The Battle for the Border
Illegal immigration is exploding in Maverick County, which will soon become the busiest crossing point from Mexico into the U.S. Ranches are being overrun by drug smugglers, houses robbed, cattle stolen. Men have been shot and killed.
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Dob Cunningham stood on a ridge overlooking the Rio Grande and surveyed the vast stretch of Maverick County where his family has ranched for more than half a century, a lonesome spread of mesquite-studded brush country that sprawled along the border. He had stood there many times over the years and watched, one hand shading his eyes from the sun, as illegal immigrants waded the river and scrambled up the banks onto his land. But they no longer crossed the Rio Grande here one or two at a time; now they came, sweat-stained and weary, in groups of twenty, forty, even one hundred people—ragtag processions of Mexico’s poor that snaked across the brushland. His ranch was scarred with their footpaths, hard-packed and worn smooth. And though each morning he knelt to pick up the empty water jugs and plastic bags that skittered in their wake, he knew these were useless gestures. This land no longer felt like his own.Dob had faced droughts, disease, and dwindling returns, but this was a crisis he was powerless to stop. A meager stretch of river, he knew, could not hold back desperate people who saw the land of opportunity lying just beyond their reach. Whenever he stumbled across illegal immigrants on his land, he doctored their blistered feet and gave them dry clothes and food before turning them over to the Border Patrol. But mixed with his sympathy was bitterness too, for the relentless flow of people coming northward had taken its toll. His fences had been cut, his cattle stolen, his house robbed. He knew that at any time of the day or night, strangers might be darting, ducking, crawling, crouching, and running through his ranch. Not all of them were trying to make their way north: Drug smugglers used the same footpaths, ferrying tens of thousands of pounds of marijuana and cocaine by backpack across Maverick County ranches like his each year, often while armed lookouts kept watch from across the Rio Grande. Dob had once loved this land for the freedom its wide-open spaces provided. Now he rarely stepped outside his house without a gun.
All around him, a border war is unfolding. In only a few years, the U.S. Border Patrol station in Eagle Pass, fifteen miles downriver from the Cunningham Ranch, has been transformed from an obscure outpost into the busiest station in Texas, and the Border Patrol estimates that within two to three years, this area—from Del Rio to El Indio—will become the busiest illegal crossing point in the nation. By 2004 nearly half a million people may try to cross here each year. The inexorable flood of illegal immigrants, combined with an increasingly brazen and violent drug trade, has struck fear in even the most stubborn veterans of the border, many of whom are moving out.
Among the landowners who are staying behind, empathy for their southern neighbors has given way to anger and a new militarism. Many now patrol their land armed. Their frustration has turned unexpectedly bloody: During the past two years, Mexicans passing through this corner of South Texas have been the targets of six shootings. Two of the victims were killed. All of them were shot in the back.
One victim was shot near Dob Cunningham’s ranch, by a man Dob had trusted enough to allow him to live on his land: an agent with the Drug Enforcement Agency who, the rancher later discovered, meted out his own strange justice after hours. The shooting left a Mexican teenager paralyzed for life and forever altered the way Dob looked at his desolate sweep of brushland. For the rancher, all the rules seemed to have changed, rules that said there was dignity in hard work, that a man could make an honest living raising cattle, that his grandchildren would someday work the land too. He used to regularly visit friends in Mexico. But ever since he looked across the Rio Grande through his binoculars and saw a man studying him back through the scope of a rifle, he had been wary. Even the most basic of rules—that this side of the river was his, and that that side of the river was theirs—had eroded. “No one seems to understand,” Dob said. “There isn’t a border anymore.”
