Access Denied

Demolishing the footbridge that connected Candelaria to the Mexican town of San Antonio del Bravo was supposed to put a dent in drug traffic and illegal immigration. Instead it’s made life even tougher for citizens of this desolate corner of Big Bend.

October 2008By Comments

The Last Link: The bridge between Candelaria and San Antonio del Bravo earlier this summer, before its destruction.
Photograph by Glenn Justice

Driving 25 miles an hour down the main paved road of Candelaria, you can enter and exit the town in 67 seconds, chased most of the way by two barking dogs. There is no square in this border village, no mayor, no park, no grocery or tavern. A single seventeen-pew church (Catholic, of course) stands next to an abandoned two-room schoolhouse, just a short walk from a former store dating to 1912. About 70 people live in the isolated town, and only 7,700 inhabit the surrounding county of Presidio, just west of Big Bend. Most villagers get by on a few hundred dollars a month, so it’s hardly a surprise that only 2 people in town have long- distance telephone service. One of them allows her neighbors to make calls, a courtesy that has made her incredibly popular, since no one can afford a cell phone and, anyway, reception is pretty much a joke.

Survival on this ruthless stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert has always required interdependence, and for Candelaria that has meant reliance on San Antonio del Bravo (population of about 170), on the other side of the river. San Antonio del Bravo has a free health clinic that prescribes medicine for walk-in patients from Mexico and the U.S. (Its residents keep the operation running with donations and volunteers.) Candelaria, meanwhile, has better roads—meaning they are not absolutely hellish—which residents from San Antonio del Bravo use to access U.S. grocery stores and public schools for their American-born children. For as long as anyone can remember, these two villages have operated as one. To ease the journey from one side to the other, locals simply walked across a metal-framed bridge, about four feet wide and forty feet long, which they built and paid for themselves years ago.

Despite complaints from far away about a porous border, this close relationship was never frowned upon in the area. Quite the opposite: For many years the crossing was an unmanned, authorized Class B port of entry. Even after 1996, when a renewed Code of Federal Regulations document no longer included the footbridge as a legal entry point, the new status was more evident on paper than on the ground. (Michael Cronin, who was the assistant commissioner for inspections at the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the time and made decisions on Class B ports, recalls, “We had no staff assigned to those locations, and technically they could only be used if they were staffed.”) But this has changed in recent years. As border security becomes a more prominent issue, footbridges—six in the Big Bend region—have come to be seen as an affront to policy.

Watching the chest-thumping over homeland security on many TV news programs, a person living hundreds of miles from the border might get the impression that destroying these bridges (and, in other areas, building fences) will secure the nation’s perimeter and ensure our safety. When such measures are taken in West Texas, however, the local reaction is hardly relief. After the Border Patrol closed the unofficial crossings at Boquillas and Lajitas in 2002, the lively tourist destinations across the river from the two Texas outposts became ghost towns. Little wonder, then, that this summer, when the villagers in Candelaria heard that their footbridge was going to be destroyed, there was no eruption of cheers. In the early morning of June 23, several members of a Border Patrol maintenance crew put on their hard hats and gloves and sawed the bridge’s metal frame from the concrete block securing it to the ground. Then they chopped the bridge into several pieces and hauled it off to Marfa, 57 miles northeast.

Many West Texans who knew of the symbiotic nature of the twin villages had anticipated a tragic fallout after the bridge was gone: a massive, if gradual, exodus. Yet, curiously, when I visited Candelaria ten days after the bridge was removed, its residents were already showing signs of resignation to their new circumstances. “I saw them haul the bridge down the road,” said Saul Peña, an eighteen-year-old who wore a UT Longhorns cap and sported the beginnings of a mustache. Peña lives with his parents in a trailer and helps them care for a ranch. “But I couldn’t go down to the water to watch. I was feeding the horses.”

A ten-minute walk from the town’s main street to the Rio Grande and I could see why someone young and agile could afford a degree of ambivalence. At the riverbank, about five feet upstream from where the bridge had stood, footprints in a deep trench led down to the river and up the other side. Looking around at the thick, twelve-foot-tall salt cedar that provided cover for almost 150 miles upstream and 90 miles downstream, it was clear to me that a conga line could cross through the water anywhere and avoid unwanted attention.

