My investigation began in Brownsville, Texas, on the front line of what some have taken to calling a border war. Brownsville lies just above the mouth of the Rio Grande, at the southern tip of the largely Spanish-speaking urban sprawl of 1.2 million people that fills the lower Rio Grande Valley. My initial destination was a Border Patrol station, where I would visit a state-of-the-art command-and-control center. When I arrived at the station, just in time for the 4-p.m.-to-midnight shift, I was immediately confronted with one of the reasons they call it a war.
At the daily muster, where Border Patrol agents get their marching orders for the day, much of the talk was about Jaime Zapata, a special agent with Immigration and Customs Enforcement who had been shot dead six days earlier by members of Los Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel, at a roadblock several hundred miles south of the border. Zapata was both a Brownsville native and a former Border Patrol agent, so his murder was a major event. After his funeral, hundreds of law-enforcement vehicles, sirens wailing, would pass through the city as residents lined the streets waving American flags. Some of the agents I spoke to attributed the relative quiet along the border that week to the Zapata killing—the bad guys were waiting to see what the American response would be. The Gulf Cartel, a rival organization whose own war with the Zetas for control of transborder commerce had resulted in more than 1,000 deaths over the past year, denounced Zapata’s killing. “It’s clear that the federal government should act without delay against these assassins,” the cartel said in a statement. “Because the spilling of blood in the country is now drowning society.”
I was unable to attend the Zapata funeral, but I would eventually see high-definition video footage of the burial ceremony taken from a CBP helicopter. The video was shot from about three miles out; the mourners were probably not even aware that a helicopter was in the area. I watched playback of that video feed on the Web portal of a system called the Big Pipe, a surveillance network developed by Kenneth Knight, the deputy executive director of national air-security operations for the Office of Air and Marine (OAM), a lesser-known division of CBP that operates the largest law-enforcement air force in the world.
Knight is a physically imposing, ruddy man with a disarming Midwestern accent. When we met in Brownsville, he was dressed in the khaki jumpsuit that all OAM pilots wear, and it turned out that he was a helicopter pilot himself. I had no idea who he was, but he already knew about me. “I need to talk to you,” he said, decisively hijacking my tour of the station. Knight was in town to coordinate air support for the Zapata funeral, and he didn’t have much time for me right then, but he gave me a quick briefing on the Big Pipe and then invited me to Washington, where he promised to give a more detailed demonstration of his project’s capabilities.
What was the Big Pipe? The answer wasn’t clear at first, but Knight emphasized the concept of “total domain awareness” and strongly suggested that he possessed the means of attaining that state. Based on the briefing I received in Brownsville, the Big Pipe sounded like it might be the framework for the elusive “common operating picture” that would integrate and rationalize the increasingly unwieldy data streams generated by our high-definition surveillance systems. Perhaps the Big Pipe could succeed where SBInet had failed.
Late that afternoon, when the low angle of the sun was beginning to lengthen the shadows, agent Dan Milian took me down to the Rio Grande to get a closer look at the border itself. Weedy, fast-growing brush often chokes the meandering banks of the Rio Grande as well as the no-man’s-land between the river and the border fence. Carrizo river cane, an invasive species that aids and abets the passage of other such species, grows everywhere. Narrow trails snake through the tall grass.
The Brownsville & Matamoros Bridge, the oldest crossing in Brownsville, loomed behind us as we walked along the river. Broken shards of glass twinkled in the dense ground cover, and thick vegetation did a good job of hiding the ubiquitous debris of human civilization: cast-off soft-drink bottles and small articles of clothing, socks, T-shirts, a sneaker. Torn black plastic trash bags rustled in the light breeze, especially along the landing spots worn slick from the passage of illegal bodies who slip out of the oily black nighttime river, briefly pause, quickly pull dry clothing and supplies from the trash bags, and then dress themselves and furtively crawl, scramble, or run toward the black steel pickets. The fence can be climbed, and so they climb.
In 2006, Congress mandated the construction of a new barrier along the southwest border, and since then contractors have built just under 700 miles of such fencing, at an average cost of $2.8 million per mile. Environmentalists and cynical bystanders in the border communities hate it. Farmers who are cut off from their fields resent the inconvenience. People whose homes ended up on the wrong side of the fence feel sacrificed and abandoned. Ocelots and other lovely wild creatures are said to be experiencing disruptions of their migratory wanderings. Smugglers, meanwhile, have used a catapult to hurl drugs into Arizona, as well as a portable ramp that permits vehicles to drive right over the fence.
It’s easy to laugh at fencing that abruptly ends in a tangle of brush. But agents here say they love even the intermittent version because it gives them a bit more time to respond to border-crossing attempts, which in Brownsville must be measured in seconds. The fence adds perhaps a minute to the equation, Milian told me, and it also channels the flow of aliens away from populated areas out into the brush, where the response time is measured in hours and days.
A heavily trafficked and well-maintained dirt road ran alongside the border fence. Dust lay thick on the ground and offered up a rich testimony to a tracker versed in the art of sign cutting. Agents drag bundles of tires behind their vehicles along such roads, both here on the line and out in the brush country far from the river, and check back periodically to see if any signs have appeared. The best trackers can tell from a footprint whether the body in question is heavy or light, fit or exhausted, his approximate age and height, how fast he is moving, whether he is carrying a load, and how heavy that load is likely to be. I’ve been told that at least one agent can cut sign from horseback at a gallop.
We were in the middle of town, right next to a port of entry. The river was perhaps 10 yards across, and the railroad bridge of the port not more than 50 yards away. Even here, they cross. We walked down a trail looking for fresh signs of traffic, and I noticed how much thicker the brush was on the other side. We observed no signs of human activity, but such appearances were deceptive. Matamoros was right there; people lived and worked and performed their daily routines just a few hundred yards away. Down here, the cartels often employ spotters to watch the river. Sometimes they fish, but often they just sit and watch from the bank, staring with impunity and insolence or maybe just boredom. The cartels choose when and where to cross; they control the other side, the “Mike side.” They own the monopoly on human traffic just as they do the traffic in drugs. No one freelances anymore.
On our side, a Border Patrol camera tower looked almost pretty against the evening sky as it peered, from a height of 60 feet, up and down this broad bend in the river.single page
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