The Cunningham ranch lies along a rutted clay road that threads through irrigated fields of sorghum and oats, past the black iron silhouette of a cowboy at Dob’s ranch house, and then ascends into the rough hills lining the Rio Grande. Dob’s land overlooks the Quemado Valley, a verdant spread of pastures and pecan groves that runs alongside the river for twelve miles up to the Las Moras Ranch—a once-infamous drug-smuggling site that federal authorities seized from Mexican traffickers three and a half years ago. Spanish explorers named the valley “Quemado,” or “Burned,” long before an irrigation canal was dug through it, having appraised this once-barren land as a place so devoid of vegetation that it appeared to have been ravaged by fire. The austere terrain surrounding the valley, where Dob’s land climbs to a precipitous and rocky ridgeline, and farther upriver toward Del Rio, still evokes the dusty expanses of the Old West, so much so that the nearby Moody Ranch served as the backdrop for the filming of Lonesome Dove. This version of the West, however, is increasingly defined not by exuberance or optimism or any sense of manifest destiny, but of men slowly retreating from their land.When the Cunningham family moved here in 1949 from the border town of Socorro, a few miles southeast of El Paso, locals still called this place the Free State of Maverick County, a nod to the fiercely independent nature of those who settled here. Dob, the grandson of homesteaders, sees himself as part of a distinctly Western tradition. He learned to ride and rope as a boy, and once his family came to the Quemado Valley, he began working cattle on his father’s seven-hundred-acre stock farm, the same modest spread that belongs to him today. Cowboying was in his blood: His father had grown up ranching in Oklahoma, and his future wife, Kay, whose great-grandfather had been a Kansas cattle driver, shared his restless energy and love of the land. Dob enlisted in the Army at the age of nineteen and worked his way up to the rank of sergeant while stationed in Germany, but Texas had an ineluctable pull. He returned to Maverick County to work cattle, and when he tired of being a ranch hand, he did what many cowboys who could barely scratch out a living in South Texas did. In 1960 he went to work for the Border Patrol.
As a Border Patrol agent in Mercedes and Falfurrias, he would track a group of Mexicans for days or lay up by a well-worn footpath at night and listen for the faint sound of rustling in the brush. He relished the thrill of the chase, tracking footprints all day beneath a wide-open sky. He liked to work alone, roving the canebrakes and sagebrush until he found his quarry. Backup was far away, but he never felt uneasy. “The illegals you’d catch back then were campesinos: very polite, very humble gentlemen from the country who knew how to survive out here,” he said with a certain admiration. “They could live off mesquite beans and prickly pear apples. They killed rabbits with slingshots, and they used the sun as a guide.” Dob spoke Spanish well, and when he caught a group of men in the brush, he would ask them about their long journey north and the dusty towns they had left behind. Just as often, they would plead with him for mercy. “They’d say, ‘Why won’t you let us go? We’re not criminals. We just want to work,'” he recalled. “And it was hard to know how to answer them.”
Sitting at his kitchen table one morning this winter, Dob grew quiet at the memory. He had moved back to the ranch in 1970, when he went to work for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Eagle Pass. He eventually became the port director there and retired eleven years ago. Dob had the lean, spry build of a man who has worked outdoors for the better part of his life and brown eyes set deeply in a face accustomed to squinting in the sun. His low-slung ranch house, shaded by red oaks, smelled of coffee and deer sausage that morning. Its walls were lined with Indian arrowheads he had collected along the riverbank. An American flag hung outside his front door, as did the sun-bleached skull of a Hereford bull—one that Dob says Mexicans shot through the eye and then axed to death. The bull’s cruel slaughter marked the end of the relative peace that had spanned the river. “This isn’t the same place I came back to thirty years ago, that’s for sure,” he said as his little dog, Runt, whined at his feet. “They killed the Hereford bull around the time I retired, and by then, it had all changed. Nobody left their doors unlocked or put laundry out on the clothesline or rode horses down by the river anymore.”
Though he has suffered six break-ins and had ten head of cattle stolen, tools and water pumps filched, and hogs killed, he considers himself lucky. Dob’s ranch is relatively sheltered, running along a deep part of the Rio Grande that slows passage from Mexico. His neighbors a few miles upriver are more vulnerable and have been hit hard by thieves and the drug trade. Some have been robbed, threatened, or in one case, shot at. “These sorts of things are so ordinary now, they don’t even make the paper,” he said.
One friend, a rancher who asked not to be named, has found 350-pound loads of cocaine stashed in his irrigation ditches and deep depressions in his corrals where tons of marijuana have been piled awaiting transport. At night pickup trucks cruise his roads with their headlights off and armed drug traffickers have the run of his land. The Border Patrol once made an eight-thousand-pound marijuana bust on the land adjoining his. Soon afterward, a rifle slug was fired into his dining room while he sat eating lunch. Now his ranch, like many along the river, bears a For Sale sign.
