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Lines in the Land: Unique Border Security Challenges in Far West Texas

A Union Pacific Railroad employee pleaded guilty in February, 2015 to smuggling marijuana around the Border Patrol's Sierra Blanca checkpoint (pictured) over the course of about a year. (Vlad Miro)

This week, we’ve been taking a look at the lines - visible and invisible - that define life here in West Texas. We've looked at everything from generational, physical and geo-political lines, to fence lines.

To close out our series, we turn to another kind of invisible line, one that’s really more of a concept.

It relates to the very visible U.S.-Mexico border, but it’s hard to plot on a map.

It’s the idea of security in the borderlands. With talk of drug and human trafficking dominating the headlines, how do define what part of our region is “secure” and what part isn’t?

And where do we draw the line for how “secure” is secure enough?

Lawmakers, law enforcement and everyday citizens wrestle with those questions every day, and occasionally we’re presented with unique challenges that make us re-consider what we know or think we know about border security.

One of those challenges recently came to light here in West Texas.

Last month, a Van Horn resident named Rene Mendoza pleaded guilty to smuggling more 1,000 kilograms of marijuana around the Border Patrol’s Sierra Blanca checkpoint.

Mendoza was a Union Pacific employe, and according to an affidavit from Stephen Johnson - a DEA agent who investigated the case - Mendoza had used his company truck to drive around the checkpoint multiple times since February of 2014.

He hasn’t been sentenced yet, but he’s facing anywhere from a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison to a possible maximum of life.

The operation was busted when two women were arrested by police in Kermit, TX with 225 pounds of pot in their car.

The affidavit says the two had taken the drugs from El Paso to the small Texas border town of Fort Hancock. There they gave the pot to Mendoza, who then trucked it around the Sierra Blanca checkpoint and met back up with the women at his house in Van Horn to give them back the drugs.

Johnson’s affidavit says he dug up Mendoza’s company cell phone records and the GPS location data showed that he was indeed in Fort Hancock at the date and time the two women said he was.

It’s a unique case, but it’s not unprecedented.

“We had fellas that had a pickup truck that’s got the proper equipment on it so they can get up on the railroad tracks,” says Bill Brooks, spokesperson for the Border Patrol’s Big Bend Sector. “Their job was to check the railroad tracks, and they were actually smuggling dope.”

It’s not clear if that’s how this more recent case went down. The government and the DEA wouldn’t comment since the case is still in litigation, and Mendoza’s attorney didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Brooks says there have been other examples of people using company trucks for smuggling.

He talks about a case a few years back near Marfa.

“Agents were standing at the checkpoint one day, and an AEP truck was coming up the highway - highway 67,” he says.

“And then it turned off onto a ranch road, and one of the agents immediately thought ‘wait a minute, that’s not AEP that provides electrical services there, that’s the other company.’”

The agents investigated and found the truck loaded down with drugs.

Brooks says that’s what the Border Patrol’s trained to do - to lookout for those out-of-place activities.

But he admits, you can’t stop all the bad guys.

“They’re, you know, they’re clever people.”

Brooks says it’s too early to say Mendoza’s case is part of a trend of smugglers recruiting people with special access to move their product, but border law enforcement is paying close attention to the problem, and to similar cases.

Union Pacific Spokesperson Jeff DeGraff says his company is keeping an eye out.

“It is a large concern for us,” he says, “in the fact that we pride ourselves on being a well-respected company in our industry, and in the United States and North America.”

He says his company’s well-aware its employees are prime targets for smugglers to recruit, and that it takes steps in its trainings to avoid that from happening.

“Our employees do have unique access working that closely on the border, which is why we pay close attention to them,” DeGraff says. “It is something that is top of mind and a priority for us.”

Howard Campbell is a professor of cultural anthropology at UTEP. He’s written about and studied the drug war extensively.

He says that frankly, try as we might, you just can’t catch all the bad apples.

“The Task of the DEA and the Border Patrol and so on is an impossible one, because there’s just a million different ways to smuggle drugs or people or other things into the country,” he says. “It is, really, in some ways a futile effort.”

“They can try to stop what they would consider the most egregious examples of this sort of thing, but to think you could have 100% control, I don’t think anyone believes that.”

But it would seem that some lawmakers do.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul’s (TX) Secure Our Borders First Act - now stalled in Congress - calls for border agencies to maintain “operational control” of the border in certain areas.

That would mean stopping all cross-border and human and drug trafficking in those high-traffic areas.

Campbell says the rush to pump up Border Security in recent years isn’t necessarily an effective long-term way to keep communities on both sides safe.

He argues if that’s the ultimate goal, lawmakers and law enforcement need to consider the overall economic and “structural” problems in the borderlands, and to think outside the border security box.

“I think what we need is a broader debate and discussion about what would be a sensible, smart and effective security policy vis-à-vis the border,” he says, noting the overall safe nature of most borderland communities on the U.S. side.

Campbell says a better approach to border security is to put the emphasis on facilitating legal movement across the border.

“A lot of people around El Paso argue that the best, safe and secure way to live vis-à-vis Mexico is to increase trade, interaction and migration, and just strengthen our ties with Mexico as opposed to building walls and fences,” he says.

There have been some gains on that front: a new border crossing in Tornillo, TX, downriver from El Paso, opened a few months ago, and progress is being made on the Presidio Port of Entry expansion project.

But in Texas at least, the legislative focus for now is still on law enforcement spending. Governor Greg Abbott wants to double the state’s spending on border security and hire at least 500 new state troopers to do the job.

Editor's note: After this story aired, AEP Texas Representative Larry Jones called to clarify a detail about the case of a Border Patrol agents discovering an AEP truck being used to smuggle drugs. Jones says the truck was not an official AEP truck, but rather was outfitted with fake decals and company insignia to look like one.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.