One early morning in July, Lalo Medina waded into the Mexican side of the Rio Grande under one of the international bridges that connect the city of Piedras Negras with Eagle Pass, Texas. He and his family had set out a fishing net the night before and returned to retrieve it before Texas troopers launched their airboats. Tangled in the mesh were a dozen catfish. Medina’s father, Juan, held a thirty-pounder by the gills. He cleaned the catfish on the muddy banks, and his soaking white T-shirt, wrapped tightly around his prodigious belly, turned scarlet from the blood. 

As they looked across the river at Eagle Pass, an airboat raced past them. Standing atop a shipping container, other troopers surveyed the river. The morning sun glinted off razor wire laid out along the riverbank as far as the eye could see. “Every country has the right to do whatever it feels is necessary for security,” Juan said, pointing his fillet knife across the river. 

Medina, 38, shirtless with a smudge of mud on his nose, saw things differently. The stacked containers and unspooled concertina wire were also punishing the people of Eagle Pass. “Families used to come here and swim, fish. We would greet them from our side. It was beautiful,” he said. Medina’s gaze drifted to a smuggler in the distance leading a small group of migrants across the knee-high water to Texas. “That’s his seventh group this morning,” Medina said of the smuggler, “and he gets five hundred dollars for each person, no matter what happens to them on the other side.”

Across the river, in Eagle Pass, the latest developments in Governor Greg Abbott’s $9.5 billion border militarization program, Operation Lone Star, were still sinking in. In mid-July, a Houston Chronicle investigation detailed the plight of migrants caught in razor wire while state troopers looked on or gave orders to push them back into the Rio Grande. The investigation focused on an email sent by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper describing how a pregnant woman was having a miscarriage while tangled in razor wire and an exhausted four-year-old was turned away by Texas National Guard soldiers. Additionally, the trooper wrote that state police were told to push small children and babies back into the Rio Grande, and to deny water to migrants dehydrated in the triple-digit heat.

For the better part of the past two years, the state has been amassing police and National Guard troops in Eagle Pass while building out a mishmash of imposing barriers. The small town of 30,000 increasingly feels like a community under occupation. Even residents who once supported Abbott’s hard line against asylum seekers and undocumented migrants have begun to question the state’s tactics.

In December of last year, Eagle Pass was seeing 1,500 migrants cross the river every day, said Mayor Rolando Salinas Jr. And not all of them made it across alive. There were so many bodies that the funeral home that stored them for Maverick County ran out of freezer space and began burying them under crosses fashioned from PVC pipe. The county purchased a freezer of its own that currently contains eighteen bodies, eight of them drowning victims. Migrants badly cut by razor wire still occupy hospital beds.

Before Operation Lone Star launched in early 2021, families picnicked near the banks of the river in Shelby Park, a 47-acre expanse of soccer and baseball fields, where locals would fish or use the boat ramp to launch canoes and kayaks. A decade ago, after the federal government completed a two-mile section of border fence at the entrance of the park, Piedras Negras responded by beautifying its riverfront with a walkway adorned with colorful murals and playground equipment. Rather than following its neighbor’s lead, since July 2021 Texas has built layers of walls and barriers, transforming the riverfront through Eagle Pass into something resembling the Maginot Line—and about as effective

In an attempt to stop unauthorized immigration and thwart criminal activity, state authorities have unfurled hundreds of yards of concertina wire and installed chainlink fencing topped with razor wire. The state has also emplaced more than a dozen bus-size shipping containers, along with rust-colored bollards that rise nearly fifteen feet high, and has anchored a floating barrier made of buoys wrapped in still more razor wire. The state has altered the river, flattening sections of the embankment so that troopers can keep their boots dry as they patrol what were until recently naturally occurring sandbars. Then in June, Mayor Salinas reluctantly signed an affidavit prepared by DPS that declared the city park to be his private property, thus allowing the state to bar the public from entering it. Troopers effectively control the park and have made hundreds of trespass arrests there since June, according to DPS.

The fences, containers, and razor wire have sunk Epi’s Canoe & Kayak Team, a boat-rental and river-guide business, says its owner, Jessie Fuentes. The Shelby Park boat ramp, now inaccessible to him, is the only public access to the river for miles. Even if he could find another put-in point, the airboats speeding up and down the river have scared off many of his clients. He becomes animated describing the beauty of the river and his desire to share it with others. “There’s rapids, and there’s canyons, and all kinds of beautiful scenery,” said Fuentes, a retired high school teacher. After the orange buoys wrapped in razor wire were placed in the river, “I can tell you from being out there that the flow is different,” Fuentes said. “We’ve militarized our side of the border, and it’s going to get worse.” 

In early July, Fuentes sued the state, alleging the buoys it had just placed in the river would cause irreparable harm to his business. “This is about big government coming in and steamrolling over small border communities,” he said. “Without consulting them and without doing any sort of environmental impact studies.”  