Dob plans to stay, though he no longer relies on the government to protect his land. Each morning he checks the perimeter of his ranch. When traffic is heavy, he hides in the brush with his shotgun and his binoculars, scanning the Rio Grande. From his perch, he warns crossers to turn back. If they have already reached the riverbank, he rounds them up and calls the Border Patrol. He keeps a vigilant watch, taking heed of what has befallen neighbors like Betty Shofner. The 71-year-old widow, who lives three miles downriver, estimates that several thousand illegal immigrants crossed her isolated property just last year. “Coyotes,” as the people who smuggle illegal immigrants across the border are called, use her land freely, and she can often see their cars idling on the edge of her spinach fields. Ever since her late husband, Earl, a cotton farmer, was robbed—two Mexicans gagged him, bound his hands and feet with an extension cord, and locked him in the pump house—she has kept her curtains drawn and forbidden her great-grandchildren to wander far from the house. When she gardened, she took her gun. Her son Steven now carries a pistol with him, even to mow the lawn.
“The government has left this up to people living on the border,” said Dob, rising from the kitchen table to make his morning rounds. “Out here, we’re on our own.” A storm had just rumbled off to the west, and the air was cool and damp, smelling of wet earth and sagebrush. He warmed up his old mud-spattered military Jeep, which held wire fencing, tools, and a sack of feed, and ascended the first of many rocky hills, with Runt in tow. As he drove along his fence line, he scoured the earth for fresh tracks. A footprint was, to his eye, as richly textured as a petroglyph. He could tell how old it was by knowing when the dew fell or if the dust inside it had been bleached by the morning sun. If the tracks were new, he pursued them through the brush by following telltale signs of passage: flattened blades of grass, broken twigs, stones that were darker on one side because they had just been overturned. Dob had come across an odd and sometimes tragic assortment of people this way: poachers, drug-smuggling backpackers, lost immigrants, a Mexican man who had been stripped and badly beaten by a coyote, a drowning victim whose body had glided down the river. He has even found discarded baby bottles and toddlers’ footprints in the mud.
The Jeep lurched back up another rocky incline, winding along a rough road lined with prickly pear and yucca, before rounding a curve and finally descending into a small hollow. Here, a murky green canal wound past banks thick with carrizo cane. “This is where the shooting happened,” Dob said, abruptly braking the Jeep and pointing toward the opposite side of the canal. “This is where Honeycutt shot that boy.”
Looking down from a U.S. Border Patrol A-STAR helicopter on Maverick County, one can see its flat, bare expanses crisscrossed with foot trails and the remnants of countless journeys north. This is the land that Will Honeycutt once patrolled for the DEA, and the land that his victim, Abecnego Monje Ortiz, once hoped to cross with only a jug of water. From the air, it appears deserted, but the emptiness is illusory: At any time of day or night, illegal immigrants are furtively walking northward. Thin plastic bags that once held their possessions skip idly across the desert floor. Discarded T-shirts and underwear, some still soaked with river water, bake in the sun. Bailout cars, which illegals bolted from to elude pursuing Border Patrol agents, stand abandoned amid the mesquite, their dusty doors still ajar. Infrared surveillance cameras loom eighty feet above the ground, and hundreds of Border Patrol motion sensors lie buried below. The effect is eerie, as though one has stumbled across a forgotten battlefield. LocalsThe Borderhave even taken to calling this part of South Texas—made up of Dimmit, Maverick, and Zavala counties—the DMZ, or the demilitarized zone.The Border Patrol station in Eagle Pass, the Maverick County seat, consists of two small white buildings that stand unobtrusively on the outskirts of town along U.S. 277. Once a sleepy command post, the station is now a frenetic place, crowded with recent graduates from the Border Patrol Academy and veteran agents from places such as El Paso and San Diego, California, who have been sent in as reinforcements. Long hours together have forged an intense camaraderie among these agents, many of whom are Mexican American, and humor serves as the only relief from the pressures of a job that has become increasingly perilous. Reminders of the dangers they face are everywhere: A small stone plaque dedicated to Jefferson Barr, an agent gunned down along the river in 1996 by drug traffickers, stands outside the station house. Inside, posters urging agents to use bulletproof vests warn “You Are a Target.” But agents have scant opportunity here to entertain doubts. At all hours of the night, their radios crackle with news of Border Patrol sensors along the river being tripped: “eleven hits . . . two hits . . . fourteen hits . . . nine hits . . . thirty hits . . .”
At the heart of the station house is the control room, which affords a sweeping view of Maverick County, displaying grainy images from surveillance cameras across a bank of television screens. At night the infrared images appear in negative: A man’s white silhouette tentatively dips a toe into the river; a ghostly group of twenty slinks across the scrubland. Mexicans across the river in Piedras Negras sometimes wave at the cameras or hold their middle fingers up to them or take aim at them with slingshots. Once, a couple pretended to have sex on the opposite bank to distract the camera operators from seeing a group crossing the river. All day long the cameras relay the jarring images of poor Mexicans dashing across the lush, manicured greens of the Eagle Pass Municipal Golf Course, which runs along the Rio Grande. Some try to fade into the background, standing with studied casualness on the fairways, swinging stalks of river reeds as if they were golf clubs.
