'The last stronghold'

In remote Starr County, federal agents say a wall will slow smuggling as landowners and nature tourists question the need for a border barrier.

Shortly after sundown, U.S. Border Patrol agents notice a man trying to walk nonchalantly toward a soccer field a few hundred feet from the banks of the Rio Grande. Three other men are nervously observing a youth soccer practice. They wear identical New York Yankees sweatpants over their jeans.

Within moments, Border Patrol agents jump out of SUVs to arrest the men, who put up no resistance. The parking lot is flooded with headlights and tumult from the arrests, but the teenagers on the field barely look up. They keep practicing shots, joking and bantering.

“We see this every day,” explains the kids’ coach, Roel Barrera. “It’s pretty normal for us.”

Border Patrol officials call this stretch of the Rio Grande, the 70 miles in Starr County, the most volatile of the entire southern border. The area has the second-most immigration arrests, trailing only the neighboring McAllen station, and the second-most narcotics seizures, just behind a station in Arizona, according to station chief Ryan Landrum.

Federal officials here say the 500 or so agents who patrol the county are woefully undermanned. “This is the last real stronghold of really wide-open area,” Landrum says.

The U.S. Border Patrol says a plan to build 32 miles of border wall in Starr County, at an estimated cost of $784 million, will help agents gain control of the area.

But for the past decade, the county has confounded Border Patrol officials and government planners hoping to build a border barrier. Its unique geography, featuring steep bluffs and neighborhoods built up to the river’s edge and a determined resistance from residents who own land along the river and from well-organized environmentalist groups have complicated plans for wall construction.

And a dispute over a potential border wall’s impact on flooding here has divided the U.S.-Mexico commission that regulates the flow of the Rio Grande.

A Bush-era plan to build 14 miles of wall segments in Starr County fizzled out under the Obama administration as money, and political will, dried up. If the Trump administration follows through on its plan to build a wall, the section in Starr County will be one of the highest priorities for Border Patrol officials — and one of the most hotly contested parts of the project.

No place are the unique realities of Starr County more apparent than in the 250-year-old city of Roma, where a historic downtown sits along the river’s edge, just above bluffs that draw birding enthusiasts from around the country. A recently built drainage culvert empties flood water from the city into the Rio Grande and city officials fear a border wall or fence could trap floodwaters in the city.

READ: Borderlands — life in the shadow of the wall

The situation is different in neighboring Hidalgo and Cameron counties, home to the Rio Grande Valley’s largest cities. There, most communities are set back, by as much as a mile, from the river, and border walls were mostly built on top of already existing levee walls.

“We’re very unique related to the rest of the Valley,” said Freddy Guerra, Roma’s assistant city manager. “We don’t have a floodplain that separates us from the river. … A border wall is not something that can feasibly be constructed within city limits.”

Roma Assistant City Manager Freddy Guerra points to areas around the city that would be impacted by the construction of a border wall. 

Roma Assistant City Manager Freddy Guerra points to areas around the city that would be impacted by the construction of a border wall. 

Guerra said Border Patrol officials have been “very open to conversation and hearing us out.”

“If they would be as open to the public as they are with city leaders, people would be more at peace with the process,” he said.

In parts of Starr County, where earlier this week county commissioners passed a unanimous resolution condemning the proposed wall, the Border Patrol is running into the same pushback it faced last time it tried to build a wall here.

Noel Benavides, who owns a Western wear store in Roma, is one of the property owners who has vowed to fight the border wall. The federal government originally condemned his 5.7 acres of riverfront land in 2008. In February he received a revised complaint for condemnation from the government.

Benavides said the answer is more Border Patrol agents on the ground and more technology to aid them. A wall, he said, would destroy the value of his land and keep future generations from enjoying it.

“I’m going to object to it until my very last minute,” he said. The land along the river “is a part of our culture, our lives.”

Noel Benavides, who owns J.C. Ramirez Department Store in Roma, Texas, is a staunch opponent of the proposed border wall. He says it would cut off river access on his private property. "Walls have never worked," Benavides said. "Border walls make people angry on both sides."

The view from Mexico

In August, Border Patrol officials began showing officials and residents a map with preliminary border wall locations. The map featured a border barrier that would wall off nearly all of Hidalgo County by filling in the gaps in the existing wall.

