Faces from the Border: The Devil Is on the Loose

By A Fontes on November 2015

By Alfredo Corchado, The New Yorker

November 18, 2015

Along Highway 83, in South Texas, is a stretch of lonely land, a curving corridor dotted with abandoned villages and fast-food joints. One of the main arteries of the area known as Los Caminos del Río—the River Roads—cuts alongside the Rio Grande. The area is so isolated, and both sides look so similar, that at times one might have a hard time telling which is Mexico and which is the United States.

On the U.S. side is Laredo. Founded in 1755, Laredo once served as the capital of the rebellious Republic of the Rio Grande, a brief, and ultimately failed, attempt to secede from Mexico, launched, in 1840, by a coalition of insurgents from the states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila, and southwest Texas in opposition to President Antonio López de Santa Anna’s centralist policies.

In 1848 Laredo residents faced a decision. After the Mexican–American War, which ended that year, the United States gave residents in Laredo the choice to either stay on the new U.S. territory, the north side of the Rio Grande, known in Mexico as the Rio Bravo, or to move south of the river to Mexican territory. Some stayed north, not so much out of loyalty to the United States but because they felt attached to the land, regardless of the flag flying over it. Many headed south to start fresh. They took their belongings, their horses and cows; some even went to the local cemetery, dug up the remains of their loved ones, and took them along to be reburied in Mexico in “Nuevo” Laredo. The region became known as Los Dos Laredos.

Today, the economy in Los Dos Laredos depends on trade. It is where Interstate 35, the “NAFTA Highway,” begins. Everything—from fruits, vegetables, TVs, and blow-dryers to stoves, refrigerators, vehicles, and drugs—makes its way from Mexico to the United States at this crossing point.

Here in Laredo is the place where I usually meet Arturo Fontes, fifty-five, who, until recently, spent nearly three decades between San Diego and Laredo hunting down the deadliest capos, or being hunted by those to whom he got too close. Before retiring, in 2013, Fontes spent twenty-six years as an F.B.I. agent investigating up and down the border and into the interior of Mexico. He now works as a private security consultant and with U.S. law-enforcement agencies, investigating cases near U.S. Highway 83 in Texas.

He is a man of few words. His eyes are shifty, and he’s the kind of person who usually gets to the point while cradling two or three phones at a time. He always sits with his back against the wall. We’ve known each other for a few years now, having quickly developed a bond. It was Fontes who, years earlier, had called to tell me, as a foreign correspondent for the Dallas Morning News, that there was a death threat against an American journalist and that he thought that person could be me. I ran for my life, across the border into the U.S., and stayed in constant touch with him. It turned out that the much-feared cartel known as the Zetas had discovered he was passing information to a reporter, me, about its illicit activities. I wasn’t the only one at risk, of course. Fontes began sleeping with a loaded gun by his nightstand after he received word that the leader of the Zetas, Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales, had put a hit on him, and had even personally called him.

His account was part of a book I wrote, “Midnight in Mexico,” in which Fontes, under a pseudonym, became one of the key characters. Although lately he has been more open with reporters about quoting him by name, this is the first time he is revealing his identity as my source. He does so because he wants to serve as a resource, to let the public know what’s really going on along the border.

Fontes is the son of a man from Sonora and a woman from Colima. They married and settled in San Francisco’s Bay Area. Fontes’s father volunteered to fight for the U.S. in the Second World War, which won him U.S. citizenship. The family settled in San Francisco. As a teen-ager, Fontes played linebacker and halfback for his high-school football team. His dream, he told me, was to one day protect his country. He started as a clerk at the F.B.I., in 1984, the year before the D.E.A. agent Kiki Camarena was abducted and killed. Camarena’s story turned him into a hero. That was an inspiration to Fontes.
Over the years he’s tried convincing me that el diablo anda suelto—the Devil is on the loose—on both sides of the border. Fontes grew up believing that good would outweigh the evil—crime and drugs—seeping in from the south. But now he admits that he is no longer certain this ideal holds true. Both sides of the border are more complicated than he realized. And even though he wasn’t born on the border, he explains, he carries the border with him, feeling more at home and more alive when his feet touch no man’s land.

“I feel both an honor and a responsibility to do my job and to do it in a way that it’s also personal,” he said. “You’re protecting one country, but in a way two countries. Because no matter how loyal and how much I love my country, the United States, you’re directly or indirectly part of two countries. This is the land of my parents and that of other relatives that I still have throughout Mexico, something I don’t forget.”

