year. Six agents were killed. No one was prepared to deal with that much loss.

Since then, programs have been developed to help agents deal with problems at work and at home. “We see a lot of tragedy when we’re at work. And there has always been a high divorce rate in law enforcement,” he said. “Now we have counselors, chaplains, psychologists to help us work through things.” 

After lunch, we traveled Ranch Road 170, parallel to the river, toward Presidio. Water from the Sierra Vieja Mountains had washed across the road. Traces of washout remained.

Harris pointed out a “drag road,” a stretch of sandy, rocky soil that runs between the river and the paved highway. Patrol vehicles drive along the stretch with huge tires chained to their rear bumpers. As the tires drag across the surface, it becomes smooth. Anyone entering the country on foot has to eventually cross the drag road. Footprints are left behind.

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“Illegals use all kinds of ways to disguise their human footprints and throw us off track. Some use cloth or attach square pieces of carpet to their feet,” Harris said. “Some walk backward to make it look like they are heading into Mexico instead of out.”

Harris learned over the radio that a group of people had entered the country on foot and had triggered sensors west of Candelaria. Agents, including our lunch companions, were in pursuit and had asked for a helicopter. 

No such luck. The helicopter could not take off due to the weather. Agents began to track the illegals in vehicles and on foot. Harris recalled one tracking event that involved a number of agents, lasted five days and covered 80 miles. “Whatever smugglers can do, we have to meet and exceed it,” he said.

Brooks said the border patrol was looking for 2,100 new recruits. Because standards are so high, the agency will solicit 30,000 applications. Some of those will have had prior military or law-enforcement training.

Backgrounds are carefully checked. Recruits are put through intensive training that includes immigration law, pursuit driving, tracking skills and Spanish. Harris added that recruits have to show they can “be responsible, work alone, think quickly, make sound decisions and survive.” 

We reached Presidio, an official port of entry that lies across the Rio Grande from Ojinaga. We were still in Marfa Sector, but had entered Presidio Station. 

Brooks pointed out affordable housing the U.S. government had built for port of entry inspectors and border patrol agents. The two groups “work hand-in-hand.” The port of entry is being expanded, and more staff is being added, he said.

We decided not to stop in Presidio — although there was talk of ice cream. We were headed back to Marfa on U.S. Hwy. 67 when Harris heard on the radio that a state trooper had stopped a dark sedan heading toward Mexico, carrying two Mexicans. Harris decided since we were headed that way, he’d stop as backup. Brooks said this was often done as a “courtesy.” Troopers do the same for agents.

Being in an unmarked car, I found it humorous that drivers heading toward us kept blinking their headlights to warn us about the state trooper up ahead.  

Harris spotted the trooper and the sedan on the side of the road and turned on red and blue emergency strobe lights fastened to the underside of the Tahoe’s visor. He made a U-turn and pulled behind the trooper’s car.

Harris conferred with the trooper, who had asked the passenger to get out of the car. Brooks and I watched though the Tahoe’s front window as the passenger showed identification.

The driver also got out of the car, pulled out identification and headed toward Harris. Brooks and I heard Harris’ voice come over the Tahoe’s radio. Harris was checking on the driver’s resident alien card to see if everything matched up. 

The trooper began searching the sedan. My eyes darted from trooper to passenger to Harris to driver. This was not television. Nor was it a movie. This is a dangerous line of work.

When the trooper and Harris were satisfied that stories matched and everything was as it should be, Harris returned to the Tahoe. He said the trooper had stopped the car for a traffic violation. The passenger had seemed nervous, so the trooper wanted to check it out. She asked for permission to search the car, and permission was granted.

 “The idea was to separate the two men, and see if their stories were the same. We kept a physical distance but were close enough to talk. We engaged them in conversation. We watched their mannerisms and listened for variations in their stories,” Harris said. “The passenger’s family has a ranch in Mexico. That’s where they’re headed.”

Our last stop was a check point between Presidio and Marfa. Harris parked near a vehicle with Chihuahua, Mexico, license plates that was to be picked up by the DEA. Two hundred pounds of marijuana had been found in its gas tank. Brooks said agents at the check point “can take a car apart like a mechanic.” 

The check point is equipped with a computer system that is linked to a number of databases, including AFIS — Automatic Fingerprint Identification System. There are temporary detention cells. And there are dogs.

Harris and Brooks praised the K-9 unit. The dogs can detect drugs or hidden people and cannot be defeated. 

Brooks mentioned Jacko, a Belgian Malinois, who is going to New York as a nominee for this year’s Paws to Recognize Award, sponsored by Pedigree. Jacko’s specialty is detecting concealed humans and narcotics. “Dogs are one of the most effective tools we have,” Brooks said.

It didn’t take long for Brooks, Harris and me to cover the last 4 miles of our journey. We had traveled together for close to seven hours and had covered 175 miles. I had seen parts of Texas I never knew existed. And I had put a face on homeland security and border patrol.

While unloading the Tahoe, Brooks and Harris surprised me with a challenge coin. Its design includes the two words agents have lived by since May 28, 1924 when the border patrol was first formed — “Honor First.”

I do not usually hug people I interview. But this time, I made an exception.

Epilogue: Later that day, the agents who had joined us for lunch were successful in tracking eight people who had illegally entered this country on foot. 

For information about U.S. Customs and Border Protection, visit www.cbp.gov. 

© Judy Morgan 2020 — jmorgan.words@gmail.com