Eagle Pass Border Patrol agents, no matter how vigilant, cannot deter those driven to desperation by drought and the vagaries of the Mexican economy. Many Mexican farmers and laborers are faced with a terrible choice: cross the river or let their families go hungry. As the Border Patrol has clamped down on El Paso and Brownsville, people seeking to cross the border have flocked to Maverick County, which is sparsely settled, difficult to patrol, and easily accessible by an improved highway running from Mexico City to Piedras Negras. During the Border Patrol’s past fiscal year, agents in the Del Rio sector—which ranges from the Pecos River to just north of Laredo—made 157,000 apprehensions, most of them in Maverick County. (In 1994 there were 50,000.) According to sector chief Paul Berg, who estimates that his agents catch 60 percent of the border crossers, apprehensions are soon expected to rise from 350,000 to 450,000 per year. “The border is like a balloon,” he explained. “When you squeeze on it in one place, it expands in another. Right now Tucson is the hole. Once we get Tucson under control, they’ll come here next.” For all practical purposes, his agents can only try to slow the flow of illegal immigration here, not stop it.
Patrolling the river is a cat-and-mouse game. Some illegals walk backward, so they appear to be heading south. Others wipe out their footsteps with mesquite branches or affix horseshoes to the soles of their shoes to throw off agents who might be tracking them. Border Patrol agents search every front: They cruise the riverbanks, scanning the Rio Grande with night-vision goggles; they fly overhead in helicopters and rake the ground below with heat detectors; they chase down groups who have tripped sensors; they lie in the brush, waiting for the sound of twigs breaking beneath feet. Even with 250 agents, more than double the number the Eagle Pass station had three years ago, and an abundance of high-tech tools, the task is daunting. Something as innocuous as carrizo cane, the bamboolike reed that grows thickly along the riverbanks, can thwart the most determined of pursuits. The cane stands twenty feet high, grows so densely that it shuts out all sunlight, and is too tough to drive a car through. Illegal immigrants use it as cover, traveling through tunnels they have bored through its thickets. “We could miss an army walking through it,” said Border Patrol pilot Mike Johnson.
Further complicating the Border Patrol’s mission, which includes drug interdiction, is the fact that traffickers now have the upper hand in Maverick County. Smugglers are armed with encrypted radios, scanners, surveillance equipment, automatic weapons that are far superior to the Border Patrol’s standard-issue shotguns and rifles, and an intelligence network on both sides of the border. “When we look through our binoculars, we see scouts on the other side of the river watching us,” said supervisory agent Mike Moreno. The line that once divided the drug trade from the flow of people crossing the river has become increasingly blurred. Traffickers often send illegals across the Rio Grande as decoys, tying up Border Patrol agents while drug loads are ferried farther down the river. Lost in the mix are the people walking north, more and more of whom are from urban areas and are ill-prepared to walk for days, even weeks, across this forbidding terrain. Border Patrol agents often find them wandering the desert—dehydrated, delirious, and overcome by heat exhaustion. Some end up walking in circles for days. Many aren’t so lucky; the bodies of 48 immigrants were found in the sector just last year.
Still, thousands of people continue to cross the Rio Grande, as they did on a brisk evening this winter, when Border Patrol agent William O. Willingham heard on his radio that a sensor downriver from Eagle Pass had registered twenty hits. Shifting his unmarked Ford Expedition into gear, Willingham sped down U.S. 277 and then turned into the brush, coming to a stop in the woods. Without a moment’s pause, he leaped out of the Expedition, jumped a fence, and ran headlong through thickets of catclaw and huisache, ducking branches and brambles as he went. He scaled a steep creekbed muddied by recent rains and sprinted toward the sensor. When his radio crackled with the news that the group had split up and was heading for a nearby pecan orchard, Willingham, breathing hard, backtracked to the Expedition and drove farther down 277, cutting his headlights as he turned into the orchard. Steadying his night-vision goggles, he scanned the identical rows of pecan trees that spread out dizzyingly before him, looking for any signs of movement. Then his radio crackled again; two Border Patrol agents had apprehended the group nearby.
