A woman wades across the Rio Grande from Texas into Chihuahua. The woman is a US citizen on her way to see family in Mexico living a few hundred yards from the shoreline. (Lorne Matalon)
CANDELARIA, Texas — The United States and Mexico are pouring money into a showcase experiment to rescue damaged economies on the Texas-Mexico border.
But that experiment only involves two towns, Boquillas in Mexico and the community of visitors and National Park Service personnel at Big Bend National Park, a epic mosaic of desert, rock and sky that already draws hundreds of thousands of adventure travelers every year.
There are dozens of other towns along this section of the border, forgotten, struggling, forced in some cases to break the law to survive.
To put that reality in context, one need only look back to April 2015. Then, citizens of two countries witnessed a choreographed but symbolic event on the Rio Grande.
US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell had crossed the river in a rowboat, with Mexico’s Environment Secretary, from Big Bend National Park to the Mexican village of Boquillas.
“It’s not the same as crossing into Tijuana or Juarez,” she said as residents watched her tour the town after sprinting up the banks of the river.
Mexican villagers, US Park Rangers, Mexican Army and US Border Patrol agents mingled to celebrate the second anniversary of the opening of the border opening here, the first of its kind on rural parts of the river since the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
The economy’s been given at least a shot at recovering from the trauma of a sealed, post 9-11 border.
“This is a positive story about a border, a border that doesn’t have a fence, a border that has a river that takes people back and forth,” said Secretary Jewell.
Mattie Matthaei is a border historian at Sul Ross University in Alpine, Texas. She said she is pleased that Boquillas is now in the public eye unlike other towns in the mosaic of desert, rock and river in this part of the Texas borderlands.
“People are watching,” said Matthaei.
“So the government can’t really let this one slide. Meanwhile we’ve got 20 other villages that’ve all but faded away.”
Now, picture two other towns 160 miles northwest of Boquillas, both remote within their own countries, yet steps away from each other on the river — Candelaria, Texas and San Antonio del Bravo, Chihuahua.
US citizens in Candelaria like Juan Torrez says he envies the political capital that Washington and Mexico City are spending downstream in opening the border at Boquillas. Here he freely admits to a more tenuous reality.
He says he frequently crosses back and forth to see family nearby in Mexico. So to be clear, Torrez’ presence in the US is legal. But going back and forth across the border here is not.
“We’re not hurting anyone, we’re no threat,” Torrez said.
Unauthorized crossings are also triggered by the lack of nearby health clinics or a hospital on the Texas side.
Evelyn Lozano is a resident of Candelaria. She notes that Mexican side has a free health clinic, paid for by the Mexican government and private money from the US. And it’s a few minutes walk from the river for US citizens.
“They’re forced to cross the border go to Mexico to the clinic to take their children to the clinic,” she said.
That delicate dance between otherwise law-abiding US citizens and US border policy is a staple of life along the Rio Grande. But Lozano says so is drug trafficking and human smuggling.
“They take immigrants to Candelaria and try to cross them over from other places like El Salvador or Guatemala. But that’s something that we don’t get involved in. So we don’t actually pay attention to them.”
The US Border Patrol has a station here. Its agents are in a tough situation. They can’t say it publicly, but their priority here is not harassing locals, but confronting Mexican organized crime. Lozano confirms that.
“They’re not here following people or anything like that. They’re just here to do their work.”
And their work is facing ongoing threats from Mexican criminals, says Carry Huffman. He’s Deputy Chief of the Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector. He says the Mexican town of San Antonio del Bravo is sometimes used as a criminal hub.
“It’s kind of a jumping off point to move dope around. It’s a rough border town. I don’t if it’s fully engulfed as a narco-town. But there’s certainly a flavor of that in the community that keeps people on edge and concerned. Because it can be very dangerous there,” he explained.
Rosa Baeza is the matriarch of a US family with relatives in San Antonio del Bravo. She says the Border Patrol keeps the town safe. But she also says the back-and-forth crossings will continue.
“Because we go to the clinic over there,” she began.
“We go buy butane over there,” she continued. “We go to the store over there. We go see families that we have over there.”
Though far removed from the crucibles or organized crime in cities such as Tijuana, Juarez or Laredo, the same border policy applies here, meaning there is no gray area when it comes to entering the United States legally. It can’t be done here.
There’s no happy ending in sight for forgotten border towns. Neither Mexico nor the US has signaled an intent to do here what’s being done in Boquillas: create a crossing that would allow citizens legal passage between their two shared communities.