On January 25, President Donald Trump began to make good on his campaign promise to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. In two executive orders, Trump laid out in broad strokes the plan for constructing the wall and a plan for tackling immigration. But a more subtle action item tucked into the orders, one that establishes a weekly published list of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants and the jurisdiction in which they occur, reinforced an idea that border communities have long tried to combat: that the borderlands are unsafe. The depiction of the border as a place besieged by violent crimes at the hands of undocumented immigrants was a theme President Trump returned to throughout his campaign. Then, an incident last month in Far West Texas further exacerbated this notion and proved just how susceptible towns along the border can be to misjudgments of their security.
A 911 call on January 6 reported that two men had been shot while fending off unidentified attackers at the remote Circle Dug Ranch, ten miles from the town of Candelaria on the Rio Grande River. Presidio County Sheriff’s Deputy Joel Nuñez, as well as officers and emergency medical technicians from local, state, and federal agencies responded to the incident at Circle Dug. There, they found two men, 26-year-old New Mexico hunting guide Walker Daugherty and his client, 59-year-old Florida chiropractor Edwin Roberts. Daugherty had been shot in the abdomen, Roberts in the arm. Both were airlifted to El Paso for treatment for severe gunshot wounds.
The following Monday I received a text message from my brother, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with a link to a hunting blog. The post, formatted to look like a press release, detailed the Circle Dug shooting from the perspective of a friend of the Daugherty family. According to the post, Daugherty and Roberts were staying on the ranch and hunting with four others. From the report:
Everyone was in bed preparing for an early hunt, the guides and cooks inside the house and the clients in the rental RV parked nearby. Walker heard voices outside and went to see what the noises were, he witnessed men with guns attempting to take the RV, he then ran back inside to get help. Walker and Michael armed themselves to defend and protect the client and to attempt to deter the assailants while the hunter attempted to escape in the RV which was being shot at repeatedly.
Daugherty was shot in the abdomen, and Roberts in the arm. The report continues: “The family says the men and their wives were grilled about the veracity of their account by Law Enforcement and the assailants got away and likely returned to Mexico. Kidnapping, along with drug and human trafficking, has become common along the Mexico border especially if there are reasons to believe that an intended victim is a person of means.”
Headlines sprouted up across the Internet, many supporting the notion that this was a dramatic tale of two Americans injured in an attack: “Hunting Guide Wounded in Ambush by Mexican Kidnappers,” read one, and “Hunting guide critical after shootout near Mexican border in Texas,” read another. A GoFundMe set up for Daugherty said that the men “were involved in a shootout with some illegals, when the illegals tried to steal Walker’s RV with them still inside.” These details were reported in numerous outlets, including the USA Today network and an ABC news affiliate in Florida.
On the ground, however, Nuñez and his team saw a much less dramatic scene. Nuñez is a seventeen-year veteran of the sheriff’s office in Presidio County, a sparsely populated, 3,856-square-mile tract that shares more than one hundred miles of its border with Mexico. This part of the border is relatively peaceful. But in the aftermath of the reports, Nuñez and Presidio County Sheriff Danny Dominguez were working double-time to clarify what information they had on the Circle Dug shooting. “We are still investigating details of the shooting,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement on January 7, the day after the incident. “However, there is no evidence to support allegations of ‘cross-border violence’ as released by some media sources.”
Presidio County hosts not just local and state police but also a large force of federal agents with the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice, and Nuñez’s office routinely collaborates with U.S. Border Patrol on smuggling busts. It’s common for local police to respond to calls alongside U.S. marshals. Drive down FM-170, the poorly maintained highway that follows the winding Rio Grande, toward Candelaria, and on any given day you’ll pass numerous Border Patrol vehicles. Look up and often you’ll also see Border Patrol’s surveillance blimps and even helicopters in the sky. Border Patrol knows this area very well; their agents spend hours every day monitoring it and looking for evidence of foot traffic. “That’s what we train for. That’s what we do on a daily basis,” Border Patrol Public Affairs Officer Rush Carter said.
While investigating the Circle Dug Ranch incident in the hours after it took place, the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office was supported by more than thirty U.S. Border Patrol agents, including K9 units, and officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety and the City of Presidio Police Department. A Border Patrol helicopter unit did 360-degree surveillance of the area for over an hour on the day the call came in.
