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Stretch of Mexico Border Unguarded

March 20, 2002

QUILLAS DEL CARMEN, Mexico (AP) _ Along this lonesome stretch of the Rio Grande, there are no fortified U.S. Customs stations, no razor wire, no towering fences.

The only person at the river’s edge is Victor Valdez, a 50-year-old Mexican farmer with a metal dinghy and a pair of plastic oars. He shuttles Mexican shoppers and American tourists back and forth between the two nations for $2.

Despite increased concerns about security after Sept. 11, no border guards check passports or search bags. There are no officials at all _ only a gaggle of cowboys on the Mexican side waiting to rent burros and ponies for the ride into Boquillas, less than a mile down a rocky road.

Valdez sees no reason for concern.

``Rest assured, if a terrorist ever came here, I would tell the United States right away,″ he said, waving to a couple emerging from a dirt parking lot on the U.S. side.

During a visit to Mexico this month to negotiate a border security accord, the U.S. homeland security director, Tom Ridge, said no plan will be perfect. He noted that illegal migrants and drug smugglers regularly slip into the United States across remote desert stretches of the 2,000-mile-long border.

President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox are expected to continue talks on the border accord when they meet Thursday and Friday in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey.

As Mexican and U.S. officials study ways to secure the border against terrorists, Boquillas del Carmen is one of many areas still wide open. Several similar unofficial crossings operate along the 245 miles of border sandwiched between Big Bend National Park in Texas and the sparsely populated Mexican states of Chihuahua and Coahuila.

For years, people here have been floating back and forth between the two nations, largely unnoticed. Such crossings are illegal but quietly accepted _ and even promoted by signs in the National Park Service as an ``international adventure.″ The nearest official crossing is more than 100 miles away at Presidio, Texas.

``The border is porous,″ said Simon Garza Jr., chief U.S. Border Patrol agent in the area. ``We just don’t have enough manpower to cover it.″

About 200 agents cover 135,000 square miles. People and cars can easily cross at hundreds of spots along the drought-depleted Rio Grande, Garza said. To best manage limited resources, Garza’s agents operate 24-hour checkpoints along highways leading out of Big Bend. Agents sometimes fly over the area, and a dozen rangers patrol the park.

There is no evidence terrorists have staged attacks against the United States from Mexico, and no suspicious people have been seen along this stretch. Many say the area, where even few migrants attempt to cross, is too remote for terrorists.

``We all know who comes and goes,″ said Joe Sanchez, who owns Boquillas’ only hotel, the Buzzard’s Roost Bed & Breakfast. ``We can see the dust kicking up in the distance and we watch to see who it is.″

Surrounded by miles of endless desert and craggy mountain peaks, the village is one of a few dusty outposts along this stretch _ most just a cluster of adobe homes and a couple of cantinas.

On the U.S. side is mostly park land _ 1,250 square miles of cactus-covered terrain where temperatures reach 120 degrees in summer.

With the closest Mexican city about five hours away, Boquillas’ residents shop at a campground convenience store on the U.S. side, a few miles from the border.

``We wouldn’t be able to survive without this,″ Valdez said, smothering his bologna sandwich with Pace Picante hot sauce. ``We cross the Rio Grande for gas, ice, meat, anything that requires refrigeration since there isn’t any here.″

On a recent afternoon, a Mexican boy yelled in Spanish at Valdez’s oncoming boat: ``Mom did you get Cheetos?″

Boquillas’ ties to the United States date to the 1880s when an aerial tramway linked the two countries, carrying lead, zinc and silver ores from mines on the Mexican side.

Today the village of 150 people depends on the steady trickle of American tourists, who buy crystals and rocks from elderly women or handmade necklaces from children. Many visitors bring donated clothes and school supplies.

``The United States helps us more than our own government,″ Valdez said.

For now, this section of the border will continue to manage in its own way. The 1,500 National Guard soldiers being deployed to the border this month are going to official ports of entry.

A few years ago, the Boquillas crossing was briefly closed after money disappeared from a campground fee box. Days later, the village came up with $400 to replace it.

``We’re a family here,″ Valdez said. ``If one of us is sick or something happens to a tourist, we get someone to run to the United States for help.″

Matt Blair, 29, a Houston teacher who has brought his students to Boquillas for seven years, said he hopes it never changes.

``If they close the border it would be a disappointment,″ said Blair, munching on a burrito after riding Valdez’s boat to Mexico. ``This is too much fun.″

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