RIO GRANDE CITY, Tex. — The National Guard troops arrived here last week, outfitted in body armor and carrying pistols to help bring more security to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Yet they saw little activity after taking their positions in portable towers and Border Patrol vehicles along the dirt roads and levees that overlooked the dense brush near the Rio Grande.
Some found themselves fighting boredom, chatting with each other about their lives back home — where their jobs were altogether different than looking out for armed traffickers — and wondering how much longer they would be posted in the unforgiving desert heat. Others killed time any way they could during taxing 12-hour shifts watching the silent riverbank.
“The music keeps me up,” said one soldier listening to old-school R&B tunes who requested anonymity because, as several guardsmen explained, the soldiers were not permitted to speak to the media. “We’re keeping our eyes on the brush.”
The National Guard was dispatched to the border with great fanfare by Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), who declared in July that he was forced to act because of a string of failures by the federal government in addressing drug smugglers and an influx of unaccompanied Central American minors who had flooded across the border in recent months.
As of last week, 400 guardsmen had arrived. A total of 1,000 are expected to gather in the coming weeks, concentrated in this stretch of border on Texas’s southernmost tip, running through the Rio Grande Valley from Brownsville to McAllen. This region has been seen as especially vulnerable to illegal crossings.
The rollout of the troops has offered Perry a chance to strike a tough tone on illegal immigration as he ponders a run for president in 2016 — and seeks to undo the political damage from a failed 2012 run in which conservatives attacked him as soft on the issue.
In his previous run, Perry told rivals opposed to giving illegal-immigrant children in-state college tuition that “I don’t think you have a heart.” Now, as he presides over his state’s National Guard deployment and blasts President Obama’s record on border security, Perry is positioning himself as a border hawk with views closely aligned with the core Republican voters who will play a big role in choosing the party’s 2016 White House nominee.
But now that the guardsmen have arrived, their exact role, besides keeping watch on the brush, is not entirely clear.
The soldiers have undergone training in recent weeks in air and ground surveillance. During their shifts, they stand watch, usually from stations peering out over the river, or while joining Border Patrol units driving around the dusty expanses outside McAllen.
In their off-hours they take in their new surroundings from the gangways of hotels with cigarettes or cold beers in hand.
These soldiers are only the latest armed force coming to a region that has been militarized for years.
Dramatic funding increases over the past decade for Border Patrol agents and other security measures long ago transformed the area into what can feel like a heavily fortified zone. Perry in June launched “Operation Strong Safety,” an $18 million-per-month effort to boost the law enforcement presence near the border.
The National Guard deployment is part of that broader buildup, adding to a scene where soldiers in camouflage shuttle to and fro in unmarked but easily recognizable white vans while state police cars sit idling at nearly every highway intersection — beneath an ever-present white federal government blimp monitoring activities below.
Meanwhile, the number of border crossers has been on the decline in recent weeks, with the flow of unaccompanied minors slowing considerably.
The presence of additional soldiers is being greeted here with mixed emotions, with some locals appreciating the added protection and others wondering when enough is enough.
The charm of living near cattle ranches and mesquite trees that make up large portions of the Rio Grande Valley is steadily evaporating, residents say.
“It’s all different. I think the United States is a police state now,” said Javier Peña, a former police officer in Rio Grande City who had just finished breakfast at the Texas Cafe.
Others see the National Guard troops as necessary.
“Will the border ever be secure? The answer is that it could be. But the federal government needs to get off the side, get in the game and be a real player and stop pretending,” said Rio Grande City Mayor Ruben Villarreal, whose community has seen the brunt of border crossing and drug smuggling.
“When these women and children were crossing our border, it opened all of our eyes up,” Villarreal said. “They’re the more delicate, the more fragile in our society, and they were walking across our border like they were just going through turnstiles at a baseball game.”
Officials from the Perry administration and the National Guard declined to be interviewed to discuss the soldiers’ role.
Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, which is overseeing the governor’s border efforts, said the goal was to “deny Mexican cartels and their associates unfettered entry into Texas between the ports of entry, as well as reduce the power of these organizations, whose success depends on their ability to operate on both sides of the border.”
A statement from the agency that oversees the state’s National Guard, Texas Military Forces, said the soldiers were “amplifying the visible presence on the ground and along the river” in an effort to keep the Rio Grande Valley secure.
