May 28, 2013
Big Bend is a massive national park in West Texas that few will ever visit. The park, despite its natural beauty, will never draw in tourists the way Yellowstone or other parks do. Only around 200,000 to 350,000 visitors travel to the park annually, making it one of the least visited national parks in the nation. Reasons the park never on to tourism are unclear, yet the most likely reason being its remoteness. Sharing a long and largely unmanned border with Mexico doesn’t always help draw tourists either.
Of the 2,019km (1,255mile) distance that the Rio Grande doubles as a border for Mexico and the US, 393km (244miles) are included in the Big Bend National Park. The stretch is massive, yet rarely if ever mentioned in border policy or crime.
The Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila split the Mexican side of the border opposite of Big Bend, which lies entirely in Texas. The only Mexican border town in the area that registers on most maps is Ojinaga, which lies just to the northwest of the park. A few smaller towns dot the border on Mexico’s side.
Across from Big Bend lies Mexico’s equivalent of the park, Parque Nacional Ocampo. The park is rarely visited, but offers amazing landscape for those that do. Manuel Benavides, a town in the northwest section of the Mexican park, has a population of under 200. Mexico Highway 20 circles up into the northwest part of Coahuila state, coming within 50km of the Texas border on the eastern side of the park.
After the September 11th attacks, an unofficial border crossing was closed down in the area. This move was devastating for the small town of Boquillas del Carmen. All commerce came to a halt and the town nearly became a ghost town. This port of entry opened back up in April of 2013. There is no bridge, only small boats, carry travelers back and forth. The area is desolate and travelers are scarce, but since the reopening of the crossing a small amount of life has been pumped back into Mexico’s side. When crossing into the U.S., no border agent is present. A kiosk is stationed where travelers are to swipe their documents and talk via webcam to agents in El Paso.
Another unmonitored international bridge was shut down beforehand in 1997. The crossing, referred to as La Linda International Bridge, connected the small Mexican village of La Linda, Coahuila, with Ranch to Market Road 2627 in Texas. The crossing lies just to the northeast of Big Bend National Park. A mission and small village remains, but only ghosts occupy the buildings. The town was devastated when the crossing was shut down due to alleged drug trafficking.
The Big Bend area is the middle point between Ciudad Juárez and Ciudad Acuña. Juárez was recently a war-zone between the Carrillo-Fuentes Organization (Juarez Cartel) and the Sinaloa Cartel. Things have slowed since the Sinaloa became dominant in the plaza, yet the Juárez Cartel is still prevalent in the area. Acuña is currently run by the Zetas, but is seeing some pressure from both the Gulf and Sinaloa Cartel.
The only notable border city between the two areas is Ojinaga. Travel from Juárez to Ojinaga is much easier than travel from Acuña to Ojinaga. This in itself has made it easier for the Sinaloa Cartel to run the Ojinaga plaza. The city has remained mostly peaceful, since opposition is rare.
Despite the apparent peace, Ojinaga made global headlines when a local journalist, Jaime Gonzalez Dominguez, was gunned down at a taco stand. Gonzalez Dominguez was the director and founder of Ojinaga Noticias. The site rarely reported on crime, putting the motive for the murder in question. It has been alleged that the victim may have taken a photo of a cartel member and was attacked in retribution. Gonzalez Dominguez was shot at least 18 times with an assault rifle. The crime has not been solved.
Twelve years before the murder of Jaime Gonzalez Dominguez, another Ojinaga reporter was killed. Jose Luis Ortega Mata was a local journalist who was known for writing on organized crime and corruption. People of the city assumed he was killed for doing so. The crime has gone unsolved as well.
Cities slightly into the interior of the Mexican border often fuel the smaller border towns. In the case with the Big Bend area border towns, they seem to have been forgotten. When La Linda and Boquillas del Carmen crossings were shut down for years, they became a mere memory to larger cities in Mexico. People had no reason to travel the routes if there was no entry to the U.S. or money coming in from Texas. Roads diminished, goods stopped coming, and the towns became no more.
The crossing at Ojinaga fared much better. The crossing has never been threatened with closing. Highway 16 travels 230km from Chihuahua city to the border crossing at Ojinaga. Once into Texas your choices of nearby major cities are limited. Head northeast and you can reach Midland-Odessa in around four hours. Back to the northwest you can reach El Paso in about the same time. Heading away from the border, Fort Worth and Albuquerque are both about an eight hour drive.
A number of small villages and ranches near the Texas border show up on a Mexican atlas, but not on Google Maps. After further researching the towns such as Rancho Nuevo, San Rosendo, and El Abanico, it is clear only a handful of people at most live in them.
