Parallels
11:22 am
Sat March 22, 2014

Always Watching: A Fragile Trust Lines The U.S.-Mexico Border

Originally published on Sat March 22, 2014 1:21 pm

We drove 2,428 miles on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, and it's safe to say that for much of the road trip, we were being watched.

Border Patrol agents, customs officers, cameras, sensors, radar and aircraft track movement in the Borderland. None of that has stopped the struggle to control the border, or the debate over how best to do it.

The Border Patrol — part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection — allowed us a look inside the communications center at its headquarters in Laredo, Texas. The room had no windows, just a giant wall of screens. The Border Patrol has mounted cameras high on steel poles overlooking the Rio Grande, which in this sector is the border.

Agents in cubicles watched the monitors. A whiteboard on the wall was covered with emergency numbers to call: the Drug Enforcement Administration, air evacuation, and also a phone number labeled "Unmanned Drone."

No, we're not going to publish the number.

The man in charge of this South Texas sector tries to marry new technology with old technology; Cmdr. Robert Harris keeps a saddle in his office.

"We still do have horses," Harris told us, "and I would argue that we have some of the best trackers in the country." The trackers are trained to follow footprints in the vast stretches of wilderness along the border.

Tracking is labor-intensive, of course, but the Border Patrol nearly doubled its manpower in recent years, to more than 21,000 agents.

"We don't have 100-percent visibility on the border," said Harris, "but I have a much higher degree of confidence that if somebody chooses to enter our area of responsibility, we have a higher-than-average chance of arresting that individual."

But the Border Patrol is under intense pressure.

'We're Not In A Situation To Lose Fights'

In a series of incidents, including one in Harris' sector, Border Patrol agents shot and killed unarmed Mexicans. In some cases, the Mexicans were said to be throwing rocks.

This month the Border Patrol reminded agents to avoid "unnecessary risk" to themselves or others; but it resisted calls for bigger change, saying agents have been pelted with rocks hundreds of times per year.

Asked about the rules under which the agents in his sector operate, Harris answered frankly: "We're not in a situation to lose fights. If our agents are assaulted, I want them to prevail."

The Border Patrol is also criticized for not doing enough, as we heard when we continued our road trip. Outside Eagle Pass, Texas, we arrived at the home of a rancher whose properly lines the border. Dob Cunningham took us for a Jeep ride on the property.

"About a year ago," Cunningham said, "they came over here to my shop, and took all the tools and a welder, just like that." By "they," he meant thieves crossing the border.

Cunningham is 79. Decades ago he was a Border Patrol agent, and later ran the U.S. port of entry at Eagle Pass. These days he's developed a love-hate relationship with the Border Patrol. To show us why, he drove us toward a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande.

Residents On Patrol

"If I holler, 'Bail out' — jump out," he told us as we neared the edge of a bluff overlooking the river. "Sometimes these brakes don't work."

We stopped in time, at the foot of a giant steel pole. It held two of those Border Patrol cameras aimed up and down the river. Cunningham said the wire to one camera was cut.

He says his property is periodically flooded with thieves, marijuana smugglers, or migrants. When he can, Cunningham rounds them up and turns them in.

"It's not in us to steal a penny or turn a blind eye," he said.

Cunningham's friend Larry Johnson recalled a day they found three people on the road they suspected of crossing illegally, and picked them up.

Cunningham's wife, Kay, remembers another incident right here on the ranch, which she calls "the night of the big shootout." Dob Cunningham spotted something just at dusk and took his gun to have a look. Moments later, Kay Cunningham heard several gunshots. It turned out to be a confused incident involving hunters and suspected border crossers. Nobody was hurt.

Uncertain Allegiances

Cunningham said he cooperates with the Border Patrol, and even admires many agents, but he has come to doubt the agency as it has grown in size. "They just hired too many riffraff, crooks, thugs," he said.

His opinion of the Border Patrol reflects a larger doubt. An American flag flies outside his home, and he's not sure it will fly here in the future. He said the American Southwest could end up being a place of divided loyalties. He mentioned the way that Russia was able to seize Crimea from Ukraine on the pretext that the Crimea was populated with ethnic Russians who spoke the Russian language.

In the same way, Cunningham suggested, "The culture and patriotism will be stronger being Mexican than being American. You have border patrolmen right now that don't know their allegiance to the United States."

