Opening a Break in Big Bend Country
Merchants, tourists and environmental specialists in Big Bend National Park have been thwarted for nearly a decade, and a neighboring Mexican village has withered as a consequence of tightened border control. But as the U.S. government plans to open a new port of entry across the river from Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico, next spring, people on both sides of the Rio Grande anticipate revival.
Residents of Boquillas had no idea that shifting geopolitics would change their village after September 11, 2001. They had regularly crossed the river into the U.S. and either walked or hitched rides to buy groceries at the Rio Grande Village Store in Big Bend National Park. With no electricity or arable land and a population of 191, the townspeople made their living selling donkey rides, stones, crafts and food to tourists at Big Bend.
But in 2002, U.S. officials cracked down on so-called “informal” crossings all along the U.S.-Mexico border, including those in Big Bend. The crossings, including two more in the park near the small villages of Paso Lejitas and Santa Elena, had technically been illegal since 1986, according to Customs and Border Protection, but the closures weren’t enforced until after 9/11.
The closure hit the townspeople hard. In eight years the Boquillas population was nearly cut in half, dropping to 110 by the 2010 census. Now, washing machines, telephones and even simple grocery items that could be accessed easily in the park require a trip to Melchor Muzquiz, more than 125 miles away.
Filmmaker Nevie Owens remembers taking the ride to Muzquiz with residents of Boquillas when she was filming Mexiphobia, her documentary on the border closure.
“We had a pretty nice truck so we were lucky that we didn’t break down,” Owens said of the vehicle she and co-producer Buckner Cooke brought to drive from Boquillas to Muzquiz through the brutal Chihuahuan Desert. “We saw several other trucks along the side of the road that couldn’t make it, and one that flipped over. It takes about six to eight hours to make the trip.”
By the time Owens and Cooke filmed the 2007 documentary, some homes in Boquillas had been abandoned and there was a sense of despair.
And while the closure hit townspeople the hardest, park visitors and employees also felt the impact.
One loss was the free flow of information that had passed between Boquillas residents and park rangers, according to the park’s Chief Ranger Allen Etheridge. Though Etheridge was hired at the park after the closure, he says that many rangers recall the benefits of having frequent contact with Boquillas residents.
“It was like turning the faucet off on intelligence and information,” Etheridge said. “Park rangers have shared stories where [Boquillas residents] would say, ‘Hey, there is a stranger in the village. You may want to pay attention because it could be tied to a drug load.’ They would share all information, whether it was a wildlife sighting or if kids were sick.”
Environmental management efforts also took a blow. The U.S. National Park Service (NPS), which has been the driving force for opening the new crossing, has been hindered in its management of flora and fauna on both sides of the river for nearly a decade.
“This would give us the ability to work together,” said David Elkowitz, a NPS spokesman.
Once the crossing opens, the NPS plans to restore riparian ecosystems along the Rio Grande and eradicate exotic vegetation. They will also monitor the Silvery Minnow population, which is endangered, and attempt to restore the species. Diseases in animal populations that move between the protected areas on both sides of the border, like black bears and coyotes, will be monitored.
“Some of these issues have become more pressing in the last 10 to 15 years,” Elkowitz said. “All of these programs will be more easily accomplished with the port of entry which will allow [National Park Service employees] to work with their Mexican counterparts without legalities of formal paperwork.”
The location of the Boquillas crossing will help these efforts greatly, as crossing at the next-closest port of entry, more than 100 miles away, and then traveling through rural terrain in the Chihuahuan desert to get back to the riverside have been insurmountable obstacles, stalling progress in the environmental work.
The border closure in 2002 also meant losses for at least one business in the park. Rio Grande Village Store manager Gary Martin says his initial revenue dropped 40 percent after the closure, and he had to lay off employees. The majority of his sales used to come from groceries, but since the closure he’s shifted his merchandise to gifts, like commemorative mugs and hats.
“I used to sell like 60 dozen eggs a week,” Martin said; he notes that grocery items that used to be popular with Boquillas shoppers, like sacks of flour, beans and rice, are rarely bought by campers.
Linda Lightbarn stopped into the store at the end of October to buy a few supplies and tell Martin what she would need him to order during her time as a volunteer in the park.
Shelton A. Gunaratne “Oh yes, we’ve been talking back and forth with people over there for years and years,” Lightbarn said of the people of Boquillas del Carmen. “We’re anxious to visit.” Lightbarn also said she hopes the variety of groceries will return to Martin’s shelves once the border reopens and there is greater demand.
Chief Ranger Allen Etheridge understands that those who are not familiar with the park may find it strange that an automated border crossing is opening in a remote area when there is so much money and manpower being put into protecting other sections of the border.
“The most common question we get is whether the park is safe,” Etheridge said. “And yes, the park is safe, yes. We have one of the lowest crime rates in the nation – park and county. What’s interesting is that when visitors ask if it’s safe, we also ask them where they’re from. Generally they tell us a large city.”
Etheridge says that border crossers with unlawful intent have realized there are easier routes than the isolated Chihuahuan desert, since there are no cities of size here for hundreds of miles.
“The desert here in this part of Texas is vast, expansive; the terrain is inhospitable and often deadly when people try to traverse it,” Etheridge said. “On the other side there is even less infrastructure and more desert and even higher mountains.” Santa Elena Canyon, which looks to the eye like a natural border wall, is 1500 feet deep in some places. Etheridge calls it a natural barrier.
“There are areas in the park where you can easily cross, the river is shallow, you can even drive a vehicle across when the water is low,” says Etheridge. “But we monitor those areas and we monitor by aircraft and have people on patrol.”
Though U.S. Customs and Border Protection collects statistics on the numbers of drug seizures and apprehensions of those crossing illegally in the Big Bend sector, officials say this data is not useful for understanding the impact of the Boquillas closure. That’s because the sector measured by the data is much larger than this stretch of borderland, and new advances in personnel and technology have had significant impacts on the numbers.
If anything, officials say, a new port of entry would be the least logical place for illegal immigrants or drug traffickers to cross.
“If you look up river and down river, it doesn’t make any difference,” said William Brooks, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. “If you’re bent on crossing illegally, you don’t have to go far.”
In addition, all vehicles are funneled through two checkpoints before they can leave the park. There, canines sniff for drugs and Border Patrol officers question travelers about their citizenship and their reasons for visiting the U.S.
There will be no bridge at the new crossing. Instead, tourists will travel as the residents of Boquillas do – either by wading through the shallow river, riding boats or rafts, or riding on donkeys. The crossing point itself will be made up of kiosks where travelers will swipe their documents and talk with customs agents by one-way video. A NPS employee will be stationed at the kiosks, which will only operate during daytime hours. No commercial cargo or imports exceeding $200 in value will be processed there.
Guillermo Gonzalez Diaz, who moved to Boquillas when he married a local girl, says that part of the appeal of living in such isolation is the absence of the violence that still torments urban areas of northern Mexico. “There are very good people here,” Gonzalez Diaz said. “Life is very peaceful here.”
Though ground has already broken for the construction of the kiosk building, and the border crossing is expected to open in the spring, it still isn’t a sure thing. A notice of proposed rule making has been issued by Customs and Border Protection, and the public is currently invited to comment on the border crossing online.