In Starr County, where no wall currently exists, the map raised eyebrows by calling for 32 miles of border barrier, nearly double what the Bush administration sought. The largest chunk would run from south of Roma past the birding sanctuary of Salineño to the edge of Falcon Lake.

According to a letter Border Patrol sent to local stakeholders in August, the Starr County segment would feature bollard walls, steel pillars with narrow spaces between them reaching 20 to 30 feet high. The wall would include an all-weather patrol road running alongside it and a 150-foot enforcement zone on its south side where all vegetation would be cleared.

Flooding concerns and agreements with Mexico regarding floodplain construction have been perhaps the biggest stumbling block for the U.S. government.

In 2010, the U.S. Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission, which regulates the flow of the Rio Grande, concluded that a border fence could cause “substantial increases” in floodwaters and denied approval for the border wall project in the county.

But a year later, in what opponents saw as a capitulation to the Department of Homeland Security, the group reversed course and approved the wall, saying it wouldn’t exacerbate flooding.

The reversal sparked a bitter response from the commission’s Mexican Section, which argued the fence would violate the treaty and deflect flows toward the Mexican side, flooding cities such as Miguel Alemán during heavy rains.

Today, officials in Miguel Alemán, a city of 20,000 across the Rio Grande from Roma, say they prefer to focus on infrastructure projects that would bring the two border zones closer, in hopes of stimulating economies in this remote border area.

Local leaders are pushing to restore the last remaining suspension bridge over the Rio Grande, hoping to turn it into a tourism draw and pedestrian crossing alongside the modern vehicle bridge connecting the two cities.

And officals on both sides of the border are promoting Ruta 54, the little-known highway that connects Miguel Alemán to the northern Mexican industrial powerhouse of Monterrey. At 90 minutes, it’s the quickest way to get from Texas to Mexico’s third-largest city.

Miguel Alemán’s director of economic development, Roberto Zilli de la Garza, said that violence in his city has subsided considerably since cartel warfare broke out in 2010. Back then “we wouldn’t dream of driving after dark,” Zilli said. Today, although cartel violence still erupts from time to time, driving is much safer, Zilli said.

“A wall is not the solution,” Zilli said “We should construct more bridges than walls.”

A man crosses the Rio Grande on a bridge between Ciudad Miguel Alemán, Mexico, and Roma, Texas.

'The last stronghold'

Late one afternoon, Border Patrol agents are pursuing leads on the eastern edge of Roma. Mounted cameras have picked up a man who has crossed the river and appears to be a scout, testing the response of agents ahead of a drug shipment. Landrum says operations in Starr County play out like a chess match, with smugglers trying to draw agents out to gain intelligence on how many are working in a certain area.

“They are absolutely networked, with walkie-talkies, cell phones,” he said. “They are not guessing for anything. We operate under the assumption we are being watched.”

The Mexican side of the Starr County border presents a complicated security panorama, he said. Zetas control operations in the mostly empty western region of the county toward Falcon Lake, an area known for large drug seizures. The Gulf cartel is ascendant in the eastern portion.

“Stability is subjective,” Landrum said. “I would say there is a steady state of some kind of fighting, continuously trying to take control of certain routes.”
Typically, drugs are brought across the river and loaded into a waiting vehicle on one of the county’s many roads that lead to the river. Within minutes, the smugglers can be on Texas 83, the main east-west artery in Starr County, where they can disappear into traffic heading to Laredo, McAllen or points north.

With just 40 to 50 agents working a given shift throughout Starr County, Landrum said it’s impossible for agents to sit on every road that leads to the river. Few roads run alongside the Rio Grande, and that complicates their job. “I can get down to the river,” he said. “I just can’t go left or right.”

Landrum said that such river access would be a further benefit of the wall.

At the same time, Landrum said the lack of infrastructure also hurts smugglers. “They use the same roads we use. We are able to funnel the traffic sometimes.”

Landrum, who recently earned a master’s degree from the Army War College and at 35 is the youngest agent ever to command the Rio Grande City station, is fond of describing border security with the acronym PTI: personnel, technology and infrastructure like a border wall. This area of the border, he said, hasn’t gotten enough of any of them.

“Starr County lacks that three-legged stool,” he said. “We absolutely don’t have enough of those things here. … South Texas is the last open piece of the border that matches dense population centers on the south side.”

In recent years, federal and state authorities have focused resources downriver in Cameron and Hidalgo counties, which might be pushing activity farther west.

