Secret Agent Man
Legendary Border Patrol officer Hipolito Acosta always got his man. But in his memoir, the complexities of life along the Rio Grande remain elusive.
Hipolito Acosta’s The Shadow Catcher (Atria Books, $24.99) isn’t your typical migra lit. Practically all of the previous memoirs about catching unauthorized immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border have been written by Anglos. Acosta, the most highly decorated officer in the history of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, is a Texan of Mexican and Apache descent, and he avoids many of the recurrent themes found in the writings of migra old-timers. There’s nothing here, for instance, about cutting sign, the art of tracking people that Border Patrol agents claim to have appropriated from the Native Americans. Nor will you find frank admissions of racial profiling, like those in Unrepentant Sinner, the 1985 autobiography of the 1930’s-era Border Patrol officer Charles Askins Jr., who liked to brag about having killed 27 men, “not counting Mexicans.” Instead, Acosta’s book (written with former New York Times reporter Lisa Pulitzer) is the story of a twenty-first-century Border Patrol that sends Mexican American agents—who now make up the majority of the force—deep undercover, posing as Mexicans.
Early in The Shadow Catcher, Acosta establishes how he climbed out of childhood poverty, as the ninth of fifteen siblings in a family of West Texas farmworkers, by first joining the Navy, then the Border Patrol. He dispatches this information quickly; most of the book is taken up with stories about the three decades he spent in Marfa, Chicago, El Paso, and Brownsville as a Border Patrol investigator and agent, before retiring in 2005 as a district director under the Department of Homeland Security.
Acosta’s tales are certainly dramatic. To infiltrate immigrant-smuggling rings, he crosses the border with a fake identity and speaks as little as possible, hoping that his Tex-Mex pocho accent won’t give him away. In these clandestine missions, he usually doesn’t bother to inform the Mexican authorities; he often operates alone, armed with just a small-caliber pistol. As he plays several different roles, Acosta discovers that he’s very good at shifting identities. It’s almost as if he’s been doing it all his life. “I was proud of my natural ability to switch instantly between criminal and enforcer and back again,” he boasts. “My skill set for being believable as a thug sometimes impressed even me.” In one operation he poses as an immigrant and is smuggled in the back of a U-Haul truck from Ciudad Juárez to Chicago. In another he pretends to be a coyote and lures a wealthy Latin American woman, who is running an international immigrant-smuggling ring, to the United States, where she is immediately arrested. The “señoritas” of the Mexican underworld, The Shadow Catcher informs us, have a hard time keeping their hands off our protagonist.
Acosta isn’t shy about comparing himself to a comic-book hero who, against all odds, ultimately triumphs over the bad guys. In one chapter he infiltrates a smuggling organization led by a coyote known as El Zorro. After the man is sent to prison, Acosta can’t repress the urge to blow his own horn. “The Lone Ranger—that would be me—had ridden into Mexico to conquer El Zorro,” he writes.
There’s no point in getting worked up over such self-aggrandizement. After all, that’s probably how you have to portray yourself if you want Antonio Banderas to star in the movie. But The Shadow Catcher would read better if it occasionally turned away from Acosta’s solitary exploits and paid attention to the bigger, more complicated picture. Most of us who live near the Rio Grande know of Hispanic border agents who are considered “worse than the Anglos” and feel they have to prove their loyalty to their colleagues by being tough with Mexican-looking border crossers. We’ve also heard about Mexican American Border Patrol agents who quit after apprehending someone who looked just like a family member.
These sorts of people don’t make it into The Shadow Catcher, and neither does Esequiel Hernández Jr. In 1997 Hernández was killed by a Hispanic Marine on patrol duty who mistook the eighteen-year-old Texan for a Mexican drug smuggler. The shooting happened in Acosta’s hometown of Redford and stirred up a national debate about the dangers of the growing militarization of the border. Yet Acosta doesn’t write a single word about this event. Nor does he address the thorny diplomatic questions raised by having armed law enforcement agents of one country carrying out unauthorized undercover operations in another.
Acosta, as it turns out, is the only figure in the book who is fully fleshed out. The other people are cardboard cutouts who serve as a backdrop for his heroism. The coyotes are “rats,” “scum,” and “bastards.” Undocumented immigrants are referred to as “flocks of illegals” and “pollos.” (At least he doesn’t call them “tonks,” as do many of his fellow agents. Tonk is the sound a flashlight makes when it lands on a person’s head.)
That’s not to say that Acosta is unsympathetic to undocumented immigrants. “I found it hard not to empathize with the pollos,” he writes. “They risked exploitation, victimization, deportation, and even their lives at every turn.” In bringing to justice the coyotes, Acosta sees himself as the protector of their victims, who are often robbed, abused, and abandoned in the desert. But his training has taught him to keep his emotions strictly in check when it comes to arresting those he seeks to protect. “It was not a great feeling knowing that everyone in the load [of immigrants smuggled into the U.S.] was going to be detained,” he writes, “but the law was the law.”
This mantra ties together the book’s entire narrative. There are legal people and illegal people, good guys and bad guys. “There was no gray area here,” Acosta insists, and it was his job to make sure that the darkness was kept firmly at bay, on the other side of the line. Even if it meant that he had to cross that line in order to hold it or that he had to violate Mexican sovereignty in order to protect American laws, as if Mexico were just an extension of Texas. Or that sometimes he had to play both sides: The Lone Ranger and El Zorro. The Pollo and the Coyote. The Hostile Apache and the Friendly Apache. In the old days along the border, the friendlies helped capture the hostiles. Then all of them, including the friendlies, were packed in trains and sent away. But that’s an old story. Acosta’s narrative is a new story, in which Tonto dresses up as the Lone Ranger and sets off in pursuit of his own shadow.
Then again, maybe this is more or less the same old story—with a new disguise.
David Dorado Romo is a native of El Paso and the author of Ringside Seat to a Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez, 1893–1923.
Textra Credit: What else we’re reading this month
Gravel and Hawk, Nick Norwood (Ohio University Press, $16.95). Elegiac poems about violence, family, and agriculture in rural Texarkana.
River of Contrasts, Margie Crisp (Texas A&M Press, $29.95). Travelogue, with photos, maps, and illustrations, of a series of trips down the Colorado River.
Faith Bass Darling’s Last Garage Sale, Lynda Rutledge (Amy Einhorn Books, $25.95). Novel in the heartwarming tradition of Fried Green Tomatoes, set in Bass.