By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
DEL RIO, Texas--To the young Mexicans with baggy jeans who regularly prowl the rocky bank of the Rio Grande, the isolated Vega Verde neighborhood just across the river is an American wonderland of large well-furnished homes, satellite dishes and SUVs.
It is also traditional easy-pickings for thieves, and when three dirt-poor Mexicans from Ciudad Acuña waded the river on November 1, 1999, their target was the last house before the thickets of carrizo cane began.
"We were going to rob them, but we didn't have any time," said Martin Cerdo Martinez, in an interview in Mexico a month later at the scene.
Before the youths could break in, a pickup truck rolled into the drive, a man and woman rushed out, guns were pulled and the boys fled back to Mexico.
"We saw the man running out of the truck. We ran and got out to the middle of the river, and then we heard the shots," Cerdo Martinez said.
Three young Mexicans crossed the Rio Grande that day, but only two came back. Luis Armando Chavez Vaquera, 16, vanished without a trace, and at first his buddies thought he had been captured by the big man with the gun and was being held hostage.
But 11 days later, Chavez Vaquera's body floated to the surface downstream. A slug had caught him in the left eye and exited the back of his skull. By then, Mexican and American law enforcement officials had been alerted to the shooting, and their attention quickly focused on the owner of the house the boys had chosen.
Glenn Patrick Bordelon, 54, a heavy-set Louisiana native with a reputation for aggressive, unstable behavior and gunplay, had been a civilian employee of Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio until he was fired and banned from the base in June 1999. To many Mexicans, Bordelon, a burly Vietnam vet with a '60s-style flattop haircut, would eventually come to personify the trigger-happy gringo vigilante.
At the time Chavez Vaquera died, Bordelon was already accused of wounding another Mexican youth who was wading in the river behind Bordelon's house some months earlier, and he was suspected in several other shootings. Although he denied knowing anything about Chavez Vaquera, there was little doubt on the Mexican side that he was the killer.
"There are four witnesses to the shooting of my son. We think Mr. Bordelon is a murderer, and what we want first is justice," said Maria de Carmen Vaquera weeks after the incident. "He is an animal. He only wants to dominate his part of the river."
The deadly Del Rio shooting quickly festered into a diplomatic running sore, and Mexican consular officials formally requested the intervention of the FBI and state officials. One Mexican diplomat warned that unless justice was swift and certain, other shootings likely would follow.
"It involves a youngster, a juvenile of 16 years. We feel it is a very delicate situation, and we don't want it generalized along the border," Carlos Sada, Mexico's consul general in San Antonio, said at the time. "If everyone begins taking justice into their own hands, then the law of the Wild West comes into the scenario."
By early May of this year, when Bordelon finally went to trial in Del Rio for the slaying of Chavez Vaquera, Sada's cautionary words had proved to be tragically prophetic.
Four more South Texas shootings had followed the killing of Chavez Vaquera, and two more Mexicans had died. The string of incidents, which had not begun with the November 1999 incident in the Vega Verde, continued across the sparsely populated ranch country west of San Antonio.
The first had come on January 25, 1999, on the pitch-black bank of the Rio Grande north of Eagle Pass, when Wilbur Honeycutt, a small-town cop who was a member of a Drug Enforcement Administration task force, fired eight shots into the reedy darkness. One slug hit Abecnego Monje Ortiz, 18, an unarmed illegal Mexican immigrant, who was left paralyzed from the waist down. Monje Ortiz later sued and won $1.75 million from the U.S. Justice Department, which had enlisted Honeycutt.
Honeycutt, who pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated assault and criminal conduct, is now serving a 15-year prison sentence.
Other violent confrontations followed in the brush land near Del Rio, Batesville, Brackettville and Rock Springs. The most recent came in January of this year when a pregnant woman, alone with her toddler in an Edwards County ranch house, shot an intruder. Gonzalo Lopez Castañeda, 32, an illegal immigrant who broke in apparently looking for food, died before help arrived. The woman was not charged.
Each shooting involved an isolated encounter between a gun-toting American and an unarmed Mexican, and each ended badly for the Mexican. The toll thus far--three dead, one paralyzed and three more wounded. So far, five Texans have been charged with offenses ranging from deadly conduct to murder. Four cases have been resolved with guilty pleas or convictions after trial, and two others await trial.