The Rio Grande is the lifeblood of dozens of communities and millions of people who live along its banks. Major disputes are infrequent, but when they occur, the International Boundary and Water Commission, created by the U.S. and Mexico in 1889, is meant to settle them. But the commission was slow to respond to Abbott’s plans for installing a floating barrier in the river, which it said came as a surprise. By the time it did learn about the plans, though not from the governor, the buoys were already in the river. “We have reached out to the State of Texas to let them know we have an issue,” Maria-Elena Giner, the agency’s U.S. commissioner, told local media outlets. “As we get more information as to what is being done, our job is to refer it to the U.S. Justice Department.” Meanwhile, Mexican officials maintain that Texas has violated the 1944 and 1970 treaties that prohibit any construction that alters the natural flow of the river and presents a flood risk. 

Last week Abbott issued a statement in which he denied that endangering the lives of migrants is official policy, while doubling down on the use of concertina wire as a means of deterring unauthorized immigration. “The absence of these tools and strategies—including concertina wire that snags clothing—encourages migrants to make potentially life-threatening and illegal crossings,” the statement said. Mike Banks, a former Border Patrol agent whom Abbott hired as a “border czar,” and Steve McCraw, the director of DPS, also put their names on the statement. 

In a written statement sent to Texas Monthly, a representative for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the agency was very concerned about the allegations that not only make its agents’ jobs harder but also put migrant lives in danger. On Monday, the Department of Justice sued Abbott for refusing to remove the buoys from the river, alleging he violated the federal Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899, which prohibits the obstruction of U.S. waters without federal authorization. Texas failed to secure required permissions from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to install the thousand-foot-long string of buoys.

Some proponents of Operation Lone Star have started to sour on the program, confronted with increasing human suffering and death in their backyards. Nearly three miles east of Shelby Park, Hugo Urbina, a 52-year-old oil trader, points at a patch of soil on his pecan farm, Heavenly Farms, situated at the eastern edge of Eagle Pass and on the Rio Grande. “There’s a person who died right there from dehydration,” he said. “She came in, kissed the ground, then died.” 

Urbina was born in Piedras Negras and raised in Eagle Pass. A lifelong Republican, he was supportive of the governor’s border policy from the start. In early 2022, he allowed DPS to install nearly two miles of chain-link fence across the southern border of his property. By the end of the year, 77 migrants had died in Maverick County, according to the sheriff’s department, many of them at Heavenly Farms. Many more arrived badly injured by concertina wire hidden in the river, Urbina said. “I told DPS I didn’t want any concertina wire because people are going to get hurt,” Urbina said. Despite this, DPS put concertina wire on his property in May. The agency removed it at his insistence, only to put the razor-tipped wire up and down the property again days before a visit from Florida governor Ron DeSantis in late June. The state also pushed heaping mounds of dirt up against the gates to the chain-link fence it installed, cutting off direct access to the river. 

Urbina says he is caught in the middle of a feud in which state police are trying to wrest control of the river away from the U.S. Border Patrol. Each agency has sought to lease a portion of his farm to better police the river. Under Operation Lone Star, the state has arrested thousands of migrants, mostly on trespassing charges, but only Border Patrol possesses the authority to make arrests for unlawful border crossings. 

On the morning of June 30, Urbina said, Border Patrol agents had to cut a hole in the chain-link fence to reach a boy caught in the concertina wire just beyond. Later that evening, DPS sent Urbina a proposed lease contract requesting that he purchase insurance of at least $1 million to cover injured migrants. Urbina refused. The concertina wire remains on his property. Torn clothes of migrants hang from it still, and agents from DPS and the Texas National Guard occupy the river bank. “My way of thinking is DPS is trespassing on our property,” Urbina said. “I can’t even access that part of my property. DPS is fully in control.” Officials with DPS and CBP failed to respond to requests for interviews.

Urbina intended to spend his retirement fishing the Rio Grande, marveling at fireflies on summer nights, and harvesting pecans. Standing at the river’s edge in the half-light of a July evening, he told me that Fuentes was right about the river. “This is heaven, and they’re ruining it for what? They’re not deterring s—,” he said. “These people have walked three thousand miles. They’re not going to stop when they’re a hundred yards away.” 

That morning under the bridge, Medina, the fisherman, told me that his wife’s cousin had snuck across the border in early July. He died on a Maverick County ranch, likely from heat exposure. They were waiting for his body to be returned to his family in Piedras Negras. “He was chasing the American dream,” Medina said, before he turned away from me and slipped back into the river. 

Update, August 2, 2023: On Tuesday, the Eagle Pass City Council unanimously voted to rescind the affidavit prepared by DPS declaring Shelby Park the mayor’s private property. That affidavit let the agency’s troopers control the park, bar residents from entering it, and put up razor wire along the river bank.