But no matter how much he tries, he will never be Mexican. He’ll never speak the lyrical sounds of his parents’ native Spanish, or have the stamina to stand by and helplessly watch many massacres—from San Fernando to Villas de Salvárcar to Ayotzinapa—in the country his parents once called home. He’s tried working closely with his Mexican counterparts, only to get burned. Once he shared with a Mexican intelligence official a long dossier about Treviño, only to discover hours later that the man known as Z-40, or Muerte, had possession of the file. And when Fontes developed close ties with counterparts on the Mexican side of the border, things didn’t work as planned. Those he trusted usually disappeared and are presumed dead, many of them victims of Muerte or the Zetas. “I worked the interior of the United States and Mexico, but the border is a different animal, not the type you can tame easily,” he said.

North of Laredo, the road brushes up against Mexico. It’s one of my favorite parts of the border, a throwback to a not-so-distant time when life wasn’t so complicated. Sure, life on the border has never been without conflicts. There were massive “repatriation” campaigns against Mexicans, with or without American citizenship, in the nineteen-thirties and forties. These led to communities on the Mexican border without proper services or infrastructure, a recruiting paradise for illegal activities. Periodic shootings of unarmed Mexicans by the U.S. Border Patrol or illegal excursions by the Mexican military continue to mar ties.

Yet there have been more peaceful periods in the life of the border. There was a time not so long ago when, as an American citizen, I’d cross with a simple wave of the hand and a casual greeting of “American,” without the need to show proof. The border united residents more than it divided them. For instance, in places like the striking Big Bend region—where lofty clouds fall lazily atop mountain ranges—dozens of communities once spread on both sides of the border. Towns were interwoven, cobbled together by tradition and a long economic and cultural thread.

Consider Boquillas del Carmen. At the turn of the twentieth century, Boquillas was founded to serve as a mining town by American entrepreneurs, who relied on Mexican miners to fill buckets with minerals and put them on cable trains and transport them to the U.S. side.

The two sides were intractably linked. Customs checks or immigration policies were not strictly enforced. Mexican firemen would rush across the border to put out fires. On holidays, residents would crisscross nonchalantly. On school days, children from Mexico would cross a makeshift bridge and stand on a dirt road to wait for buses. Neighbors would also cross to buy groceries or pick up their mail. Even smugglers were friendlier to one another, Don Henry Ford, Jr., a Texas rancher who became a smuggler to help pay the farm bills, recalled. For seven years he was an outlaw, doing business—millions of dollars passed through his hands—with the likes of the drug kingpin Pablo Acosta and his protégé Amado Carrillo Fuentes. Ford was caught, in 1985, and, after escaping from prison and being captured again, the next year, he was sentenced to fifteen years in federal prison, though he was paroled after serving five years. (Ford, and Oscar Hagelsieb, whom I wrote about in Part I, are characters in the new documentary film “Kingdom of Shadows.”)
“We were all trying to make a living,” Ford told me. “Not kill one another. That happened, too, but nothing like today.”

According to Ford and many others, the big change came on September 11, 2001. Before then, United States border protection policy was a rather informal, uncoördinated system that fell under various federal departments. They included the Department of Justice (the Immigration and Naturalization Service), the Department of the Treasury (the Customs Service), the Department of Agriculture (the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service), and the Department of Transportation (the Coast Guard).

But that ended abruptly after the terrorist attacks. Suddenly, makeshift bridges were torn down. The population of Boquillas dropped from four hundred to a mere seventy people. Communities disappeared, replaced by the sight of Border Patrol agents who lived in so-called temporary man camps, where they took turns sleeping at night, and watching over the meandering waters of the Rio Grande for any suspicious sound or sight of strangers, possibly terrorists, who wanted to attack the United States.

By 2002 the Homeland Security Act brought the diverse agencies guarding the border under one centralized umbrella: the Department of Homeland Security. As a result, the U.S.-Mexico border is now guarded by five main subsidiaries of the D.H.S.: Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Coast Guard, Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the Transportation Security Administration. Each of these agencies has a different function, and the C.B.P. is the agency that works actively along the U.S.-Mexico border. The C.B.P. alone has a staff of sixty thousand and a budget of around thirteen billion dollars.

