Wild Wild West
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A view of the border crisis from oilfield security
“I’ve found bodies out here,” the gate guard says quietly. “Some of the immigrants don’t make it. They’ll be trying to walk across all this. They just die.”
The white heat of a blistering August afternoon cooks the South Texas landscape in an eerie silence. While the tops of the mesquite trees may be bright green, everything below them is the color of sand. Relief from any breeze is but a dream. There hasn’t been a breath of wind for hours.
“I’ve had barely any traffic today,” he grins. “Sometimes it’s like that. I sit here for twelve hours and it’s like no one knows I’m here. No one knows me.”
If he hadn’t agreed to an interview, he might have spoken to no one today, and with telephone signal patchy at best, there’s a chance no one would have reached him.
They’d have no reason to.
The gate guard’s booth measures a scant four by six feet, and contains a folding table and an office chair that’s seen far better days. Shallow windows on three sides give it the feel of a hunter’s deer blind, but it has the luxury of a tiny air conditioner that coughs up specks of grit and dribbles condensation down the wall.
A portable generator chortles away outside, powering the hut and a wobbly lamp. Somewhere in the bushes thirty feet away is a blue plastic outhouse. One dares not ask when it was last emptied.
James Martinez cracks the seal on the top of another water bottle. He takes a swig of the tepid contents and grins.
“That’s it,” he says. “That’s all there is. This is twelve hours. It’s twelve hours every day.”
At about $15 an hour, it’s a steady job.
There is no sign of food in the booth. Chances are, James hasn’t eaten since dawn.
At 26, the professional gate guard and native of Eagle Pass has made a career out of working in security, either for private industry or for the state. Disillusioned with life as a correctional officer in a string of positions at detention facilities between Bee and Maverick counties, he took his experience and training into the private field, answered a job posting in his local newspaper, and was immediately hired to work one of the most thankless jobs there can be in South Texas.
He also brought his gun. A 9mm Glock is strapped to his waist and stays there throughout his shift. He won’t go anywhere out here without it.
A gate guard’s job in the energy industry is to monitor commercial traffic entering and leaving a ranch where drilling, construction, pipe-laying, or pumping is underway. It seems a cushy position, to sit in the air conditioning for twelve hours and wait for a freight truck to come shuddering through a cloud of beige dust.
But it’s dangerous.
“People are surprised about that,” James says, eyeing the horizon through his little windows. “Until something happens, it seems like nothing. But when something happens, it’s pretty bad.”
Perched in the wide-open ranchland of far western La Salle County, this vast ranch is crossed by gritty thoroughfares commonly known as lease roads. They are built to give heavy freight vehicles – 18-wheelers and work trucks – access to the drilling sites. Between those roads, however, and dating back to long-gone days of cattle ranching or recreational hunting, is a criss-cross network of unpaved dirt senderos.
It may seem to the general public like uncharted territory, wild and rugged and untrodden, but the thousands of acres that stretch between Cotulla and the Mexican border are well known to the criminal organizations that smuggle undocumented immigrants into the United States. Guided or driven by their ‘coyotes,’ groups of travelers from Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and far further distant countries are channeled by the hundreds through the region daily.
The experienced smugglers know where to find the hidden roads through the brush.
“Those are the routes the illegals take,” James says. “They come through here by following the old dirt roads. They stick to the shade, if they can find any in the daytime, and we don’t see them until they come out onto the main road.
“And, obviously, they drive through here too,” he adds. “Hundreds of them, maybe, in just a few days. Just last week, I think it was, there were forty-seven of them in a belly-dump trailer, caught by law enforcement. And a lot of them get caught, you know. But a lot more get through.
“Most of the immigrants themselves, well, they’re just men and women and children who don’t want to do anything that gets them in trouble or puts their chances at risk,” he says. “They’re innocent, I guess you could say. The dangerous ones are the coyotes. For them, it’s a high-stakes business. The coyotes are the ones to watch out for. They’ve been known to threaten operators out here, making sure no one snitches on them.”
Some of the ranches still have cattle, and some properties are high-fenced to hold wildlife for hunting. Whichever it is, a property’s fencing is expensive.
“One of the things we try to do is chase the illegals away from the fences, or along the fence lines, to stop them from cutting through or crashing a vehicle through them,” James says. “The other day, when I drove in here, there was a Highway Patrol trooper following the fence line, trying to get someone not to crash through.
“Not too long ago, someone stole a bulldozer and just slammed right through everything,” he says. “It was on a neighboring property. Could have been here; could have been anywhere. He just went right through all the fences, the brush, everything. That kind of desperation, you know, that’s dangerous. There’s a lot of money involved in smuggling, so they won’t stop for anything.
“I guess, for some of them, it’s life or death.”
James is responsible for keeping an accurate log of all those entering and leaving the property, and their purpose. He is also required to check incoming vehicles for anything deemed illegal or banned on the ranch. This includes weapons, contraband, fishing tackle and hunting gear. Photography is also banned on the property.
“Don’t want anyone legit coming in here and going hunting or fishing when they’re supposed to be working,” James says. “Sounds unlikely, but I have to check and yes, it’s happened.”
Smugglers have been known to disguise their vehicles as work trucks, oilfield freighters, construction crew transports, and some have even cloned law enforcement patrol vehicles to pass themselves off as sheriff’s deputies or local police.
“There’s a lot of illegal activity out here,” the guard says. “There have been accidents. Deaths. I’ve found immigrants dead beside the trees, where they went for shade and just couldn’t go any more, and there have been people dead in their cars out here.”
In a time of hard drought and an elevated risk of fast-moving and devastating wildfires that threaten lives and property, the gate guard must know how many people are on the ranch at any given time. In the event of a disaster, he may be required to tell first responders or firefighters if everyone has been accounted for, or whether there are people who may be stranded in the path of an oncoming fire.
“We know who’s supposed to be here, and what they’re doing,” he says, again surveying the far horizon. “But we don’t know who’s not supposed to be here. There are people out there right now, trying to come through. If they get themselves in trouble, we aren’t going to know until it’s too late.
“I’l be here when the sun goes down, and there will be people in the shadows,” he says, and points to a line of brush so dense that visibility beyond the sendero is less than three feet. “I’ll see them when they move. I’ll see the shapes in the dark. But when they don’t move, no one can see them…
“But they can see me.”
James has lived in the border region all his life. He has grown up knowing about the daily pressure on the border and the desperation among the less fortunate and the outsiders.
“I don’t have a grudge against the immigrants,” he says after a long silence. “I don’t wish them any harm. They’ve already gone through enough. They think they’re coming here for a better life, but they don’t know what they’re up against. You know, they’ve got nothing. Nothing.
“Right here, this is what I’ve got,” James raises his water bottle and points to the little incontinent air conditioner. “I’ve got this. And you know what? That’s alright with me.”