This summer, Patrick McCarty, accused of shooting a Mexican last year in Batesville, is set for trial in Zavala County. Also awaiting trial is Coy Brown for the April 2000 shooting of an illegal immigrant in Edwards County.
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."
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?"
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.
"This would be the best place in the world to live if that wasn't Mexico," says Tommy Vick, 60, whose riverside house has a large garden and plush green lawns. "We've been broken into numerous times over the last eight to 10 years. I've lost $15,000 to $20,000 in merchandise. We caught a burglar in our home one time, and after we turned him over to the police, they just turned him loose."
The thefts have forced him and his wife, Rhonda, to have someone at the house 24 hours a day, seven days a week and to keep firearms at ready.
"I can understand a man crossing the river, coming into the United States to get a job to better himself, even if it is illegal, but this is a little gang, with their baggy britches and bandannas," he says. "We're not prejudiced against Mexicans. We're prejudiced against thieves."
Popular support for Bordelon began to ebb after the fatal shooting, and while awaiting trial, he sold his riverside home and moved away from Del Rio. Last fall, Vick says, the new owner hired a crew from a local security company to install a burglar alarm system.
"They broke for lunch and went into town to eat, and while they were gone, someone broke in and stole all their tools," Vick recalls. "And when they came back, the people across the river were laughing at them."
Meanwhile, in Mexico, Bordelon's freedom after posting bail was a matter of irritation and bafflement for Mexicans, who are accustomed to a legal system in which the accused is typically confined while the facts of the case are being weighed by a judge.
"In Mexico, a suspect would be immediately jailed until he could demonstrate he is innocent. Some people don't understand that there is a different legal system in the United States. They ask, 'Why is he free if there is evidence?'" said Sada, then the consul general in San Antonio.
"There was a reaction, mainly in Ciudad Acuña, because people were very angry about this youngster dying, and they want justice. Some people perceive that nothing will be done, but we have guaranteed them that the investigation is under way and that this takes time."
The Mexican consulate in San Antonio pronounced the outcome "enormously discouraging."
It issued an official note of protest that read, "It is unacceptable to the Mexican Government that a judicial system can allow a person who has shot someone from behind to walk away without the jail sentence such a crime deserves."
But Americans who live in the outback have their allies and grievances, too. Some point to the rape and murder of Mary G. Delery, 71, and her daughter Mary M. Delery on June 30, 2001, as the danger posed by unknown wandering Mexicans.
The crime was quickly linked by DNA evidence to Juan Castanon, 22, an illegal Mexican immigrant visiting relatives who lived near the Delery residence. He has since fled to Mexico, but because the crime is a potential capital offense, there is little hope of him being extradited.
To show their concern and solidarity, both Ranch Rescue of Abilene and the Republic of Texas sent armed patrols to the region to assist landowners in defending and repairing their property.
"Our goal is to protect the life, liberty and property of citizens who live in the border zone," said Republic of Texas President Daniel Miller, whose group does not recognize the legitimacy of Texas statehood but considers the state an independent nation.
On its Web site, Ranch Rescue makes the case for the South Texas ranchers, describing how "criminal aliens" destroy private property and cut fences with impunity as they make their way toward the bright lights of San Antonio and Houston.
"The County Attorneys in these border counties have granted blanket immunity from prosecution to criminal aliens for all property crimes. Simply put, the border County Attorneys are turning a blind eye to the felony criminal offenses committed en masse within their counties by the criminal aliens, where the border county landowners are the victims. This selective non-enforcement of the law is being practiced solely on the basis of the criminal's national origin and immigration status," the Web site reads.
Jack Foote is head of Ranch Rescue, which has recruited volunteers for border patrols in Arizona and South Texas. The group plans to conduct another mission to South Texas this spring.
"We stand together, and we say to our governments: Either you keep these criminals off our private property, or we will," Foote says.
But the case of Eusebio de Haro, a 22-year-old from Guanajuato, was different. De Haro was a carpenter's helper and a family man, not a house burglar, and he died running from the muzzle of the gun.
De Haro had lived in the United States illegally for almost a year before he was arrested on a domestic violence charge in Kerr County in February 2000 and then deported to Mexico in early May. He immediately recrossed the border and was returning to his wife and daughter in Kerrville when he died on May 13, 2000, in the brush north of Brackettville.
