Open Season

Border authorities fear a return to the law of the Wild West as Texas homeowners take up guns against illegal Mexican immigrants

The shootings have tested ethnic harmony in the region where those of Mexican ancestry vastly outnumber Anglos, but where friction between the groups is rare. They also have prompted isolated calls by some Mexican-Americans for the return of the militant Brown Berets of the 1970s and protests by Anglos about undocumented Mexicans having more rights than native-born Texans.

The shootings have also focused outside attention on the consequences of having hundreds of thousands of Mexican immigrants pour through the sparsely populated back country. Some who live in this popular corridor for illegal immigration describe it as a war zone in which locals constantly fight to protect themselves and their property from the waves of invaders.

"It's horrible to demagogue it, but we have an invasion," says Ray Melton, 58, a Kinney County rancher. "And when you have the sheer numbers of people crossing a lot of property, somewhere down the line, something has to go wrong."

Top photo: Carlos Lazaro Tijerina, from left, Jesus Alberto Castuita Gutierrez and Martin Cerdo Martinez sit on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, overlooking the American Vega Verde subdivision. The three, along with Luis Armando Chavez Vaquera, crossed the river in 1999 to steal. Chavez Vaquera, shot as he fled by an angry homeowner, didn't return. In another case, Sam Blackwood, below, shot an illegal Mexican immigrant in the back of the leg at Blackwood's Kinney County ranch. He was convicted of a misdemeanor and given a fine and probation.
San Antonio Express-News
Top photo: Carlos Lazaro Tijerina, from left, Jesus Alberto Castuita Gutierrez and Martin Cerdo Martinez sit on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, overlooking the American Vega Verde subdivision. The three, along with Luis Armando Chavez Vaquera, crossed the river in 1999 to steal. Chavez Vaquera, shot as he fled by an angry homeowner, didn't return. In another case, Sam Blackwood, below, shot an illegal Mexican immigrant in the back of the leg at Blackwood's Kinney County ranch. He was convicted of a misdemeanor and given a fine and probation.

In fiscal year 2000, which ended October 1, 2000, Border Patrol agents in the Del Rio sector apprehended more than 150,000 undocumented immigrants, and uncounted others made it through undetected. The following year, they caught just over 100,000.

The shootings prompted the U.S. Border Patrol to revive a ranch liaison program in which agents advise ranchers of how to respond to trespassers, including warnings against taking the law into their own hands.

"We held monthly meetings with ranchers, brought in people, including attorneys, to tell them what was going on," says Dennis Smith, a Border Patrol spokesman in Del Rio.

But to some ranchers, the problem, at its peak, appeared intractable.

"If you're out of their path, it's not a big problem, but if you're in their corridor, it's everything you can imagine: damage, theft, vandalism and threats," says Manuel Benavides, who owns several ranches near Laredo. "Just to give you an idea, one year, we had to replace a stove in a ranch house four different times because it was damaged. We tried keeping a family out there, but the minute they'd leave the house, all their possessions would walk out. It's to the point where we can't keep a family out there for fear of intimidation. They show up in groups of 15 to 20. Are you going to leave your wife out there? I don't think so."

To others, the violent encounters are almost inevitable and speak of a much larger international problem that has little to do with the stereotypes of gunslinging Texans or marauding Mexicans. It's what naturally occurs when only an easily forded river separates great wealth and grinding poverty, and when the open country between the border and inland American cities is riddled with smugglers' routes.

"God gave Mexico two beautiful coastlines, an overabundance of natural resources and wonderful people, but the government is so rotten that the people have to come over here because they want things they can't have over there," says Steve Rozan, a Houston lawyer who represents Bordelon. "It's kind of a problem without a solution. It's like the war in the Middle East. The U.S. is a magnet for poor people who don't have these opportunities, so they come across in droves, vandalizing and burglarizing houses, taking things that don't belong to them.

"It's an obvious problem all the way from San Diego to Brownsville, and it's not going away. It's all part of the open borders. What is this country going to do? Close its borders? Build a new Berlin Wall? Or will we relax it and find a more humane solution?"


For Del Rio, the explosive growth of Ciudad Acuña as it became a maquiladora center of nearly a quarter million residents over the past two decades has exacerbated the problem of poor Mexicans sneaking across the river for something to eat or steal.

Many Vega Verde residents are fed up with the thefts, and initially, Bordelon had broad support among his neighbors. After the first shooting, in which he wounded a Mexican youth, some 650 people signed a petition asking then Valverde County District Attorney Tom Lee not to prosecute Bordelon.

The petition read in part: "The residents of Vega Verde are tired of Illegal Aliens or Mexican citizens crossing the Rio Grande to steal, and if caught, are held only a few days, and returned to Mexico, only to come back and do it again. Mr. Bordelon should not have been charged because he was doing what every resident living along the river and in Val Verde County would do, and that is protect their family and property."

Its conclusion: "If Mr. Bordelon is convicted, it is giving a clear signal to these people that they have nothing to fear."

Lee, now a district judge in Del Rio, says it was highly unusual to have so many residents call for an offense not to be prosecuted. Bordelon was later indicted for attempted murder in the case.

"Defense of property is a defense, but it's not an excuse to shoot someone," Lee says.

A reporter's tour of the Vega Verde neighborhood quickly becomes an interconnected litany of complaints about thefts, burglaries and the need to constantly guard one's home.

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