By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
PRESIDIO, Texas--On April 2, 1839, a caravan of Mexican traders led by Missouri merchant Henry Connelly left Chihuahua City in search of a more direct trade route to the north than through El Paso.
Accompanied by 50 Mexican dragoons, Connelly and his company marched northeast through the Chihuahuan Desert past the rugged Peguis Mountains. After arriving at Ojinaga, they crossed the Rio Grande to Presidio and continued northward.
The expedition reached Arkansas a year later, before turning back along the same route with 80 wagons of commercial goods and an American equestrian circus eager to perform in Mexico.
But Connelly's bold gambit failed. Because of the extreme rigors of the trail and tariff difficulties with Mexican customs at Ojinaga, the trade trip was never repeated.
And for more than a century and a half, El Paso has remained unrivaled as Chihuahua's gateway to El Norte. But now, another ambitious plan is under way to open a trade corridor over Connelly's old wagon tracks. By next spring, Presidio and the Big Bend should feel the impact as Mexican trucks begin arriving in the United States along the new route. "It's not a question of whether the trucks are coming, or if we want them or not. The trucks are coming," says Barry Sullivan, the city manager of Presidio. "It's like Field of Dreams. Mexico is building the road, and they will come."
The new international truck route has every likelihood of commercial success. It is equally likely to bring unwanted change to the Shangri-la ambience of the Big Bend, and many here view the road with loathing.
"It's purely bad news from the standpoint of what we prize about the area. We prize some things more than money, and one is this lovely place," says Brewster County Judge Val Beard, who lives in Alpine, an easygoing, uncluttered town of nearly 6,000 that lies on the new truck route.
"A year ago we had people saying, 'We're not going to have this.' But stopping a major highway is exceedingly difficult. If [Mexico's] timetable holds and they do shift their truck traffic, we are liable to have a five-star mess," she says.
A century and a half after Connelly's failed expedition, El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are commercial behemoths, swollen and soiled with maquiladora commerce. Their 2 million residents live astride an almost imaginary international border.
One hundred thirty miles down river, Presidio (population 4,200) remains a sleepy backwater port, known only to visitors to Big Bend National Park just to the east, and to Ojinaga, its unspoiled Mexican sister city just across the Rio Grande.
Alone among Texas border cities, Presidio remains untouched by the heavy hand of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Here there are no traffic jams, truck stops or customs warehouses. Nor are there many jobs. "It's a poor town. Most of our workers go somewhere else to work. There's hardly any agriculture left. There's just a few onions," says Edmundo Nieto, 82, owner of a local store.
If anything, NAFTA set Presidio back a few strides.
"Most of our trade was with Mexico, but when NAFTA came in, we lost all that. Now they can get anything they want in Mexico, in Chihuahua. My business went down 50 percent. We used to sell a lot of appliances, but no more," Nieto says. The town wears the dusty, weary look of long-term benign neglect. Just a few years back, Presidio got its first sidewalks; many of its streets remain unpaved, and alfalfa still grows a block from downtown.
"We're the last untapped crossing on the U.S.-Mexico border," Sullivan, the city manager, says.
But a new highway bypass is being cut through the desert south of Ojinaga, and by early next year, when the first convoys of heavy Mexican trucks begin arriving, Presidio's dog days will end. The 75-mile bypass will get truckers around a nasty stretch of canyons just south of Ojinaga that for a half-century has effectively blocked commercial traffic from using the route. The new bypass is just part of an overall Mexican highway project designed to transform Ojinaga into a major border port for exports to the American Midwest and East Coast.
"It's a big project and an expensive one, but it's part of the infrastructure improvements that Mexico has to make to take advantage of NAFTA," says Alberto Beltran, a Chihuahuan state engineer, during a tour of the project. "When the highway comes through, it will put some life back into this place," he says of the small Mexican towns on the route.
It will also liven things up considerably in Presidio. Last year, fewer than 10,000 Mexican trucks crossed here, a tiny fraction of the 730,000 that entered El Paso from Ciudad Juarez or the 1.5 million that crossed at Laredo.
How many will arrive here next year? In five years? In a decade? No one knows, but it is the stated goal of Chihuahua Governor Patricio Martinez to divert much of the truck traffic now going through Ciudad Juarez to Ojinaga.
Some people believe Presidio eventually will be counting trucks by the thousands per week instead of thousands per year and that in a decade or two, it could rival El Paso or Laredo as a commercial port.