As I spoke with Peña, who sat on horseback on the path to the river, we could hear two Border Patrol agents on four-wheelers so loud that anyone crossing could easily have detected their whereabouts. “My horse must have tripped a sensor on the path back there,” Peña said as they zoomed past. Since 9/11, the Marfa sector of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is responsible for this area, has been able to recruit about two hundred agents. They come from all over the U.S., lured by $35,000 starting salaries that increase to $75,000 after three years. With the improved manpower, the sector has been able to beef up its work-detail assignments. One of these is a week-long tour of duty in Candelaria.

We listened to the four-wheelers buzz as they reached the river’s edge and turned back our way. When they crossed our path the second time, the agents stopped and pulled off their helmets, nodding politely. Both men appeared to be in their early twenties, and the younger-looking one, in braces, nervously admitted that this was his first time in Candelaria. It was a big change from his native El Paso, he said. After a little courteous small talk and some awkward silence, the agents told us to have a good day and drove off. “They didn’t go into the brush,” Peña said. “They never do. I don’t know why.”

Looking at the muddy path to the river’s edge, it was impossible not to reflect on the disconnect between policy and reality on the border. The Border Patrol is just doing its job, locals told me. It was a sincere mantra, though they usually uttered it in the same breath as their disagreement with the Department of Homeland Security’s decisions. “The bridge isn’t a threat to national security, but it doesn’t matter,” Presidio county judge Jerry Agan told me. “It’s orders from Washington.” Agan didn’t know a single person who was in favor of the bridge’s removal—not that anyone making the decisions had asked him. “They’ve done away completely with input from the locals and the elected officials in the area,” he said. “They don’t talk to us anymore about anything.”

Peña, like his neighbors, was sympathetic to the Border Patrol’s challenge. Still, its overwhelming task sometimes proved too absurd for him to restrain the occasional joke. Recently, agents had stopped him and asked if he had crossed. Peña replied with a laugh, “I tried, but the river was too full of people.”

With or without a footbridge, it is possible to scrape by in Candelaria. On plots surrounded by dirt and rocks, small one-story structures are rented to residents for $65 to $100 a month. For centuries, before the invasive, water-sucking salt cedar choked out the indigenous plants and dams up the river turned a mighty watercourse into a scrawny rivulet, this land was farmable. Not so anymore. Though jobs are few and far between, several women work as home health care providers, and some men help out on local ranches.

But the bridge’s removal did have effects, especially for the elderly. On my first day in Candelaria, I visited with Olivia Lozano, a sort of village matriarch. Like the walls of other living rooms I saw in town, hers were covered with framed photos of babies, weddings, young men in the U.S. armed services, and family members who were as likely to reside in San Antonio del Bravo as Candelaria. “I cried,” she said. “It’s like they cut the heart out of the two communities.” For years Candelaria residents like her depended on San Antonio del Bravo’s free health clinic. The trek straight across the Rio Grande on the bridge took 20 minutes walking, an easy enough journey; to cross now, they must drive 45 minutes south to the closest legal port of entry, at Presidio, then head north on the Mexican side via a winding, rocky road for two and a half hours to San Antonio del Bravo.

For those without the time or money to drive such distances, trips to visit family now require a little more athleticism. “My cousin’s wife weighs three hundred pounds!” one man told me. “I had to get her over like this—” he laughed, pantomiming his struggle to push her up the side of the riverbank. Like others I met, he rarely crossed the river to wander farther north than this valley, and it wasn’t difficult to see why he’d risk a run-in with the Border Patrol: An offender without proper documentation is fingerprinted and interviewed, then often released at the bridge in Presidio—a mere detour from a San Antonio del Bravo resident’s intended path back home. (According to the Marfa sector public affairs office, the consequences may include jail time.)