De Haro bled to death after being shot in the back of the leg by Sam Blackwood, an elderly rancher who had retired to Kinney County from Arkansas years earlier.
To Mexicans, the case was the perfect example of the worst that can happen when a trigger-happy, xenophobic American encounters a Mexican far from home or help.
As Blackwood's trial unfolded last August in Brackettville, the aging defendant and Juana Rangel, 19, de Haro's wife, crossed paths in a corridor. "That's the old man who shot him. I feel like shooting him myself, but I'm not as cold-blooded as he is," said Rangel, who, like de Haro, was living in the United States illegally.
During the weeklong trial no persuasive evidence emerged to contradict the testimony of de Haro's traveling companion that the shooting had been unprovoked and entirely avoidable.
Javier Sanchez, a Mexican who had been walking several days with de Haro from the border, said the confrontation occurred shortly after the two had stopped at the front gate of the Blackwood house and politely asked for water. Turned away, the two walked away from the house, only to have the elderly pair pursue them in a pickup truck. Sanchez said that when Blackwood emerged with a pistol in hand, both Mexicans broke for cover.
"I ran. I jumped some of the brush. I didn't see what Eusebio was doing. That's when I heard the first shot," he testified.
At the second shot, his friend cried out.
"I heard Eusebio saying, 'They hit me.' I managed to turn around, and I saw him on the ground," Sanchez recalled.
Hiding in the bushes, Sanchez said he saw Mrs. Blackwood approach the wounded man.
"The lady asked him, was he hit hard." He said, 'Yes, but why did you do that? I didn't do nothing,'" Sanchez said.
Sam Blackwood, said Sanchez, lit his pipe and waited by the truck.
Before help arrived, de Haro bled to death.
During the weeklong trial, the elderly defendant did not testify or offer comment to the press. Friends, however, described him as a lovable, peaceful man.
Blackwood's wife, Brenda, took the stand and claimed that the shooting occurred as the two Mexicans were aggressively charging the elderly pair, but nothing supported her story.
Blackwood's lawyer Mark Stevens proffered a theory of a ricocheting bullet, which would have explained the wound to the back of de Haro's leg, but convinced no one.
Kinney County Sheriff Leland Burgess, who investigated the shooting, said that when he first responded to the scene, he was "praying" he would find evidence that Blackwood had acted in self-defense.
"You bet I was on Sam's side. I have no ties to the Mexican government. My ties are to Kinney County. Sam is my friend," Burgess testified. "If I could have proved self-defense, it would have gone away. But after I got back, I figured out it was just murder."
In his closing arguments, Blackwood's lawyer cited the international aspect of the case, claiming the prosecution of his client was prompted by high-level pressure from Mexico City.
"Justice is not what is driving this prosecution. Politics is driving it," Stevens told the jury. "We've heard about the involvement of the Mexican government since the beginning. Sam Blackwood is caught right in the middle of this. It's a political football."
But District Attorney Fred Hernandez said Mexico had nothing to do with the case. The issue, he said, was unprovoked violence against Mexicans passing through the country.
"You've got to send a message. Either it's not OK to shoot illegal aliens in the back, or it's open season. Go at it," he said.
Hours later, Blackwood was convicted of misdemeanor deadly conduct, the only charge he faced. After being sentenced, he walked free. Instead of prison time, the jury gave him a suspended sentence, probation and fined him $4,000.
The sentence provoked harsh anger among Mexicans and certain Mexican-Americans for its perceived leniency.
"It's a wonder that this May 2000 murder and recent outrageous court decision is even news. It's right out of a '50s Western in which the gunslinger brags about the number of cowboys he's killed 'not counting Mexicans.' The fact is, for killing a Mexican, Blackwood was convicted simply of a misdemeanor 'dangerous conduct' charge," wrote Patrisia Gonzales and Roberto Rodriguez, two Universal Press Syndicate columnists.
"Just recently, in a road-rage incident, a northern California man was appropriately given a three-year sentence for killing a dog. But for rage against a Mexican? Less than the price of a used car," read the August 31 column.
After the criminal trial, de Haro's family vowed to press on with a civil lawsuit filed against Blackwood, but, a representative said, they are not motivated by a lust for revenge.
"They feel strongly about this. It's not that they want Mr. Blackwood to be put away for 100 years, or to win $1 million. The important thing to them is that the next kid in the same situation doesn't get shot," says George Shaffer, a San Antonio lawyer who is retained by the Mexican Consulate in San Antonio.
