Fear and loathing at the US / Mexico border 11 months ago

Fear and loathing at the US / Mexico border

“Niggers don’t work, that’s what my daddy said.” Dennis sells Trump merchandise at the side of I35, a highway running from Canada to Mexico, just beyond Waco, Texas. Or at least he’s here today. He cruises, loosely following the president’s campaign trail, shifting MAGA t shirts, MAGA flags and MAGA hats. Business is good. Outside the Ohio presidential debate his stand sold 5,000 t shirts. Their top selling flag commands, all caps emblazoned over the Stars and Stripes, “TRUMP 2020 NO MORE BULLSHIT!” 

Dennis was certain he was mining a higher truth about the universality of racism, based on a recent arrest administered to his white colleague by a “6’2”, black” policeman, but try as I did to infer a heartfelt though poorly explained philosophy - the logic was sophistry, incomprehensible, and the foul and casual racial epithet confirmed what I had expected pulling up at the truck stop. 

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This is rural Texas, where the politics are a different beast to their urban counterparts and the beasts are different to the ones with which I’m familiar from the English countryside. Cattle with horns 10 feet wide, as if they’re wearing some kind of magnificent ivory coat hanger. They taste delicious, smoked for hours over wood and lathered in sweet and spicy sauce. But the Texan cities are liberal. Democrat. Their residents opine the benefits of universal healthcare. They demand Trump’s removal from office. “We can afford to take care of each other,” one told me. “You pay a little more in taxes but you’re saving thousands at the doctors. People need to be educated on that, they just don’t want to be.”

 It’s these voters that’ve prompted genuine suggestion Texas might flip blue in the presidential race. In that event, the Democrats would have enough electoral college votes, when combined with New York and California, to lock the GOP out of the Oval Office indefinitely. 



But a friend living in one such city, Dallas, was reluctant to predict the outcome after November 3. “There’s a lot of people who are not happy with some events this summer,” in reference to the rioting in and looting of American cities following the death of George Floyd. I suspect she was referring to people like Dennis. 



The road runs out at Laredo, and racism is realised in physical form, where a battalion of men are employed by the federal government to prevent Mexicans from wading across 15 metres of river. The border tracks the Rio Grande, browned by a sewage outlet on the Mexican bank, and if it’s obscured by a thicket of carrisco canes, the omnipresent men in uniform the same colour as the water are a superb navigational aide. Their windshields and binoculars all point to true south. 

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Allow one’s gaze to follow their compass and the habitat looks like the beginning of a Central American wetland. Birds poo-twee-tweet, school up and murmur through the sky. Crickets and rodents hop and scuttle between tall fronds of dry grass. The river is quite lifeless because of the aforementioned sewage pipe.

Donald Trump’s 30 foot concrete fever dream would plough through this scene. Turn around and surveyors have marked a potential route with short stakes and ribbon. It weaves and winds along a sort of no man’s land between the riverbank and its nearest American edifice - a colossal and looming shopping mall that taunts its impoverished international neighbour. Next to it, a dilapidated hotel whose only occupants are border patrol thermal imaging cameras. They identify would-be illegal aliens through the thick cane on their way to Tommy Hilfiger.

Danny Perales worked as a border agent for 30 years and lives in Laredo. He voted Trump in 2016, has already voted Trump in 2020 but is firmly opposed to a border wall.

In his mind there’s no need for further barriers in and around this crossing, which is the busiest inland port of entry and also one of the oldest between Mexico and the US.

When Danny started patrolling the border he says there were 65 agents in total. By the time he retired he was running a station, one of many, which was the base of operations for more than 400 guys. Initially, the best technological support available to him came in the form of his own ears, listenIng for the snap of cane and hushed Spanish intonations.

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He recounts someone shooting at border agents from the Mexican side toward the end of his career. The shooter wasn’t a good enough marksman to hit any of Danny’s colleagues but the escalation in force attracted special response units, equipped with their own assault rifles. They weren’t able to identify the sniper, or effectively return fire, so he continued taking potshots and they continued supporting the border agents. The increased security, however, was disrupting illegal cross-border traffic. One day a call came into the border guards’ station. It was the cartel, detailing the coordinates of a tree just inside the American border, to which the shooter had been strapped. He was arrested and the additional security faded away. Danny joked this kind of inter-agency cooperation offered an alternative to Trump’s wall.

He maintains that the old methods, combined with technological advancements are more than adequate to police Laredo’s border with its Mexican sister city, Nuevo Laredo, and that the wall should be built elsewhere. And he’s not alone. In South Texas a coalition of democrats, republicans and everyone in between has formed to oppose construction of the barrier. They all have their reasons.

Danny’s is the Morelet’s seedeater, a prize bird for twitchers and he is the president of one such group. The Monte Mucho Audobon Society.

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Back out on I35, before the air began to smell like desert, Dennis leaned in and said that most of his Trump merch is made in China.