Willingham steered the Expedition toward them, his headlights at last skimming across the seven Mexicans who had been caught and who were kneeling in the dark beside a pecan tree. The men wore baseball caps and serapes, their skin darkened by years in the sun. They were from Tampico, they said, and were headed to Plano, where they worked as landscapers. Despite their capture, they were in surprisingly high spirits, passing sticks of gum out to one another and talking animatedly, as though they had been through this charade before. All that Willingham and the other Border Patrol agents could do after processing them was take them to the international bridge and watch them walk back to Piedras Negras, where they would probably only spend the night. “Regresamos mañana,” the Mexicans said, laughing. We’ll be back tomorrow.
Will Honeycutt seemed, at first, like the sort of man Dob Cunningham could trust. A former police officer from the Hill Country town of Bandera, Honeycutt was square-shouldered and seemingly surefooted, a sturdy redhead who had cowboyed on ranches during his youth. Dob had rented out the spare house on his ranch to local lawmen before, and when the DEA in Eagle Pass asked if Honeycutt, the agency’s new hire, could live there, he readily agreed. Around Dob, Honeycutt was unusually reserved, as if he feared the rancher’s judgments. Still, Dob trusted that the DEA had hired a proven officer, and he was impressed with Honeycutt’s conscientiousness, noting that he often left the ranch at dawn and put in fifteen-hour workdays. At 39, Honeycutt was neat and respectful and good with his hands, once fashioning flowers out of copper for Dob’s wife, Kay. “It gets lonely out here, and we didn’t mind having the company,” said Kay. “We accepted him on good faith.” But Honeycutt, whose stint in Bandera had largely consisted of handing out speeding tickets, was in over his head. DEA task forces are supposed to be staffed by an elite group of state and local police officers, experienced lawmen who are deputized as DEA agents to help rural areas fight the drug trade. Honeycutt had no training in drug interdiction, however, and seems to have won a place in the task force’s ranks solely because he owned a valuable police dog. He worked hard, but to no avail; his supervisor once reprimanded him for wasting time tracking the flights of a local pilot who turned out to be smuggling not dope but roosters. His investigations were hampered by the fact that he couldn’t speak even rudimentary Spanish, as Dob realized when Honeycutt once caught an illegal and asked the rancher to translate. “Will wanted me to ask him, ‘Who helped you cross the river?’ So I did,” Dob recalled. “When the man explained that he had crossed ‘solito,‘ or ‘alone,’ Will got excited and said, ‘Solito! That’s the name of the smuggler!'”
To Dob, Honeycutt seemed oddly inexperienced and more easily rattled than other lawmen he had known. When an illegal immigrant stole a water jug from his house, Honeycutt installed a trip wire around his yard and “screamers,” or motion-sensitive alarms, to keep people at bay. The screamers, which deer and javelina often tripped at night, blared until their batteries ran dead, and Honeycutt would rise at odd hours to investigate. His behavior became increasingly erratic; he hung a deer skull and a cross by his door, Dob remembered, “a voodoo kind of thing to spook Mexicans away.” On morning ranch checks, Dob began spotting Honeycutt’s footprints by the river and realized that his tenant had been prowling around the ranch at night. When the rancher grilled him about it, Honeycutt shrugged it off, saying he had been rock hunting—an explanation that, to Dob, “didn’t ring right.” Dob later found a bullet hole in the barn, and when he sharply questioned Honeycutt again, the agent became flustered: He had shot a feral hog that had attacked his German shepherd, he stammered, and the bullet must have ricocheted into the barn. “I told Kay he had a screw loose and that we should kick him out, but Kay has a big heart,” said Dob. “She felt sorry for him, and so he stayed.”
Honeycutt often boasted to other lawmen, exaggerating his role in DEA drug busts and claiming that Mexicans he had caught, who were in awe of his abilities, had nicknamed him the Red Scorpion. “He had a hero complex,” remembered Texas Ranger Brooks Long, who later investigated him. “He wanted to impress people, especially Dob. He was getting frustrated because he’d made numerous claims about interdicting big drug loads, but he didn’t actually know what to do.” Dob was dismayed to see that his tenant was settling into the spare house on the ranch, sprucing it up and having his wife, Cindy, move there from Bandera. “I’d always been under the impression he wasn’t going to be out there long,” Dob said. “The place needed a lot of repairs and was strictly a bachelor type of thing.” Still, he didn’t insist that Honeycutt move. Dob rarely saw him and perceived Honeycutt as an annoyance, not a threat. “If he hadn’t been with the DEA, I would have studied him more,” said Dob. “I was duped. Before a new Border Patrol agent can go out on his own, he’s schooled, he’s trained, he has weekly appraisals. Honeycutt had none of that. They gave him a gun and a badge and said go get it.”