In December 2001, Bordelon went to trial on attempted murder charges in the June 1999 shooting of Ivan Misael Sepulveda Mendez. The youth, 16, was hit by shotgun pellets while wading in the river in front of Bordelon's home.
Bordelon's lawyer, Rozan, set the confrontational tone in his opening statement by trying to make Mexico the defendant instead of his client.
"This is not a case about attempted murder or aggravated assault. This is a case about one country, Mexico, versus another country, the United States," he told the jury. "This is a case about a war zone in the Vega Verde, where you have daily and weekly confrontations with multitudes of young men who come over to burglarize and rob American homes."
District Attorney Hernandez, by contrast, said he was prosecuting a simple border shooting: "This case is about the facts. There is no international angle as far as I'm concerned."
As Bordelon's defense unfolded, it took two tracks: First that the youth was trespassing and a potential menace to Bordelon and his wife, Dora, and second, that Bordelon's war-related mental problems caused him to overreact.
During the trial, a psychologist from the Kerrville Veterans Administration Hospital testified that Bordelon had chronic, severe, post traumatic stress disorder stemming from his one-year tour of duty at a military base in Thailand where he worked as a jet mechanic.
There was little dispute about the basic facts.
Bordelon readily admitted shooting the youth but said he was only trying to scare him off. Sepulveda testified he had crossed the river only to retrieve his dogs and never even set foot on the U.S. side before being hit.
Before the verdict, Bordelon told a reporter: "It was fight or flee, and I'm not one to back down. I will not be pushed around on my own land."
After two hours of deliberation, the jury convicted him on the lesser charge of aggravated assault. The trial judge, Mike McCormick, sentenced him to serve three and a half years in prison.
At his subsequent trial for the murder of Chavez Vaquera, which began in early May, Bordelon surprised everyone by agreeing to a plea bargain before a jury was even selected. In exchange for his plea of guilty to manslaughter, he was sentenced to serve seven years in prison, to run concurrently with his sentence in the earlier case. He will be eligible for release in three and a half years.
The dramatic denouement to the controversial case came with few witnesses on hand. The family of the dead youth was absent, as were most of the 650 people who once signed a petition of support for Bordelon.
Only Mexican Consul Roberto Canseco, lawyer Shaffer, Tommy Vick and one other friend of Bordelon's were present when the case finally came to an end.
Canseco declined to comment on the appropriateness of the plea agreement, observing only that it appeared to satisfy the letter of the American law.
Vick was dismayed and said the outcome will only encourage more crime on the Vega Verde. Bordelon declined to talk to reporters after his plea and again later when he was in jail. But as he was being led from the courthouse to a waiting patrol car for the trip to his cell, he paused to lecture one of the investigating officers about shortcomings of the case against him.
And despite his guilty plea, he repeated his claim of innocence.
"I did not shoot anyone, and that's all I have to say," he shouted.
One obvious factor has been the dramatic decline in illegal immigration through the region since the September 11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which heightened border security.
The most recent statistics for the Del Rio Border Patrol sector show only 46,471 apprehensions in the seven-month period ending April 30. By contrast, over the same period last year, 72,690 people were caught, and for the same seven-month stretch a year earlier, the figure stood at 107,712.
But Hernandez, the Val Verde County district attorney who prosecuted three of the cases and has one to go, believes other factors, including widespread publicity about the trials, have helped check the shootings.
At the heart of the matter, he says, is a peculiar cultural disconnect.
"The biggest problem with these incidents of American citizens shooting Mexican nationals is that none of these people are from this area. They are not familiar with the customs, and they don't know how to live on the border, which is a little bit different than living in the interior," he says.
"If you look at these men, they have one thing in common. They are all white men who come from a long way from Texas," he says of Bordelon, Blackwood and Brown, who is from Alaska.
And, he said, they come with guns but without understanding, and thus do not know how to peacefully resolve their encounters with illegal Mexicans passing through their land.
"People in this area will either speak Spanish or know enough to tell someone to get out. And for the most part, they'll leave, particularly if you have a gun," he says. "But these people who have moved in think that carrying a gun entitles them to shoot individuals, and that's totally wrong. People have to know this is not the Wild West, and the people who have always lived on the border have always understood that."