Introduction: On Edge
If you have traveled or lived near America’s southern border, you have seen the forest green uniform, the white vehicle with a green slash and bold letters, and the agents wearing ball caps. They are the men and women who run highway checkpoints, eye passing cars, and pursue groups of smugglers and undocumented aliens across open country. But have you met the agents themselves, those people behind the sunglasses, the humans at the wheel of the patrol truck, your neighbors down the street who shop at your mall and coach your kids’ peewee teams, the fathers and mothers who live and work near the border and wear the green uniform of the U.S. Border Patrol?
They are the mobile, uniformed arm of the federal government charged with patrolling between the official borderline ports of entry. Their authority to enter private lands to patrol for illegal aliens extends twenty-five miles from the border, and they may legally stop all vehicles to check for aliens as far as one hundred air miles from the border. Based upon reasonable suspicion of the commission of a criminal act or upon procurement of a warrant, they may investigate immigration offenses anywhere in the country.
They are the border police, and like your hometown force, they both protect and serve. In a day’s work they may catch a load of narcotics, apprehend groups of people entering the country without permission, and intercept a potential terrorist. The day undoubtedly will include rescuing aliens from death by thirst or murder by border bandits, preventing neighborhood assaults and burglaries, and administering first-aid to accident victims, and may involve delivering an untimely baby or helping stranded motorists. If you don’t know them, you should.
What follows is a set of interviews documenting the trials and triumphs of U.S. Border Patrol agents who have worked the southwest border between the United States and Mexico. They represent two-thirds of the patrol’s history, which dates back to 1924. It is written as told by those who have "walked the line" and is dedicated to their often unsung achievements. We relay the stories in historical sequence, from the older guard now retired to those still wearing the badge, for one name leads to another, policies progress, and equipment evolves. The common theme is duty to country.
These are self-told stories of working folks doing desert duty here, just as they are at dozens of other Border Patrol stations along America’s borders. Names like Eagle Pass, Laredo, Fort Stockton, Douglas, Ajo, Calexico, and Campo signal stations with proud histories. The agency’s motto is Honor First, and uncommon dedication is required. The work is rigorous and dangerous. Agents must be vigilant, self-sufficient, and honest. As you will read, the stories of these law officers reflect the fact that they are actual people with smiles and frowns.
Whether you are an alien downed by fatigue, battered by heat, or threatened by thirst or border bandits; a fellow agent in hot pursuit of drug smugglers or holding suspects at gunpoint; or a citizen lost in the wild borderlands, these are the people you’d pray were on your trail and on their way. If you are a smuggler evading the law, these are the relentless forces you fear.
In their own words, these are the stories of men and women working the border where, before you had breakfast this morning, someone crossed the line and now someone is looking for them.
Since the expansion of our nation into the American Southwest, the unenviable task of policing the nation’s southwest border has fallen on a thin line of hardy individuals dressed in blue or khaki, in denim and chambray, in green or blue wool, or in modern rip-stop nylon. Through the years, the U.S. military and federal law enforcement entities have shared the task of protecting the nation’s borders from foreign enemies, economically motivated migrants, and opportunistic criminals. The working conditions were generally wretched and tasks were rigorous and mostly thankless. On many occasions, however, the men protecting the border were placed into the role of rescuer, delivering innocent citizens and wrongdoers alike from captivity, injury, or death.
The earliest effort at providing security to the borderlands of the Southwest came in 1849, with the establishment of Camp Calhoun at the confluence of the Gila and Colorado Rivers, near present-day Yuma, Arizona. This military post eventually became Fort Yuma, and served the dual purposes of protecting this important river crossing into California from hostile Native Americans and projecting the influence of the United States into a region that was newly won from Mexico in the Mexican War.
Between the establishment of Camp Calhoun and the surrender of Geronimo in 1886, the U.S. Army was active throughout the Southwest, particularly along the present-day border between Arizona and Mexico. Native Americans, and Apaches in particular, did not recognize national borders. They soon discovered, however, that crossing the imaginary line could give them sanctuary from retribution for their transgressions. The raiding parties of the tribes crossed between the countries on long-established trails, committing depredations in an attempt to drive all whites from the region.
The military built forts at strategic locations and employed infantry and cavalry units, as well as Native American scouts, to patrol the border region. They worked to detect the movement of raiders between the countries, vigorously pursued them, and engaged them in combat whenever possible. These pursuits sometimes crossed the international border, with or without the appropriate governmental sanction. The incidents were not always merely about combat, but often involved a humanitarian aspect. Historical accounts record many instances where soldiers were able to intercept war parties and release innocent captives. Eventually, the wayward bands were brought into the reservation system, and many were exiled from the region.
During this time the movement of citizens of both countries across the frontier was virtually unimpeded by governments of the United States or Mexico. The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, concluded in 1848, had made U.S. citizens of