For Honeycutt, his failure as a DEA agent took its toll, as did his mounting frustration with the flow of drugs and illegal immigrants he seemed powerless to control. Perhaps in an effort to redeem himself, to finally prove himself the hero, he began tracking illegals at night and trying to intercept drug loads on his own. The strain he was under clearly showed; several times he unnecessarily pulled his gun during traffic stops and ordered passengers to lie facedown on the ground. Still, warning signs went unheeded. Honeycutt allegedly boasted to U.S. Customs agent Mike Schuster that he had once forced a group of illegal immigrants he had rounded up to take their shoes off and walk until their “feet were messed up.” He also allegedly said that he had made two men strip naked and swim back to Mexico on a particularly cold night and that he had once sicced his dog on two illegals, firing his gun when one hid in a tree. Schuster assumed Honeycutt was exaggerating and failed to report him. But Honeycutt’s hostility toward illegal immigrants—who continued, despite his determined efforts, to elude him—was growing more menacing. To the astonishment of Border Patrol agent James Prejean, Honeycutt once quipped, “The only Spanish I speak is ‘Habla Glock?'”
Honeycutt was carrying his Glock pistol on the night of January 25, 1999, when he set off into the brush. He had completed his shift but was still wearing his uniform and was carrying a machete for cutting through the underbrush. Dusk was settling over a clear, cold horizon. Honeycutt descended the rocky hill from his house to the nearby water pump, where he bent down to replace the batteries in his screamers. Spread out before him were fresh tracks: a solid, unmistakable trail of footprints that led past the toolshed, then tacked northeast through the ranch. Honeycutt turned his flashlight on and began walking. The footprints appeared to lead toward the irrigation canal, a little more than a mile away, and he headed in that direction, finally breaking into a hard run. As he neared the canal, he slowed, hearing voices speaking in Spanish. He ducked down, creeping through the brush until he at last saw a group of roughly twenty illegals, about eighty feet ahead of him, along the banks of the canal. Then, with his flashlight in one hand, he stepped forward.
“Stop, police!” Honeycutt yelled. The group scattered, with people scrambling into the brush. “Stop, police!” he yelled with more urgency, as they began to vanish in the darkness. Honeycutt drew his gun and—whether out of panic, fear, or his accumulated rage—he fired eight shots into the brush. From the opposite side of the canal there was a scream of pain and then, “¡Me dieron!” They got me.
Abecnego Monje Ortiz felt a hard blow to his right shoulder, a fiercely hot, vibrating pain that radiated out through his limbs and left him gasping for breath, its force buckling his legs beneath him. He fell to the ground, then tried to right himself so he could run but found that his legs had gone limp. Lying there, he could hear his fellow travelers running furiously through the brush, moving farther and farther away from him. Then all fell silent. “Cacho!” Abecnego whispered, calling his friend’s name, but no one answered. Blood seeped from his shoulder and began soaking through his jacket, wetting the ground beneath him. He was alone and unable to move. Abecnego stared up at the dark, moonless sky and prayed that God would let him live.Abecnego had left the tiny village of Montecillos, in the southwestern state of Michoacán, ten days earlier against his mother’s wishes. He was eighteen, a slight, shy teenager who had decided to follow his two older brothers to the States, where they already worked in restaurants. The town of Montecillos had no plumbing or paved roads and was populated largely by subsistence farmers who had suffered under a long drought. The Monjes tried to draw corn from the parched soil, but they, like most families there, relied on money sent home by fathers, husbands, and brothers working up north. Abecnego’s father, who had baked and sold bread in town, had died the previous year in a car accident, leaving the family in dire straits, and Abecnego felt it was his duty to help support his mother, Dolores, as well as his four sisters and younger brother. Going north was also a rite of passage. The bravest and most ambitious men left Montecillos behind each year, Abecnego had noted, while the town’s remaining boys, women, and elderly waited for their return. Though his mother pleaded with him not to go, saying he was too young, Abecnego and his friend Cacho set out for Texas.