Landrum said residents and officials in Starr County “understand border infrastructure is necessary. They also want to make sure their voice is heard when it comes to where the wall is going exactly. It’s generational. People have owned this land for years and years. They don’t want to lose income because of border infrastructure.”

Landrum conceded that in places like downtown Roma, a wall might not be the solution. “Maybe infrastructure doesn’t make sense right here,” he said, standing under the Roma bluffs.

But he said that a wall in other parts of the county could allow agents on the ground to focus on the city. “We are definitely open to that dialogue.”

Landrum also hopes to increase the number of agents working in Starr. “It’s a ratio, a math problem: 450 to 500 agents for 70 miles,” he said. “With confidence I can say the ratio is incorrect for the area.”

While overlooking the Rio Grande from the Roma Bluffs, Ryan Landrum, the Border Patrol's agent in charge of the Rio Grande City, Texas, station, talks about the flow of humans and drugs into the United States.

'A special place'

The birders make their way down the sandy road, clutching powerful binoculars and expensive cameras and hoping to see a border rarity.

A biologist from Florida yells out suddenly as he sees a black-crested titmouse, a bird he’s never seen before: “Lifer! Lifer!”

Birding is big business along the Rio Grande and nature tourism pumps an estimated $344 million into local economies as visitors rent cars, eat at restaurants and stay in hotels. That’s important revenue, especially in Starr County, which is one of the poorest in Texas and has a median income of $26,172, less than half the state average.

The tiny community of Salineño, 10 miles upriver from Roma, sits on the northern tip of a subtropical zone that extends through Mexico and Central America, and is considered a mandatory visiting spot for serious birders.

Two butterflies pollinate a plant near the banks of the Rio Grande in Starr County.

Two butterflies pollinate a plant near the banks of the Rio Grande in Starr County.

“It’s a special place,” said Barbara Volkhe, a birding and butterfly enthusiast from Massachusetts. “We’re really concerned we’d lose access. It would be a loss for the people of Texas, a loss for people across the U.S.”

Volkhe notes that U.S. Fish and Wildlife has spent millions of taxpayer dollars in recent years to restore the unique habitats along the river. Environmentalists say Border Patrol is targeting the many wildlife refuges on the border, including the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge near Hidalgo, because they are government-owned and won’t be stalled by legal battles with property owners.

Every winter for the past decade, U.S. Fish and Wildlife volunteers Lois Hughes and Merle Ihne have left Iowa to operate the bird-watching station at Salineño. They live in a trailer a few hundred feet from the river’s edge and spread a peanut butter and lard mixture on trees to attract birds to the clearing they’ve built in front of their temporary home. On a recent afternoon the clearing was filled with bright orange Altamira orioles, lemon-lime colored green jays and other birds rarely seen in the U.S.

“I don’t know where they would put the wall, but regardless the destruction of habitat in both directions would be sufficient that it would just devastate the area completely,” Hughes said.

Lois Hughes, wearing Belted Kingfisher earrings, peers through her binoculars at the Salineno Preserve just outside of Salineño, Texas. 

Lois Hughes, wearing Belted Kingfisher earrings, peers through her binoculars at the Salineno Preserve just outside of Salineño, Texas. 

Hughes said she and her partner have never felt threatened by smugglers despite sleeping so close to the Rio Grande. “We don’t see or hear anything at night. If we felt unsafe, do you think we’d come back eight years in a row? It’s never been a concern for us in terms of personal safety.”

Border Patrol officials have a much different conception of Salineño. Its remote location and the road that goes all the way to the river make it a coveted drug smuggling spot, said Landrum.

The town of 200 has been the scene of some spectacular drug busts. Two winters ago, Border Patrol agents watched men load a truck at Salineño with several large bundles. A Border Patrol helicopter followed the truck to a home in Falcon Heights, a community upriver along Falcon Lake, where agents found more than a ton of marijuana.

Two years earlier, Texas Parks and Wildlife game wardens, acting on a tip, found 409 bundles of marijuana, weighing more than 4,000 pounds, inside an underground bunker at a Salineño house.

Landrum said the large size of drug seizures in Salineño and other parts of Starr County indicates the confidence smugglers have. “That tells me they believe they will be successful,” he said. “Otherwise they would compartmentalize. I feel like my adversaries don’t feel there is much risk.”

Birders look for species of birds unique to the Rio Grande Valley in Starr County.