Of more concern to locals than mere visits, however, was the welfare of their schoolkids. Their anxiety didn’t surprise Johnnie Chambers, a 79-year-old retired teacher from the area. (Seeing her hair wrapped in a bun on top of her head, no one would question her résumé.) “These people are here because they want an education for their children,” she told me. Chambers ran Candelaria’s schoolhouse for 25 years until its closing, in 2000, when Presidio ISD decided the operation wasn’t economically prudent. The community had prized academics so highly that young kids sometimes brought their pre-K siblings to class. “The younger ones would ask for homework—even the kindergartners,” she said. These days, about fifty kids catch the bus in Candelaria and ride to Presidio for their education. All are U.S. citizens, but a good number reside at least part-time with family in San Antonio del Bravo. No one in town was certain how these kids were going to get to school without the bridge.

Still, the Border Patrol had no intention of disrupting the students’ routine. Later, when the school year began, one resident would tell me that the children were swimming across the river. “Schoolkids aren’t high on the priority list,” Benjamine C. Huffman, the deputy chief patrol agent at the Marfa sector, explained. Dismantling the bridge, he said, was a necessary measure to deter a more threatening activity: drug trafficking. And though smugglers can cross the border anywhere, a footbridge could be seen as a welcome mat. A person with a backpack of marijuana can leave San Antonio del Bravo and walk up the treacherous terrain of the Cuesta del Burro Mountains and through the desert to U.S. 90, twenty miles north of Candelaria. When he arrives, two or three days later, he stands to make $500 to $1,500 for his work.

For anyone who stays in the area and can’t get a job, drug smuggling becomes an inevitable temptation, as ubiquitous in this region as the heat. Residents told me it happens, though not with a frequency that alarms them, as it does the border agents. William L. Brooks, the public affairs officer for the Marfa sector, said, “I can’t tell you exactly how much comes out of there, but it is way more than a guy with a backpack here and there.” Still, unfortunately, narcotics smuggling on the border is relative, and the absence of a close interstate highway minimizes Candelaria’s role in the big operations that lead to violence. Presidio County sheriff  Danny C. Dominguez said, “Every place is unique, and some places have more activity. This isn’t Juárez or Laredo.”

Some project that marijuana smuggling will only get worse now that the bridge is gone: Closing unofficial crossings, they say, causes towns to evaporate and drug smugglers to move in after any potential informants have left. But when I spoke with Huffman, he strongly disputed that theory. “We were here for many, many years, and we never got the phone call from those little towns saying, ‘The big drug load is coming through.’ We had to catch it ourselves,” he said. Most Candelaria residents I spoke to agreed with Huffman: They valued their lives too much to call someone they didn’t know and blow the whistle on a potentially violent criminal.

But one glimpse at the Rio Grande—bridge or no bridge—reveals the value of a community that is cooperative and vigilant rather than disaffected and alienated. Judge Agan, who was in the Border Patrol from 1970 to 1999, when he retired as deputy chief patrol agent at the Marfa sector, says a working relationship with these communities isn’t impossible or even that difficult. “You’ve got to go down there and cultivate relationships. They’ve got to see somebody other than a badge,” he said. “They want to know you’re trustworthy and that they’re not going to get shot for telling you something they shouldn’t have told you. They don’t like smugglers coming through there any more than anyone else does.”

On my last day in town, I sat down with an older gentleman from San Antonio del Bravo who was in Candelaria for the day, visiting. I asked if he planned to move out of the area now that the bridge was gone. He had a hard time understanding my question. “Leave?” he asked, as if the thought hadn’t crossed his mind. He pays the Mexican government $12 a year in taxes for a house he built himself, and he survives on a small vegetable crop. His sons, who work in the Texas oil fields, send him money sometimes. I asked him if he was able to find work. There was no work in Mexico, he replied, and I assumed a $1,500 U.S. work visa wasn’t a viable option. “How will you live?” I asked. He thought about this a moment and nodded. “I have a goat,” he said. A person with such resilience doesn’t balk when an obstacle is placed in his way or a footbridge is removed from his path. But friendly obligations cut both ways. God forbid we need his help someday.

Related Content