The two older Monje brothers had previously crossed into the U.S. from Tijuana and Matamoros, where they had ducked under fences and walked straight into the outskirts of American cities. But the Border Patrol had since clamped down on those places, and so Abecnego and Cacho, after traveling to the border, were advised to cross at Piedras Negras instead. To cross, a coyote told them, they would have to ford the river, hike for several days past the Border Patrol checkpoints, and then meet up with a driver who would take them to Houston. They agreed to pay the coyote’s rate of $1,000 each and gathered with twenty or so other Mexicans by the river, downriver from Piedras Negras. The coyote instructed them to strip off their clothes, and though Abecnego was modest in the presence of the group’s women, he followed orders. Holding his clothes high above the frigid water, he began to wade across the Rio Grande. He did not know how to swim, and the icy river frightened him, but at last he reached the opposite bank. Shivering, he dressed hurriedly as the coyote urged the group on. Sometimes walking, sometimes running, they forged through thickets of catclaw and huisache that ripped at their clothes and tore at their skin. Finally, they came to the canal near Dob’s ranch.
Honeycutt would later offer varying accounts to Texas Ranger Brooks Long of why he fired his gun along the canal, saying first that he saw a light that appeared to be gunfire on the opposite bank, then that he heard a noise sounding like gunfire, and then that he had simply panicked. Despite hearing a cry of pain, Honeycutt left the scene after apprehending one of the Mexicans but felt compelled to return to the canal twice that night to search the area. He would not find Abecnego until roughly three hours after the shooting. On his third visit to the canal, Honeycutt scanned its banks with his flashlight, then headed up into the brush. After crossing a small clearing, he saw a jean jacket ahead of him, crumpled on the ground. He took a few more steps and saw that a boy was sprawled out before him. Honeycutt nudged the boy but there was no response. Kneeling down, he saw blood. Honeycutt turned the boy over and then pulled his shirt up, seeing the raw bullet wound in his shoulder. Abecnego was still alive. Honeycutt knelt by him in the dark and wept. “No se preocupe. Estaré bien,” Abecnego assured him, though Honeycutt couldn’t understand. “Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.”
Dob awoke that night when his dogs began frantically barking and scratching at the front door. Honeycutt was standing at his gate, inconsolable. “He was crying, distraught, incoherent—he’d lost it,” Dob recalled. “It was hard to understand him. He said he’d found a guy who was shot. He said, ‘Tell me what to do.'” Earlier that night, Honeycutt had casually told Dob of firing his gun at a “flash” by the canal, but now the rancher felt a sense of dread as he realized that Honeycutt had in fact fired at people. Dob would later learn that the off-duty agent had failed to tell authorities of the shooting or to radio for an ambulance even after finding Abecnego. Instead, Honeycutt had carried and then dragged Abecnego to a clearing before running back to his car and leaving the boy in the brush. Only when Honeycutt unexpectedly ran into two Border Patrol agents as he drove back to the ranch, did he explain what had happened. As Dob absorbed the news that night, he felt ill. “I was disgusted at Will’s incompetence, at the DEA, at myself for being fooled.”At Honeycutt’s trial last October, he pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated assault by a public servant and deadly conduct. He received a fifteen-year sentence. The evidence presented during the punishment phase suggested that Honeycutt had tried to cover up the shooting: He had returned to the scene of the crime to throw his spent shells into the canal. He had initially failed to seek medical assistance for Abecnego, a fact that left room for speculation about the boy’s fate had Border Patrol agents not run into Honeycutt. And the testimony of Mario Morales Romero, who had crossed the river that night with Abecnego and was the only one in the group Honeycutt had caught, was particularly damaging. He testified that Honeycutt had cursed the “pinches mexicanos” (“damn Mexicans”) as he had handcuffed Romero and threatened to cut the man’s feet off with a machete so he couldn’t cross the river again. Not entered into evidence was the fact that Honeycutt had failed a polygraph test and had admitted to a polygraph examiner that he had shot at illegal immigrants before. “Honeycutt let his gun do the talking,” said Texas Ranger Brooks Long.
Perhaps the most startling revelation was what Long brought to light after doing a simple background check on Honeycutt. Criminal records in the East Texas town of Freeport showed that Honeycutt had been charged with assaulting his first wife in 1977 and making terroristic threats against her in 1979. The assault charge had been dismissed, but Honeycutt was convicted of the latter offense and served three days in jail. Federal law dictates that people with domestic violence convictions cannot be licensed to carry firearms and so cannot serve as peace officers. It was a detail that had eluded the Maverick County district attorney’s office, which commissioned DEA task force members, and the agency itself. From the very beginning, Honeycutt was never qualified to work for the DEA—a fact so troubling, and so embarrassing, that it undoubtedly contributed to the agency’s decision this January to settle quietly the civil suit brought by Abecnego Monje Ortiz, which was scheduled to go to trial before Judge William Wayne Justice in February. With the assistance of San Antonio attorneys Clem and Sean Lyons, Abecnego won a settlement of $1.75 million from the DEA, a tremendous legal victory, but scant recompense for a teenager who will never walk again.
