“Y’all got here just in time. We’re going to look for a body. Are you up for it? It’s gonna get rough out there, but I can have you back by lunch.”
It’s 7 a.m. I’ve already driven two hours from El Paso with my husband, whom I’ve convinced to shoot photographs for my story. If it hadn’t been for the Border Patrol checkpoint just outside of this dusty, half-abandoned town on Interstate 10, we might have missed Sierra Blanca altogether. Smack in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, we’ve arrived at the office of Arvin West, sheriff of Hudspeth County.
“Sure, I’m up for it,” I say. My husband nods gamely.
West leads us out to his white SUV. He doesn’t fit my celluloid idea of a Texas sheriff. He wears a white Stetson and Wrangler jeans, but is short, with a paunch. Instead of cowboy boots, he wears brown suede Wallaby boots.
“I used to wear these in high school,” he says, “and hell, they’re comfortable. I’m getting too old for cowboy boots.” West is 44. Half-Mexican, he jokes about growing up a “GMC,” or “Gringo-Mexican combo,” when Texas shops still displayed signs that read “No dogs, no Mexicans.”
We set off south for the Rio Grande. The river has made West more than just a small-town sheriff. With 3,300 residents, his county straddles 98 miles of the Rio Grande. At 4,572 square miles, Hudspeth is twice the size of Delaware.
Since September 11, 2001, border counties like Hudspeth have played an outsized role in the contentious debates over border security and immigration reform. West and the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition, which formed in 2005 and which he chairs, have shaped those debates. The sheriffs’ congressional testimony has provided great fodder to many an anti-immigration politician. Their accounts of battling narcos and nabbing suspected terrorists have made them darlings of cable news. Members of Congress call on them to guide tours for political delegations and media, elaborating on the dire need for more equipment, money, and, as the sheriffs often put it, “boots on the ground.”
Today West’s people are looking for a Mexican man in his late 50s. He is a chronic alcoholic in poor health, the men traveling with him told Border Patrol after they were apprehended. By the time the group reached Hudspeth, the man was doubled over and vomiting. “Go ahead and I’ll catch up,” he told them.
That was two weeks earlier. This is West’s third trip into the desert to look for the body and the second time he’s requested help from a state helicopter. The search has already cost his department $12,000, which will come out of coalition money, West says.
Since 2006 the coalition has received $16.1 million in state and federal funds, while the 16 border sheriffs and their counties have received another $12.6 million from Operation Border Star, a border-security program launched by Governor Rick Perry. The money has allowed West to hire 6 more deputies for a total of 17. The department also has four new ATVs and six new Ford F-150 trucks.
What, I ask West, would immigration hard-liners think of his spending more than $12,000 of taxpayers’ money searching for a chronic alcoholic immigrant?
The sheriff seems startled, almost repulsed, by the question. “Of course we need to find him,” he says. The man’s daughter calls every day from New Mexico. “Wouldn’t you want us to do everything that we could to find your loved one?”
“Congress knows about as much about the border as that mesquite bush,” West says, pointing to a straggly green plant about to be munched by a heifer.
West, like several other border sheriffs, has seen a lot of Washington since the coalition started. He has testified before Congress three times and been to Washington 13 times in the past four years. He’s also found a loyal ally in Representative John Culberson, a Republican who represents west Harris County. Culberson is a full-out hawk on border security. In March 2009 he called for a “fast-reaction military force that can move up and down the border on the U.S. side” to fight the “undeclared war.”
At least once, the congressman has used intelligence from West to send the anti-immigration movement into a frenzy. In November 2005 Culberson recounted to Fox News’ Hannity and Colmes the tale of an “al-Qaida terrorist” he said had been taken into custody by West and locked up in a Brewster County jail. The terrorist was later whisked away by the FBI, Culberson said, telling Sean Hannity that he had obtained his information from West and Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson.
I ask West about the story. It seems West’s friend, sheriff of the Mexican town of Porvenir just across the river, had apprehended a fellow who was tracking migratory patterns of birds and writing down the information in Arabic in a diary.
“I’m not saying the guy was a terrorist,” West tells me as we bump through the desert, “but it seemed kind of strange that a guy of Arabic origin was keeping track of migratory animals in southwest Texas.” He pauses. “Consequently or coincidentally, this was right before the bird flu broke out.”
What became of the diarist? Mexican authorities called Border Patrol, West says, and Border Patrol called the FBI, but the man had “vanished from the face of the earth.”