Like many other policies from Washington, this one had unintended consequences. The anthropologist Natalia Mendoza, a fellow at Bard College, observes that, because of greater border securitization, “the cost of smuggling has increased to a point that smugglers can no longer be independent.” That is, as small, autonomous, local “mom and pop” smuggling became more expensive and difficult, bigger, more structured, and violent organizations took over. Common-use crossing points, for instance, were now “privatized” by criminal networks able to keep their operations going, absorb the rising costs, and still make a profit. Hence, groups of smugglers who used to work on their own or as subcontractors for different bosses were either pushed out of business or forced to join a larger cartel. Even if unanticipated, this process of criminal professionalization was a perfectly rational result of border security acquiring “industrial” proportions: with the post-9/11 clampdown, the business of drug smuggling consolidated.

The old and close-knit communities along the border never prevented drug trafficking or illegal crossing. Yet they used to function as a sort of social-control mechanism that kept drug-related violence relatively under check. People knew one another; they kept an eye on things. Suddenly, though, fear and hardened policies broke those bonds. Border communities started resembling ghost towns. The result was a surge of violence in Mexico, as cartels fought to establish dominance over important drug-shipping routes.

According to estimates, the drug trade makes up between half a per cent and four per cent of Mexico’s $1.2 trillion annual G.D.P.—totalling between about six billion dollars and forty billion dollars—and employs at least half a million people. Contraband U.S. guns that are trafficked into Mexico facilitate the drug traffickers’ work. Around two hundred and fifty thousand firearms are purchased each year to be trafficked, and U.S. and Mexican authorities are seizing only about fifteen per cent of them, according to a study by the University of San Diego and Igarapé Institute.

The annual amount of drugs seized on the border has roughly doubled since 2001. Assuming enforcement to be constant, that would mean more drugs have come across. But since border security was ramped up after 2001, things are actually a lot more complicated. “There are many things wrong with U.S. border and drug policies,” Alejandro Hope, a leading Mexican expert on drug policy, said. “But I think it is necessary to avoid clichés and generalizations. The notions that nothing ever works or that full commercial legalization is the only ticket are simply wrong.”

I saw Fontes a few weeks ago, at a bar in Laredo, on Bob Bullock Avenue, lined with eighteen-wheelers loaded with goods roaring north. Fontes seemed less cocky than the last time. He was less sure of himself, slower to respond to questions about border security. The border is once again part of a political campaign, an easy target for politicians who hope to secure the Presidency by scaring the wits out of everyone. It was early afternoon, and we were already on our third drink. We halfway hoped it would help to better understand the border in the post-9/11 era.

So how safe are we? I asked, taking out my phone and notepad to record him.

He shook his head. He doesn’t like gadgets or notepads. They make him nervous. After a while, he forgot about them and opened up. Or maybe the tequila took effect. Well, he went on, the border can be endlessly fortified, sealed with glue, cement, everything to resemble that fantasy of an impenetrable wall some Presidential candidates routinely call for. But then I asked what happens to trade. “Eso está cabrón, carnal,” he answered and grinned. “That’s a tough one, brother.”

So how safe are we? I insisted. “We’re as safe as we’ll ever be … for now,” he replied.

Life on the border, however, is not always subject to reality on the ground, all too often influenced by timing and events far, far away. Yes, the border lives its own form of terrorism, its own warlords fighting for control of drug routes leading to the United States. Nothing, though, compares to random targets of extremist groups and the implications felt near and far.

Indeed, within hours after the attacks on Paris, I called Fontes, who was somewhere near the border. His tone had changed. He sounded weary, cautious, dejected. The fleeting sense of security he had felt was on the mend, broken again.

“After Paris, the need for increased border security will be amplified even more, especially because this is an election year,” he said. “There will be more scrutiny and calls for accountability, vigilance. That’s just part of living on the border, ¿me entiendes? (you understand me?)”

I do, all too well.

This is the second part of Alfredo Corchado’s series. Read the first part, “We Could Be Them,” about border patrol agents whose family members once crossed over illegally, and the third part, “Choosing Friends,” about the border patrol agents.

The television journalist Angela Kocherga contributed to this report; Lauren Eades provided data. Carlos Bravo Regidor and Homero Campa, faculty members at CIDE, coördinated the research and assisted with editing.

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