The Best Little Checkpoint in Texas

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

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 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

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