Parked up ahead with a trailer of ATVs are five of West’s deputies: three young Latinos in their 30s, a Latino man in his 40s sporting a shirt reading “Hudspeth County Regulators,” and a middle-aged Anglo with a belly and a mustache.
Two older, stone-faced Anglo men in Stetson hats stand silent and apart. West is summoned to their patch of desert. After a few minutes, he returns. “No pictures and they don’t want to be interviewed,” he says apologetically. One, he says, is from the Texas Rangers; the other is an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent.
West’s deputies produce an ice chest full of sodas, Gatorade, and water. They offer brown paper bags filled with tinfoil-wrapped burritos. After eating, West climbs behind the wheel of an ATV called a “mule,” which looks like the Humvee version of a golf cart. We head toward the last place the Mexicans saw their companion, a hunting cabin next to a creek.
The sheriff drives the mule with abandon. He rolls over six-foot ocotillo cactuses as if they were toothpicks. The deputies race around and ahead of one another on their ATVs, cracking jokes. The Ranger and the federal agent follow behind, crammed shoulder-to-shoulder in the front seat of their ATV.
About an hour later, we arrive at the hunting cabin, a tin-roofed shack near an old windmill. Finishing their Gatorades, the deputies fan out into the desert to look for the missing man. The sheriff goes inside the cabin. The white walls are covered with hundreds of names and dates going back to 1907. An old tin chest—containing cooking oil, soup cans, sardines, and dry goods—sits on the floor.
“You’ve got to have a heart for these people,” West says. “Why can’t we take the approach of the Bracero Program [which ran from the 1940s to the 1960s], where they can work here for so many years, and if they decide to assimilate and become American citizens, then allow them that opportunity?”
He sits back in an old wooden chair. “You are allowed to come and participate in the luxuries we have as American citizens, but if you violate our laws, then you are out of here. It’s as simple as that.”
If many Americans think “Texas-Mexico border” and envision a war zone, it’s thanks in no small part to the stories spread by border sheriffs like West and Zapata County’s Sheriff Sigifredo Gonzalez. In November 2005, shortly before the “al-Qaida terrorist” story started to spread, Gonzalez took NBC reporter Rita Cosby (wearing a bulletproof vest) down to the Rio Grande at night. He was armed with a pistol and an AR-15. He memorably told Cosby and her viewers that just on the other side of the river, drug lords were grinding up men and feeding the meat to dogs.
Lupe Treviño, sheriff of Hidalgo County, is among the coalition members who say that the inflammatory rhetoric has brought the border region nothing but a lot of headlines and bad publicity.
“As an American, of course I am concerned about terrorism,” Treviño says, “but do you think my deputies have time to post themselves on the river to look for Osama bin Laden?” His department receives a call for assistance every four minutes on average, he adds.
“I’m not going to drop my homicides and my robbery investigations so that I can help Border Patrol keep terrorists out of the country.”
It is getting late in the desert. “Let’s go,” West says, exiting the cabin. He hops into his ATV and motions for us to join him. “I want to show you Mexico,” he says, hitting the gas. We crest a small butte, and the sun is hanging low. Suddenly the ATV makes a whump and then a thumping noise. Flat tire. “Dang,” the sheriff says, pulling out a can of Fix-A-Flat. He shoots the white foam into the deflated tire. No luck. West kicks the dust with his Wallaby boot and radios for help.
Regrouped back at the trailer, the deputies begin loading the ATVs. They haven’t found the body. It’s nearly dark, but the men linger, elbows propped on truck beds, talking about sports and the weather. The stony-faced Ranger and the ICE agent dip into cans of chewing tobacco and spit into the dust.
“You boys have to go home sometime, or your wives will divorce you,” West says, guffawing. But he is in no hurry, either. His wife phoned earlier to remind him about a school function he’d promised to attend that evening.
“Do you have any other questions?” he asks hopefully. I can’t think of any.
Two weeks later, I get an e-mail from West. The subject is “Body in Mountain.” He wrote:
“I just wanted to let you know we found the body. He was about two miles north east of the little house. We had to walk about a mile and a half to get him, but we made it for a bunch of old guys. The family can feel better knowing this information I guess. Take care and God Bless. Tu amigo, Sheriff West.”
Excerpted from The Texas Observer (Oct. 30, 2009), a bastion of high-quality investigative reporting and vivid political and social commentary, published by the nonprofit Texas Democracy Foundation. www.texasobserver.org