The Best Little Checkpoint in Texas

Getting busted at the infamous Sierra Blanca inspection station plunged me into a strange and twisted reality.
Photograph by Jennifer Boomer

The dog’s name was Blackie, and I knew right away she was trouble. I had two beautiful marijuana buds in a plastic vial in my shaving kit inside a suitcase in the trunk of the car—and the nosey mutt sniffed them out from ten feet away. She promptly squatted, the signal to her handler that the vehicle smelled suspicious. He nodded to the Border Patrol agent standing beside my car, a stern young man in crisp green fatigues, who put his hand on his sidearm, opened my door, and said the words you never want to hear: “Please get out of the car, sir.” 

I sighed and got out. Several agents surrounded my car and popped the trunk. I watched helplessly as Blackie jumped in and ferreted out my little stash faster than I could have gotten to it myself. One of the agents held up the plastic vial, and another made a gesture like a football referee signaling a personal foul. The agent beside me tapped my elbow and said, “Come with me, sir.”

It was your basic pothead screwup. I was at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspection station on Interstate 10 near Sierra Blanca, a nearly invisible town about two thirds of the way from El Paso to Van Horn. The station has been there since 1974, stopping everyone traveling east on the transcontinental highway. I had passed through it many times over the years without any problems, and that made me careless last summer. I should have known better. 

Willie Nelson put the Sierra Blanca checkpoint on the map when he was busted there in November 2010, and touring musicians have been following his lead ever since. Snoop Dogg (a.k.a. Snoop Lion), Fiona Apple, Nelly, Armie Hammer (the actor who plays the new Lone Ranger)—all made news after their vehicles were searched at the checkpoint and dope was discovered. Last year the Hollywood Reporter called it “the checkpoint of no return.” The Internet is full of dire warnings about the place, directions to back roads that avoid it, and videos showing the real-time experience of passing through the checkpoint successfully, which is best achieved by not having pot in the trunk of your car.

But those buds had been so pretty—dense yet fluffy, with the tiny purple hairs that promise perfect ripeness. A green-thumb friend in Southern California had graciously given them to me before my trip to Texas. Which is how, one day last August, I ended up driving right into the most famous dope-busting trap in the whole United States, holding. Classic.

The agent led me to the checkpoint office, a modest little vinyl-sided prefab structure (the Sierra Blanca station predates the whopping budgets that national security commands these days). The main room had tan walls with bright fluorescent lights and a narrow bench with a rail behind it, to which I was handcuffed. A middle-aged couple was cuffed to the rail a few feet down from me. They wore jeans and scruffy T-shirts and didn’t appear to be celebrities. “What did they get you for?” I asked.

The woman blinked back tears. “I had two joints in my purse.” 

My kind of criminal. The Sierra Blanca checkpoint, which is located in the Border Patrol’s Big Bend sector, busts around 2,500 people per year, and most of them are hapless potheads like myself. According to a recent study by the Center for Investigative Reporting, American citizens accounted for 80 percent of the arrests made in the sector between 2005 and 2011, and 88 percent of the drug seizures were for small amounts well below what qualifies as “trafficking,” which is what the agents are really looking for. While I sat on the perp bench, they dutifully searched my car and its contents, hoping to find more-incriminating evidence. This was extremely time-consuming, because the agents were not only rigorous but considerate as well. They refolded my clothes and underwear neater than I’ve ever done and even put most of my CDs back in their correct cases for the first time in years.

Meanwhile, my fingerprints were recorded on an inkless electronic touch pad such as I’d never seen on a television cop show, and my picture was taken with one of those egg-shaped digital cameras that nobody would use but a government agency with no interest in flattering you. Then I sat there in handcuffs for hours while my prints and mug shot were circulated to cop databases around the nation. This is a worrisome process for anyone. Who among us can ever be sure we haven’t pissed off a government computer somewhere? 

The rationale for all this effort was later explained to me by Carry Huffman, the deputy chief patrol agent of the Big Bend sector. “Every pothead isn’t a bad guy,” he said. “But every bad guy is a pothead.” By detaining people for a couple of joints, the Border Patrol, which since 2003 has been part of the Department of Homeland Security, is able to investigate everything about them, and this can occasionally lead to catching some genuinely bad guys. Car thieves and fugitives and completely clueless big-time smugglers—not to mention terrorists—all can be snared in the follow-up to the canine alarm. Of course, that happens only rarely; nationally, the Border Patrol has caught just one so-called terrorist, a University of Houston student practicing paramilitary operations in the Big Bend. But it’s not backing off.

“Our mission is to keep bad people and bad things out of the country,” Huffman told me. “We’re the only federal agency that does interdictions; we make the arrests and build the cases, then we turn them over to the various agencies that have jurisdiction for those particular crimes.”

He was speaking here of the FBI, DEA, ATF, ICE—the vast federal alphabet of bad-guy hunters who might lay claim to an evildoer who has landed on the perp bench in Sierra Blanca. As I sat there, a pair of DEA guys arrived, having driven the ninety

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