From his vantage point, Will Honeycutt sees himself as a scapegoat, laying much of the blame for what occurred at the feet of the DEA. One morning this winter at the Maverick County jail, Honeycutt railed against the agency’s lack of training and supervision, handing over pages of handwritten notes detailing the ways in which the DEA had failed him. But he was at a loss to explain his own actions. “About this whole event, I don’t have an answer and it’s haunting me,” he said. “Putting me in prison is nothing compared to what’s going on in my mind.” He expressed deep remorse for the suffering of Abecnego Monje Ortiz and vehemently denied that he harbors any hatred of Mexicans. His wife, he said, is Mexican American. He came short of accepting full responsibility for the shooting, instead spinning theories about how the bullet could have ricocheted or how a black pickup truck seen near the canal that night presents a “shadow of a doubt.” He seemed increasingly unhinged: His hands visibly trembled when he spoke about the shooting, and he claimed to have scrubbed every inch of his cell with his toothbrush. “There is a struggle with my own sanity and depression,” he said.
Abecnego is paralyzed from the waist down and will forever be confined to a wheelchair. His mother, Dolores, has been granted a temporary visa by the INS and helps him with his physical therapy in San Antonio, a painful and often grueling program that occupies much of his time. Abecnego now looks more like a man than a boy; his face has filled out and grown more serious, its contours stripped of their innocence. He holds his chin up, almost defensively. Of Will Honeycutt he said simply, “I have nothing against him.” But in his voice there is a trace of bitterness and of opportunities lost. Abecnego, who came to this country to help his mother, is now solely dependent on her care. She puts on a brave face about her son and only once during our conversation did her voice falter.
“He had ambitions,” Dolores said. Then her eyes filled with tears.
The shooting of Abecnego Monje Ortiz was the first of six shootings that have reverberated through this lonely corner of Texas. In June and then November of 1999 an Air Force mechanic in Del Rio fired at Mexicans who had waded across the river by his house. The second shooting left sixteen-year-old Luis Armando Chavez Vaquera dead. Last April a Rocksprings rancher shot at three illegals crossing his land, striking one in the back. Last May a Brackettville retiree shot in the direction of two immigrants, killing Eusebio de Haro, 23. As recently as January, an immigrant was shot in the leg outside Barksdale. All the shootings have been committed by newcomers to the border, whose numbers are rising as old-time ranches become subdivided into hunting leases and ranchettes. All of the shootings had an element of rage, which will surely heighten as more and more people begin crossing through here from Mexico. “It’s just a matter of time before this happens again,” said Dob.The rancher sat at his kitchen table with a worn, tan notebook spread out before him. He had filled hundreds of its pages with his small, precise capital letters, making daily entries in black ink. This was the logbook in which he recorded every footprint, every new trail, every suspicious movement across the ranch. Alongside the notes that anyone who worked the land might keep—full moon, first frost, heavy rain—were notes detailing the license plate numbers of suspicious cars, the movements of lookouts, the precise location of Mexican military units who appeared to be guarding drug loads across the Rio Grande. There was an entry marking the day a group of 45 people crossed the ranch and the day Dob saw a rifle pointed at him from the other side of the river. It was an extraordinary record, a catalog of the reasons nearly all of Dob’s longtime friends and neighbors in the Quemado Valley have moved on—most notably the Wipffs, who were among the first families to settle Maverick County, 130 years ago. “When Sonny Wipff moved his last load of cattle, he sat there and cried,” said Dob, who looked small and tired in the morning light. “One day I’ll be dead and gone too. We’re the last ones.”
On a late-January night in Eagle Pass, it was clear and cold when a green-and-white Border Patrol bus, filled with Mexicans who had been caught illegally entering the country, pulled up to the international bridge. Fingerprinted and photographed, the group had been duly entered into the agency’s database and now had only to walk back across the bridge to Piedras Negras. A blond Border Patrol agent in his twenties waved the group of fifty-odd Mexicans off the bus and watched as they began to disappear into the crowd. The last passenger, a short, barrel-chested man wearing a Chicago Bulls cap and a weary expression, appraised the long walk before him and then stepped off the bus.
“Hasta mañana,” the Border Patrol agent said, smiling pleasantly.
The Mexican man turned his head and grinned. “Hasta mañana.“