The Border Patrol has said its agents are in fact highly trained, as well as "reliable, trustworthy and loyal to the United States."

For all Cunningham's provocative claims, it's hard to form a simple view of the Texas rancher.

Cunningham concedes 98 percent of the border crossers who come through his property are just poor people who want a job. He and his wife have sometimes fed them in their home.

Not only that, he can point across the Rio Grande to the homes of Mexican friends.

"Very close friends," he said. "I've waded the river right up from that house." He had dinner with a man on the far side.

"Is that strictly legal," I asked, "if you just wade across the river?"

"Oh no," he said. "If the Mexican army caught me, I'd still be over there." It would be an unauthorized border crossing.

Cunningham, a self-described border rat, has absorbed the complexity of the Borderland.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The NPR News team traveled more than 2400 miles along the Mexican border from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. Their route led through a zone that's under intense surveillance. NPR's Steve Inskeep got a chance to watch those who watch the border.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: You see Border Patrol vehicles all over the U.S. side of the borderland. Their green and white SUVs are being filled up at gas stations or parked by border fence. But the agents inside can't be everywhere, so they use technology like cameras and sensors that monitor a stretch of the Rio Grande near Laredo, Texas.

BERIN SALAS: Well, welcome to our communications room.

INSKEEP: Berin Salas, of the Border Patrol, showed us in. About half a dozen people monitored calls from the field.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO COMMUNICATIONS)

INSKEEP: The room had no windows, just a giant wall of screens. The Border Patrol, officially, it's part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, has mounted cameras high on steel poles overlooking the border.

SALAS: We have 24 sites. On each site, we have two cameras. The cameras have nighttime and daytime capabilities. If you can see on that screen, that's approximately a mile and a half.

INSKEEP: And we're looking right down the Rio Grande?

SALAS: Yes, we're looking at down river of the Rio Grande.

INSKEEP: One agent was using a joystick to move a camera, studying semi-trailers in a riverside parking lot. A whiteboard on the wall was covered with emergency numbers to call, including a phone number marked "unmanned drone." The man in charge of this south Texas sector tries to marry new technology with old. Cmdr. Robert Harris keeps a saddle in his office.

CMDR. ROBERT HARRIS: We still do have horses and I would argue that we have some of the best trackers in the country.

INSKEEP: They're trained to follow footprints in the wilderness along the border. That's labor-intensive work, but the Border Patrol nearly doubled its manpower in recent years to more than 21,000.

HARRIS: No, we don't have 100 percent visibility on the border, but I have a much higher degree of confidence in terms of our strategy that if somebody chooses to enter through our area of responsibility, we have a higher than average chance of arresting that individual.

INSKEEP: But the Border Patrol is under intense pressure in a series of incidents in recent years, including one here in Laredo. Border Patrol agents shot and killed unarmed Mexicans. In some cases, the Mexicans were said to be throwing rocks. This month, the Border Patrol reminded agents to avoid, quote, "unnecessary risk to themselves or others." But it resisted calls for bigger change, saying agents had been pelted with rocks hundreds of times per year.

HARRIS: We're not in a situation to lose fights. You know, if our agents are assaulted, I want them to prevail.

INSKEEP: The Border Patrol is also criticized for not doing enough, as we heard when we continued our road trip. Outside Eagle Pass, Texas, we arrived at the home of a rancher whose property lines the border.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

DOB CUNNINGHAM: We have coffee if y'all want a cup of coffee?

INSKEEP: I would be delighted to have coffee, thank you.

And after the coffee, Dob Cunningham took us for a jeep ride on his property.

DOB CUNNINGHAM: Do hang on.

INSKEEP: Cunningham drove, his wife Kay was beside him rancher.

KAY CUNNINGHAM: This gray bush that you see, when it blooms it's a mauve-y pink color, and it's just beautiful. The whole ranch is covered with it.

INSKEEP: The people in back included Larry Johnson, Dob's friend, and a former sheriff. Dob Cunningham sees threats concealed in this land.

DOB CUNNINGHAM: About a year ago they came over here to my shop and took all the tools, stole all the tools and a (unintelligible) just like that.

