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.