Del Rio, TX (CNSNews.com) - With the Mexican government increasingly frustrated with U.S. Border Patrol tactics and international anti-drug efforts, sources say Washington is reluctant to antagonize its southern neighbor over local issues like border crime.
"The administration is willing to accept a certain level of tension along the border if it keeps Mexico stable and happy," said a staff member at the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the Border Patrol and the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "The reality is, Mexico is a fragile country."
The casualties of this policy are many: the people of Del Rio, weary from the crime committed by illegals crossing the border from Mexico; five Mexican illegals shot to death by landowners in South Texas in the past year; and hundreds of would-be immigrants who died in the desert while trying to find their way to a new life in America.
Death in the Desert
Operation Rio Grande, designed to seal the U.S-Mexican border, has poured money into new equipment and new agents along the border, and slowed traffic in places like Brownsville, Laredo and El Paso. But the success of the program, critics say, has merely moved the flow of illegals to less-secure areas such as Del Rio.
The problem? The area along the Rio Grande that runs from Del Rio southeast to Eagle Pass, once avoided by illegals because of the harshness of the terrain, has been flooded by Mexicans heading north. That has lead to unprecedented numbers of illegals dying while making the passage - not only in shootouts with local landowners, as recounted in Parts One and Two of this series, but of thirst and starvation in the desert.
It's easy to see why. In early October, as the rest of the country is preparing for fall, temperatures still reach the high 90s at midday. In this bone-dry and isolated area near the U.S.-Mexican border, illegals can go for miles without sign of food or water.
The result: nearly 600 illegals have died crossing the border in the past year, many of them in the area surrounding Del Rio.
Immigrants rights groups place the blame squarely on Operation Rio Grande and the federal initiatives behind it.
"This is a human problem," said Ray Gill of the Texas Civil Rights Project. "As long as their lives are so poor back in Mexico, they're going to come across the border. If we make it deadly for them to come, they'll risk death, and the result is naturally going to be people dying."
As more border checks spring up along Texas highways and roads, said Nathan Selzer of Proyecto Libertad in Harlingen, Tex., illegals make wider trips into the desert to avoid the border agents, putting themselves at even greater risk.
"It's seventy miles between here and Corpus," said Selzer in an interview at a local Tex-Mex restaurant. "That's seventy miles on foot, usually with no water, through pure nothingness. It's a wonder more people don't die."
Local law enforcement offices along the border, their budgets already stretched thin by having to combat drug traffickers, have had to allocate even more resources to patrolling the desert - not just to stop illegals, but to pick up people who are dying of thirst.
"Fifty percent or more of my time is spent getting people out of the desert," said Sheriff Rafael Cuellar of Kenedy County, Tex., which spans Highway 83 between Brownsville, and Corpus Christi, Tex. According to the Border Patrol, Kenedy County has become the third-most deadly area for the illegals to cross, after two desert counties in Arizona.
Cuellar recounts the story of three illegals who set across the desert only to become lost for three days. The group eventually found the highway only fifty feet from a Border Patrol checkpoint. They gladly surrendered and were sent back to Mexico.
Supporters of Operation Rio Grande scoff at suggestions that pressure on the border creates incentives for people to cross at more dangerous points.
"We see that when you discourage people from entering illegally, they are less prone to go to the outskirts, to the more dangerous areas," said a spokesperson for Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), who created Operation Rio Grande's predecessor, Operation Hold the Line, when he was a Border Patrol sector chief in El Paso. "You have to be relentless."
But Selzer calls the current program a failure. "There are fewer and fewer apprehensions at major arteries like Brownsville and El Paso, but movement [across the border] as a whole is up. Where are all these people going? Obviously, to the outskirts of these cities and the desert."
The solution for the problems on the border, most observers agree, lies not in Washington but in Mexico.
Only Mexico has the ability to extradite the criminals that have plagued residents along the Rio Grande border near Del Rio, something it has steadfastly refused to do. Only Mexico can truly make the border airtight by policing its side, something it has only done sporadically. Only Mexico can stop the flow by improving the economy of the northern states that abut the U.S. - something it has proved unable to do.
And according to many observers on Capitol Hill, the Clinton administration has declined to pressure Mexico into taking any of those actions.
"We sent them billions of dollars to bail out the peso," said a staff member for a U.S. representative whose district lies along the border. "That money doesn't seem to have bought us anything in terms of leverage to solve the border problems."
It is unclear what the coming administration of Vicente Fox, the president-elect of Mexico, will mean for cross-border relations.
Fox has called for the creation of a "border czar" in both countries to coordinate U.S.-Mexican responses to border incidents, and for changes to the certification process by which the U.S. ties foreign aid to Mexico's progress in the drug war. Many critics say the U.S. uses the certification process to limit its own responsibility for decreasing the demand for drugs.
Silvestre Reyes calls Fox' election "exciting" and praises him as "a man with vision and many good ideas." But he is disturbed by Fox' calls for an open border with free movement for work purposes.
"There are huge economic disparities between the U.S. and Mexico, and not until economic disparities are closed will we be able to think about allowing 'free movement,'" said Reyes. "It is our sovereign right and duty to protect our borders. However, I am confident and look forward to having our governments work very closely so that we can strengthen our economies, abolish corruption, and improve our borders."
In the meantime, the residents of the Vega Verde, the strip of the Rio Grande near Del Rio that has been site of hundreds of break-ins by Mexican illegals over the past several years, remain hopeful that someone, anyone, in Washington will take up their case.
"Thos of us that do reside along the river live in fear of our lives," said a petition written by Tommy Vick and signed by more than 1,000 residents of Del Rio earlier this month. The message being sent, said the residents of Del Rio, is "that we cannot protect our families, property, or our own lives."