INSKEEP: By they, he means thieves crossing the border. Cunningham is 79. Decades ago, he was a Border Patrol agent and later ran the U.S. Port of Entry at Eagle Pass. These days he's developed a love-hate relationship with the Border Patrol. And to show us why, he was driving us toward a bluff overlooking the Rio Grande.

And I guess that must be the river below us in this valley?

KAY CUNNINGHAM: And Mexico on the other side.

DOB CUNNINGHAM: And that's Mexico.

INSKEEP: Cunningham prepared to stop just sort of where the bluff plunged down toward the river.

DOB CUNNINGHAM: If I holler bail out, jump out 'cause sometimes these brakes don't work.

INSKEEP: OK. We're about to go downhill.

DOB CUNNINGHAM: Real fast.

INSKEEP: We stopped in time at the foot of a giant steel pole.

DOB CUNNINGHAM: All right.

INSKEEP: It held two of those border patrol cameras aimed up and down the river. Cunningham said the wire to one camera was cut. He says his property is periodically flooded with thieves, marijuana smugglers or migrants. When he can, Cunningham rounds them up and turns them in.

DOB CUNNINGHAM: It's not in us to steal a penny or to turn a blind eye. It's just not in us. It's not our way.

INSKEEP: Or just ignore it, let it happen.

DOB CUNNINGHAM: It's not in our way. It's not in us. The Border Patrol gets after me for calling in and catching stuff. Not all of them but some of them.

INSKEEP: Oh, the border patrol maybe would rather you do a little less?

DOB CUNNINGHAM: Oh, yeah. They'd rather me, you know, turn a blind eye.

LARRY JOHNSON: Well, it was a week ago today, remember?

INSKEEP: His friend Larry Johnson recalled the day they found three people on the road they suspected of crossing the border illegally and picked them up. Kay Cunningham recalls another incident right here on the ranch.

KAY CUNNINGHAM: I call it the night of the big shootout.

INSKEEP: Dob spotted something just at dusk and took his gun to have a look.

KAY CUNNINGHAM: I heard bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. Then I thought, oh, my God.

INSKEEP: It turned out to be a confused incident involving hunters and suspected border crossers. Nobody was hurt. Dob Cunningham says he cooperates with the Border Patrol and even admires many agents, but has come to doubt the agency as it grew in size.

DOB CUNNINGHAM: They just hired too many riff-raff, crooks, thugs.

INSKEEP: His opinion of the Border Patrol reflects a larger doubt. An American flag flies outside his home. He's not sure it will fly here in the future.

So you think some day Mexico's going to move north?

DOB CUNNINGHAM: I don't know that it will be - we may be like what's happening where you got the Russian's, you know.

INSKEEP: He's referring to Russia grabbing a chunk of neighboring Ukraine where many ethnic Russians live.

DOB CUNNINGHAM: The culture and the patriotism will be strong as being a Mexican as being an American. You have Border Patrol in right now that don't know their allegiance to the United States. It's hard to believe but it's true.

INSKEEP: His evidence is that he thinks some current agents lack much ability with English.

DOB CUNNINGHAM: There's people call me and say would you report this or that 'cause when I call they can't understand my English.

INSKEEP: Border Patrol agents are trained in Spanish, as is former agent Dob Cunningham. The Border Patrol has said its agents are, in fact, highly trained as well as, quote, "reliable, trustworthy and loyal to the United States." For all of his provocative claims, it is hard to form a simple view of the Texas rancher. Dob Cunningham keeps complicating the picture. He admits 98 percent of the border crossers who come through his property are just poor people who want a job.

Dob and Kay have sometimes fed them in their house. Not only that, Cunningham can point across the Rio Grande to the homes of Mexican friends.

DOB CUNNINGHAM: Very close friends. They come and visit. I've waded the river right up from that house - his name is Tocho Garcia(ph) (unintelligible). I have waded the river and ate with him and visited him.

INSKEEP: Is that strictly legal if you just wade across?

DOB CUNNINGHAM: Oh, no. No, if the Mexican army caught me, I'd still be over there.

INSKEEP: You'd be an illegal immigrant?

DOB CUNNINGHAM: I'd be an illegal - trying to find somebody to buy me out.

INSKEEP: Dob Cunningham calls himself a border rat. He has absorbed the complexity of the borderland.

SIMON: That's our colleague, Steve Inskeep, whose road trip in the borderland continues tomorrow with the politician who wants less border security.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.