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With no wall, Big Bend Border Patrol uses “Old West” strategies to stop migrants and contraband

BOQUILLAS CROSSING, Texas - At the Rio Grande River at Big Bend National park, there is no border wall. To the eye, the river looks like an invitation.

But in fact, it's quite the opposite.

“Once you cross this river, your journey to the United States has just begun,” says Big Bend Border Patrol agent Phil Winston. "You are about to face anywhere from five days to three weeks. Of some of the hardest terrain you’ve ever crossed.”

Big Bend National Park makes up one-quarter of the United States southwest border that extends all the way through El Paso, Texas.  

But you won’t find the iron fence barrier you see in the El Paso Sector at Big Bend. Instead, the border is naturally made up of skyscraping canyons and vast, remote desert.

“We don’t have any border wall in this part of the Big Bend Sector," says Greg Davis, the Information Officer for Public Affairs at United States Customs & Border Patrol. "And that’s because we have natural barriers."

"I don’t see a need personally because we have these daunting terrain it’s designed to kill you.” 

So for border patrol agents like Phil Winston the focus is less about holding the river, but keeping undocumented migrants and contraband from leaving the park to the nearest state highway.

“We know that if we can secure the park we can secure the nation,” says Winston.

At the Boquillas Canyon crossing at Big Bend, it's about an 80-mile trek from the Rio Grande to the nearest state highway (Interstate 90).

And when apprehending migrants and contraband, border patrol faces a theoretical foot race from the river to the highway.

"It’s not the Wild West," adds Davis. "But it is the old west if you will.”

And in a National Park that attracts nearly 600,000 recreational visitors per year, border patrol agents have to differentiate who should and shouldn't be there.

“The unique thing about this park, as opposed to my work in the El Paso sector, is that the park is filled with hikers," says Agent Winston, who worked in the El Paso and Deming, New Mexico sectors prior to his transfer to Big Bend.

"It becomes our responsibility to determine which trails are worth hiking out and which ones are not.”

Agents use old-school tracking techniques like analyzing footprints, scouting moon cycles and vegetation, and even venturing through the desert on horseback.

Hikers should know the harsh terrain awaiting at Big Bend, But crossing migrants do not.

“The transnational crime organizations that exploit the situation are pushing people through our sector all throughout," says Davis, who says that those pushing people through the border are mainly focused on making money without regard for migrants' well-being.

"They may not know if they can swim or not, they don’t care. If they drown, they don’t care. If they expire out here in the desert, in the summer heat, or in the winter.....they don’t care.”

It’s a tremendous concern for Big Bend Border Patrol. Their statistics show they're seeing 25% more undocumented migrants this fiscal year compared to last.

A majority of the time, agents are coming across migrants who are severely dehydrated and exhausted.

But it's not just a problem on one side of the border. US Border Patrol says that the transnational criminal organizations are recruiting Americans to pick up migrants and/or contraband on the United States side via social media.

“That is also facilitated by Americans who are doing the wrong thing," adds Davis. "For a couple hundred dollars, they may not realize that coming down here, picking somebody up will result in a criminal record, it may impact them for the rest of their life. And our agents are gonna catch them.”

It’s a remote life for the agents at Big Bend, but the responsibility of 80 miles of vast wilderness transcends its highest peaks.

For more information on how to get involved with Big Bend Border Patrol, click here.

Nate Ryan

Nate Ryan is an ABC-7 sports anchor/reporter.

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