The Big Bend area is one of the three most desolate areas along the Mexico-U.S. border. Other comparable border areas are the boot of New Mexico and Southwest Arizona. All three present major difficulties for the U.S. government, yet the Arizona area is by far the most publicized.
The Southwest Arizona border is known to be controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel. The boot of New Mexico is used by both the Sinaloa Cartel and the Juarez Cartel. The western end of Big Bend is also used in operations by the Sinaloa Cartel and possibly still the Juarez Cartel, but as a whole is there a real owner?
The Zetas lie to the east and face pressure from the Gulf Cartel. With four major cartels operating in or nearby such a vast piece of border territory the area could be prime real estate for a free-for-all war. If this was to ever happen, which it probably wouldn’t, would Mexico bother stopping it?
Out of nine U.S. Border Patrol sectors, Big Bend has the lowest apprehensions. The large sector also has the lowest amount of Border Patrol agents. Despite having the lowest number of agents and apprehensions, the Big Bend sector is the largest of the nine sectors. According to CBP.gov, the sector covers over 420 miles of river border. The next largest is the El Paso sector, which covers 268 miles of border.
While it is clear that the lower number of agents and apprehensions are because of the borders distance from any major Mexican cities, it also makes one wonder if the activity is just not seen. Ojinaga had an estimated 2010 population of 22,744 according to Mexico’s INEGI. No other notable towns are located on either side of the border. Have smugglers given up on the area, or are they simply passing through unnoticed. With no violence, does either side care to stop a “harmless” drug trafficker?
In 2010, Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson noted an increase in burglaries in the Big Bend area. He claimed two cartels were operating in the area and that he was highly undermanned to police such a large area. Despite the concern by law enforcement, many locals and visitors will claim you are just as likely to be attacked by a mountain lion than by a drug trafficker.
Despite low apprehensions, a large amount of drugs do pass through the Big Bend sector. Large busts occur from time to time. In March of 2013, 474 pounds of marijuana were seized from a trailer at the Presidio port of entry across from Ojinaga. The driver was from Chihuahua city, Chihuahua.
In May of 2013, 436 pounds of marijuana were seized from a pickup truck in a hidden compartment. Two United States citizens were arrested. Both were women, one from Odessa, TX, the other from Leadville, CO. In February, two New Mexico natives were arrested with 500 pounds of marijuana slightly north of the border.
Back in 1992, the New York Times wrote on the return of drug trafficking to the Big Bend area after the crack down of trafficking into Florida. According to the story, a 26 year old Dallas man and his 5 year old daughter were killed in 1991 while camping on the Rio Grande. Locals believe drug traffickers were to blame. Drug traffickers allegedly began to again utilize the area, as they did in the 1960’s and 1970’s, to move narcotics through the desolate border section.
Border Patrol in the area was eventually strengthened, but still has a low number for the amount of area it mans. Out of 151 recorded cases of Border Patrol corruption, none have occurred in the Big Bend/Marfa sector. According to a border corruption study, by the Center for Investigative Reporting, 47 cases have been recorded in other Texas border sectors.
According to the “2012 Stratfor areas of cartel influence map”, the Zetas occupy the entire state of Coahuila. At the border of Chihuahua, the map indicates the rest of the park area south of the border is “under dispute”. On the 2011 version of the map, both sides of the Mexican state lines are listed as “disputed territory”, putting the area further into question.
No notable violent incidents have been made public in recent years in the direct Big Bend National Park or Parque Nacional Ocampo. (In 2000 a murder occurred in Big Bend, no ties to organized crime or narcotics were suspected) The crimes in Ojinaga lie outside of the parks, but still in the Big Bend general region.
In late 2010, Reuters inaccurately reported that 18 bodies were found in mass graves near Big Bend. The report indicated the bodies were found in Palomas, Chihuahua, a small village just south of the Rio Grande. It turned out the incident occurred in Puerto Palomas, Chihuahua, which lies to the west of Juárez.
Digging for incidents and horrible stories may seem counter-productive, but when an area this large, this prime, and this susceptible is so quiet, it makes one wonder. Is there a huge secret in this park we are missing, or is it just too far and too desolate to even bother? Narcotics are clearly being moved through the region, it would seem ignorant not to have boots and eyes on the operation from a criminal standpoint.
The parks seem to be completely peaceful. The border appears to be extremely calm. With little violence, low apprehensions, and frankly no AK-47 henchmen patrolling the areas, maybe there is no point in taking time to wonder. Maybe this section of the border simply remains untouched by the atrocities that typically come with illegal narcotics and the drug war that is pitted against them.