The Best Little Checkpoint in Texas

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

miles from El Paso to take charge of a truck driver caught with several large cardboard boxes of weed. The DEA agents wore Dockers and sneakers and looked like frat brothers compared with the sober, smartly uniformed Border Patrol agents.

I had lots of time to observe these agents and can testify that they are a humorless crew. Homeland security is a critical mission, and a certain zeal is apparently pressed into the troops like collar starch. Of the 650 agents assigned to the Big Bend sector, which is geographically the largest along the U.S.-Mexico border, perhaps 40 were on duty at the checkpoint during my stay on the bench. I never saw a single one of them crack a smile. They were relentlessly courteous to me and the other hangdog perps, but it felt merely dutiful, like part of the job. They are federal workers, after all, a caste never known for its winsome nature.  

After several hours they grew bored with me. Like the vast majority of the people who land on the checkpoint bench, I wasn’t wanted by any of the cop computers and my crime was too minor for the feds to care about. I’d been caught with 1.7 ounces of pot, which is technically a federal misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and one year in prison, but the Department of Justice almost never prosecutes a case so small. Instead, I was turned over to the State of Texas. A Hudspeth County deputy arrived on the scene wearing rumpled khakis and a big Texas grin, the very picture of a jolly policeman. That’s when things got interesting. 

EVEN BY THE LONESOME STANDARDS OF WEST  Texas, Hudspeth County is a bleak and windy expanse. It stretches more than 120 miles from corner to corner, yet just 3,500 humans reside in it, and probably less than half that number of trees. The county seat, Sierra Blanca, is a wan relic of better times, with two gas stations and no stoplights, and the last surviving adobe courthouse in Texas, a visible reminder that this was the frontier not so long ago.

Arvin West grew up in that courthouse. His mother, Pilar Ramirez West, was the longtime county treasurer, and little Arvin dreamed of someday being the sheriff. He became a deputy in 1983, achieved his dream in 2000, and today he’s a throwback lawman right out of a Cormac McCarthy novel, or maybe Zane Grey. When he went to Washington in 2006 to testify on border conditions before the U.S. House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, he told the solemn members that they were “dumbasses” if they accepted everything the Border Patrol told them.

West has fairly alarmist notions about border conditions. He believes the drug cartels across the river are a clear and present danger to our national security and advocates a more muscular response than Washington is willing to contemplate. His men have engaged in furious gun battles with cartelistas, and he thinks the feds are a bunch of wimps for not letting the lead fly with more gusto. Not surprisingly, West is a regular on right-wing talk radio and a Fox News favorite. And yet despite his hard-ass theories about border security, he takes an extremely dim view of the so-called drug war.

Increasingly over the past ten years, West and his dozen deputies have been overwhelmed by a steady flow of small-time potheads arrested at the checkpoint. In the state of Texas, anything over four ounces is a felony; between two and four ounces is a Class A misdemeanor; and less than two ounces is a Class B misdemeanor. Both misdemeanor charges can result in jail time and the suspension of one’s driver’s license. But that little adobe courthouse couldn’t begin to handle the caseload if the law were truly enforced. Hudspeth County doesn’t even have a full-time prosecutor; it has to bring one over from El Paso twice a month. 

West’s solution is to write tickets for possession of “drug paraphernalia,” a Class C misdemeanor that doesn’t require a court appearance and imposes a fine of $500 (plus $27 in “court costs”). The fact that you were caught red-handed with actual pot is conveniently ignored. This paraphernalia ticket is offered to you by a smiling deputy who can get you out of those handcuffs and on your way again if you simply sign for it. After five or six hours on the perp bench, it’s an easy decision. Like most everyone in that position, including Snoop Dogg, who was found to be in possession of three containers of marijuana weighing just over two ounces, I signed my ticket and put Sierra Blanca behind me as fast as the speed limit allowed, mailing in the fine from someplace mellower later on. I never made it to the courthouse.

I NEVER MET the sheriff either, so I arranged a visit the next time I was passing through. West’s office adjoins the Hudspeth County jail, which during his tenure has been expanded to house some two hundred prisoners, the majority of them felons caught up the road by the Border Patrol.

“When I took office in 2000,” he told me, “we had less than a thousand federally initiated cases a year to deal with, and most of them were felonies. Now we get three times that many, and eighty percent are misdemeanors. It’s just gotten ridiculous.”

It’s because of the dogs, of course. According to Carry Huffman there are fifty K-9 units—a dog and handler—assigned to the Big Bend sector, enough for several to be nosing around the checkpoint every day and night. Most are Belgian Malinois, a shepherd cousin with strong plebeian genes. They make indifferent pets but tremendous work dogs, with phenomenal powers of scent recognition. The Border Patrol trains them to alert on various different chemical formulations of cannabis, cocaine, methamphetamines, and opiates—the whole troublesome rainbow of uppers and downers. 

On my return visit to the checkpoint I asked to meet one

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