“Specifically, the Texas National Guard is providing a variety of subject matter experts and equipment primarily involving aviation assets, logistics and ground troops to support the state-led operations along the Texas-Mexico border,” the agency said.
A spokeswoman with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that includes Border Patrol, declined to provide details of how it is working with the National Guard, other than to say that the two agencies are cooperating.
The arrival of the Central American children and the National Guard deployment have shaken some local residents who have lived for decades with illegal crossings and smuggling over the shimmering Rio Grande.
Back when the flow of people across the river was sporadic and smuggling meant someone’s neighbor moved tequila or flour back and forth across the border, it was easy to look the other way and go about your life, local residents say.
Now, the situation is far more complicated, with even the former Hidalgo County sheriff serving a five-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to money laundering and accepting campaign donations from an alleged drug trafficker.
The idea that what happens along the Rio Grande is interwoven with life in the valley’s small towns and farms extends as far back as the days when Spanish colonial settlers moved goods and livestock to and from Mexico.
Ruperto Escobar’s roots in the area date to 1767, when one of his ancestors arrived to claim a Spanish land grant that includes his current farm on the riverbank and the town named after his family: Escobares.
That history and the decades he spent farming his land taught him a creed repeated by others in the area about the river and illegal activity there, Escobares, 70, said in his Spanish-inflected accent: “I don’t bother them, they don’t bother me.”
Over the years, drug traffickers and others headed north have trekked across his land, with Escobar and his workers usually trying to ignore them. Recently, he said, two men with rifles showed up near his irrigation pump, ordering Escobar’s workers to clear out because there was different work to be done there that night.
He said he realized how faulty his mind-set had become when the Central American children began appearing on the riverbank, followed now by soldiers with semiautomatic pistols strapped to their fatigues — embodiments of what has become an often surreal lifestyle.
“We’ve been turning this eye away from it for so long that it’s gotten out of control,” Escobar said, adding that he welcomes the National Guard and any other border enforcement. “Now, we can’t handle it. Now, we’re afraid. Now, we want someone else to come in and handle it.”
Others say they are assuming that responsibility.
Othal E. Brand Jr., president of Hidalgo County Water Improvement District 3, which provides much of the drinking water for the McAllen area, said he had been frustrated after the federal government built a portion of a border fence around the water district property, leaving portions of the area open to crossers and armed traffickers who often chased away his workers.
The property sits not far from a major border crossing by Anzalduas Park, where on a recent afternoon the laughter and banda music being played by a group of families splashing on the Mexican side of the river floated across the water. Last year, Brand said, eight bodies were found nearby in the river, four of them without heads.
In the past, however, the area had been hard to reach for Border Patrol agents and other law enforcement agencies. Their boats did not have easy access to the river.
About three years ago, Brand persuaded his board to spend $125,000 to build a boat ramp. Another $125,000 was used for the guard tower and bullet-proof wrapping around the water district pump, he said.
The expenditures of local funds have stirred controversy. But Brand said the water district property is now a virtual station for federal and state law enforcement officers who are grateful for the boat launch and the free bottles of water and ice Brand provides.
“Whatever we do, we’ve got to do as a state, as a county, as a water district,” Brand said. “Forget the feds.”
About 20 miles away in a rural portion of Hidalgo County, Fred and Josie Cappadona said they are eager to see more law enforcement near their cattle ranch.
The couple moved to the area during the early 1970s, shortly after Fred Cappadona, 68, returned from the Vietnam War, where he flew an assault helicopter on missions to the Cambodian border.
The silence of South Texas appealed to Cappadona, he said, a tranquility that was initially interrupted only occasionally by a random border crosser attempting to make his way north.
The degree of danger encroaching on their family recently burst into view during a birthday party the Cappadonas were holding for one of their grandchildren.
A truck traveling about 70 mph raced past a patio where the kids were playing, apparently lost as the driver sought to offload his human cargo. With his .380-caliber pistol within easy reach, Cappadona drove after the truck and asked the driver to slow down before the truck raced off through another fence, he said.
That and other encounters make the idea of living with more law enforcement in the area palatable, even if it means losing some of their tranquility, he said.
“Yeah, it’s not the same,” Cappadona said about his surroundings, which included herds of cattle with glistening coats meandering past what seemed like endless desert brush. “But we have to protect what we have to protect.”