Special Report: Life in the Gaps
WESLACO – An uncertain future lingers in the Rio Grande Valley and in border towns. Two countries are already split by law enforcement, politics and the Rio Grande is about to be divided one more time.
President Donald Trump promises to fill in the gaps of the border fence.
It’s a political debate for people in Washington and border cities along the Rio Grande. The people who live along the border have their opinions about the border fence and any proposed changes.
CHANNEL 5 NEWS traveled from sandy beaches to mountainous terrain looking for gaps in the border fence. We spoke with the people who face the challenges of no border wall.
The border fence ends on the Rio Grande not far from the town of Penitas. Arturo Arambula lives in a gap of the border fence.
“I don’t have a fence and I don’t bother with a fence, hardly anybody here bothers with fences because nobody trespasses,” he said.
Arambula lives in the historic town of San Ygnacio. The homes in the area sit untouched by decades of change.
“There hasn’t been much change other than a huge Border Patrol presence,” he said.
Other than the bumped up presence, the town remains peaceful, he said.
San Ygancio’s Border Patrol presence stands in contrast to others along the Rio Grande. We passed the sanctuary city of El Cenizo. The high brush line near the river can’t hide a crosser’s journey. The security risk continues up stream in Laredo.
“We see almost on a daily basis, the Border Patrol vehicles run across,” U.S. Army veteran Eleno Baron said.
Baron lives a few feet away from an unexpected path into Laredo. He’s used to the commotion.
Laredo councilman Alex Perez said the sewer systems are used as illegal passage ways.
“They still go through them and you know it’s… there’s a lot of activity in the parks, you know. They sneak into the parks; they have cars along the parks they actually put the drugs in, put the people in. It’s a big, big deal. I mean it’s happening every day,” Perez said.
Perez said the gaps need to stay. Laredo’s only border fence surrounds part of the Laredo community college.
The environmental science director Tom Miller walked us across the 90-acre conservation site. Miller said the one-mile fence is open to the public. People just have to ask for the combination to unlock the gates.
“Who wants to sit here all day long watching that gate and actually there’s 11 gates throughout the fence,” he said.
Miller agrees another barrier will not work in Laredo.
“We have too much change of topography to really make it practical,” he said.
The city worries about its uncertain future for its trade efforts. Laredo is the third largest import and export city in the nation.
Baron calls trade the heartbeat of the U.S. and Mexico relationship.
“This is very critical,” he said. “We have a lot of people, families depending on that, on the trade and so like I said with a wall this will collapse.”
The Rio Grande twists and turns further northwest, fenceless. The Big Bend mountains, ranch lands and a row of green pipelines lead the way to Presidio. The community relies on the Mexican city of Ojinaga for their economic survival.
“It does effect both cities, I guess, because Presidio and Ojinaga are sister cities,” Elida Martinez said.
Martinez tends the desk at a hotel in Presidio. She’s lived in the area since 1970. She said the international bridge is often shut down by Mexican police.
“We rely on each other to go and buy groceries. They all come down and purchase a lot of things in Presidio,” she said.
We witnessed a closure ourselves. Police said the increase in gasoline prices provoked 250 protesters across the river and they took over the international bridge.
The gaps continue further west and another section of the fence begins in Fort Hancock.
“Right here in Fort Hancock you have a portion of it and it runs about a mile from the port of entry and runs about a mile and a half, maybe two miles each direction and then it stops,” Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Deputy Justin Clark said.
Clark showed us through the portion of the county where the fence ends. The river leads to a “little known port of entry.”
“You see this is the footbridge right here,” he said.
It is one of two footbridges that lead to Mexico.
Clark said the fifth pillar on the footbridge is considered the international boundary. He explains it is where most of the people who cross the border illegally enter into. He said the footbridge is also used as a drug smuggling corridor. What they allegedly do is they cross the border illegally and they use the light poles as drop off points.
“They’ll make their way to the interstate, Interstate 10, and typically because of our geographical location, they’ll have it preset where they load their drugs in the car and take them back to El Paso. Once they get to El Paso, they take them to a stash house. They’ll repackage them and they will ship them all over the country,” Hudspeth County Sheriff Arvin West said.
We first explored the footbridges seven years ago. West said the bridges have stayed about the same for the last 40 years.
“I even offered to take my own damn torch down there and cut them down. But to this day, they’re still there,” West said.
He said filling the gaps with a wall will not work.
“There’s 98 miles of Hudspeth County, there’s only seven miles of what we refer to as 'Jurassic Park' fence and it’s not effective at all,” West said.
The sheriff wants more agents to patrol the county. Border Patrol installed sensors near the footbridges. We saw the problem first hand. We watched the clock with Clark. It took 20 minutes for an agent to find us and ask why we were there.
West said with or without the needed agents, his jail can’t hold many more.
“If you look at my average of what I keep in jail here, I have average .003 locals in my county jail,” he said.
There are about 120 inmates in his jail all the time. He explains they can’t keep up with the illegal traffic that enters their county. He was forced to change policy.
“I quit taking cases for two years off the checkpoint because it was breaking this county. We were losing around or spending around $400,000 a year to arrest these people, prosecute them and then either send them to penitentiary or probation,” West explained.
He wants President Trump to know what goes in his county.
“I’m going to reach out to him and see if we can’t sit down and have some of these hard discussions about keeping Border Patrol on the border and letting them do their damn job,” West said.
Less than an hour’s drive away from Fort Hancock the scenery changes. A highway, two border fences and surveillance cameras line El Paso neighborhoods. There were no gaps in sight.