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