But after securing the Circle Dug Ranch’s perimeter and searching into the morning hours for evidence of people leaving the ranch or crossing the river, Border Patrol found nothing. Reiterating an earlier statement from his department, Nuñez said on January 9 (three days after the incident) that there was “no evidence” there was any cross-border violence. “Border Patrol assisted us with the search,” he said. “They have expert trackers, there was no sign at this time of any individuals other than those at the ranch in the party.”
The sheriff’s office released another statement January 12. All the bullet casings and projectiles found on the scene matched guns belonging to the hunting party. “Witness statements describing the sequence of events as well as evidence recovered from the scene, directed us to the conclusion that this incident was a result of friendly fire among the hunting party with several contributing factors,” Sheriff Dominguez wrote. He later appeared on CBS7 news, the affiliate station in Odessa, describing how he believes Daugherty shot Roberts.
The confidence of Border Patrol and local law enforcement, however, did not help to stop the story. Daugherty and Roberts’s injuries became talking points for border security hardliners, including Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. Miller, who was being considered as a Trump administration appointee at the time, posted photos of Daugherty to his campaign’s Facebook page on January 8 claiming the hunter was ambushed by “illegals.” This was evidence, Miller wrote in a post shared more than 6,500 times, of “why we need the wall and to secure our borders.”
When I reached out to Miller for comment on January 13, after the story had been largely debunked by the sheriff’s office, his campaign spokesperson, Todd Smith, said, “We were sent a copy of that narrative by a friend of the young man saying this is what happened and asking for prayers.” Smith continued: “Commissioner Miller is very concerned about the violence on the border… We don’t believe the need for prayer has diminished.” Smith did not explicitly address questions regarding the accuracy of the report.
West Texas residents were incensed. Presidio High School teacher Laurie Holman, Presidio Mayor John Ferguson and others, many who can see Mexico from their homes, took to social media on January 13 to berate Miller for sharing what at this point was widely believed to be fake news. Speaking with the San Antonio Express-News on January 16, Sheriff Dominguez said, “The agriculture commissioner needs to do his job and stick to that, and I’ll do my job.”
Residents of Presidio County are evangelical about the safety of their border communities. The City of Presidio regularly advertises that a statewide analysis has found it to be the third-safest Texas city. Presidio Mayor John Ferguson has publicly refuted U.S. State Department travel warnings about the neighboring city of Ojinaga, Mexico.
People here have a deep understanding that there are consequences to people having false perceptions about the safety of the border. A roadside sign in Redford still commemorates Esequiel Hernandez, Jr., a Presidio High School student who in 1997 was shot and killed by a camouflaged U.S. Marine deployed to this part of the border. Hernandez, an eighteen year-old U.S. citizen, was grazing his family’s goats by the Rio Grande and was mistaken for smuggler by marines stationed along the border. A grand jury declined to indict the marine on murder charges, but Hernandez’s family was later awarded almost $2 million by the government. Many of his family and friends still live in Presidio County.
Communities along the border often fall victim to the “perceived disorder” of areas where Hispanic populations are higher. A 2016 New Yorker article about Trump’s campaign rhetoric on the dangers of undocumented immigrants cited research from Robert Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard, and others who have established that an uptick in immigrants in the area actually leads to a decrease in homicide rates and other crimes. People who don’t encounter Hispanic people in their day-to-day are especially prone to this “perceived disorder.”
I asked Carter, the Border Patrol public affairs officer, how common the kind of “cross-border violence” the hunters reported is in this part of Texas. “It’s rare to non-existent,” he says. Drug cartels or coyotes use the isolation and rugged landscape of this area to smuggle drugs and people into the U.S., Carter says. The last thing they want is the added attention attacking hunters would bring.
The Presidio County Sheriff’s Office, for its part, maintains it the incident was friendly fire. The department wrapped up its investigation by January 20 and referred the case to local District Attorney Sandy Wilson, who will consider charging the hunters with deadly conduct.
Agriculture Commissioner Miller quietly removed his post about the shooting sometime after the Associated Press published a story about the fake news on January 17. But not before it was seen by thousands who don’t live on the U.S.-Mexico border and may not understand the intricacies of these communities. As the proliferation of fake news and “alternative facts,” takes hold, we may all to need to be extra vigilant against false narratives like the one that emerged out of Presidio County.