EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — President Donald Trump wants to put a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Fencing already separates the sister cities of El Paso and Juarez, which remain fiercely connected despite the barrier.
Former Congressman and Border Patrol chief Silvestre Reyes said that before fences were built at the U.S.-Mexico border and agents were stationed along the border, he remembered people crossing from Mexico onto to the cargo train just yards from the border.
“The border bandits would jump on it,” Reyes said.
He said bandits would ransack the train within minutes rushing back to Mexico with as much as they could carry.
Reyes also remembers the day the bullets were flying as he tried to stop the bandits.
“I was focused on the people who were taking the merchandise, I was talking on the walkie talkie to my officers,” Reyes said. “Dirt was puffing up and it was bullets hitting the ground around me.”
He wasn’t wounded.
“Our officers used to contend with what we called Bonzai attacks,” Reyes recalled. “That was 100 or 200 people massing up right there by the ports of entry and rushing at the same time.”
Reyes said it was a time when people living near the border would become crime victims.
“They couldn’t leave stuff out like lawn chairs or garden hoses or anything of any value because it would be carted into Mexico,” he said.
An episode of Cops featuring the El Paso Border Patrol showed people rowing across the Rio Grande and waiting for agents to move on so they could make their way across.
Operation Hold the Line
In 1993, Reyes ordered a border blockade: the first of it’s kind. “Operation Hold the Line” put 400 agents every 100 yards along the border from the Ysleta Port of Entry to Sunland Park, New Mexico.
“Nationally, it changed the Border Patrol poster from chasing and arresting to being high profile,” Reyes said.
The blockade made agents more visible. It’s a change that lives on today almost a quarter-century later.
“The dynamic as a whole has changed a lot,” said Fidel Baca, a spokesman for the El Paso Sector of the Border Patrol.
Agents said that before the barrier, drug smugglers moved bags of drugs from Mexico to the U.S. within minutes along Paisano.
“Walk across the river, they get to an opening in the gate, open it up and walk across,” Baca said.
Those who got spotted could run or even drive through the border back into Mexico.
In more rural areas, some farmlands and businesses, people put up their own fences, often with barbed wire.
“You would have vehicles driving through because this was the only thing stopping them, filled with narcotics. Usually, a pickup truck was about a thousand pounds full of marijuana,” Baca said.
Victor Manjarrez became sector chief in 2007 when drug violence was climbing in El Paso’s sister city to the south, Juarez.
“It was right at the start of the Cartel wars in Juarez,” Manjarrez said. “We started looking at the concerns of spillover violence.”
Manjarrez also remembers people sprinting across the border from Juarez into downtown El Paso.
“You see the hustle and bustle of two metropolitan cities, right. Ciudad Juarez and El Paso,” Manjarrez said. “Without a barrier, it would literally take minutes for someone to take a mad dash to get across the border, mix into the stores, mix into the businesses and all of a sudden they’d vanish in plain sight.”
Barriers work in the right places
In 2008, Reyes was El Paso’s Congressman and Manjarrez was its Border Patrol chief. That’s the year steel fences started going up along the border.
Today, there are more than 180 miles of some type of border barrier in the El Paso sector.
“You need the infrastructure. You need the technology and you need the resources. All three of them is what makes us whole, makes us complete,” said Frank Pino, a spokesperson from El Paso Sector Border Patrol.
Both former chiefs think it’s important to have these resources in urban areas but don’t think walls or fences are needed throughout remote areas.
“I disagree in terms of a barrier. I think there is a barrier that is needed. But I disagree that a barrier is needed for almost 2,000 miles of border. Operationally, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Manjarrez said.
Reyes added, “There are better ways of doing it than putting up the president’s proposal. You can’t. In portions of the border, it doesn’t make sense to put up fencing because of the terrain or because of the isolation.”
Reyes said the border has changed a lot since the early 1990s.
“The better-managed border that we have today versus the chaos that I found when I was transferred here as a Chief,” Reyes said. He also said people have learned that they can’t cross anywhere they want. “We can’t really seal off a border. If we learned anything from the Berlin Wall was that you can’t fence people in or fence people out but you can manage it.”
He said using technology and manpower is the best border security to stop those who still attempt to cross.
“They can be observed by either drones, cameras, alerted by sensors, patrols are routinely working,” he said. “Anyone that says that this border is in crisis, doesn’t know what they are talking about or is trying to use that politically.”