RIO BRAVO, Texas (Border Report) — Rio Bravo Mayor Amanda Aguero has lived her entire 40 years in this tiny town of 4,700 outside of Laredo on the South Texas border overlooking Mexico.
Her kids play in the park by the Rio Grande and many families fish and enjoy holidays on the river.
She says she doesn’t want the state to build a multi-million-dollar border wall here, and that’s why she allowed the No Border Wall Coalition of Laredo to hold a town hall meeting at City Hall on Monday evening.
“Property values are going to go down. I think it’s unfair not only to the taxpayers but to our children because this is a forever wall,” Aguero told Border Report as she took us on a tour of the Rio Grande overlooking Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, just before the town hall meeting. “Having to have a wall on our river it’s going to feel like some sort of a jail.”
“Unfortunately, we find out through other sources that somebody wants to come and build a wall on our precious river,” she said. “This is a forever thing that is going to affect us dearly.”
Exactly where and when the state wall will be built still is unknown.
The Texas Facilities Commission — the state agency overseeing Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s new border wall — in January awarded a $224 million contract to Fisher Sand & Gravel Company for 9 miles to be built somewhere in Zapata and Webb counties.
Abbott is requesting $4.6 billion again this biennium from the Texas Legislature to fund border security, including the border wall.
The irony is that throughout the building of the federal border wall under the Trump administration, border wall opponents in Laredo and Webb and Zapata counties successfully lobbied to prevent the 30-foot steel wall from being built.
But now state officials say once enough borderland easement rights are acquired from private landowners, they will begin building in this area, like they are doing in the Rio Grande Valley in Starr and Cameron counties, further east.
It was standing room only as more than 50 locals packed a room on Monday night for two hours to hear about a new state contract to build 9 miles of state-funded border wall in Webb and Zapata Counties.
It’s a different, much quieter and slower world here in Rio Bravo, about 12 miles southeast of the bustling border city of Laredo.
Most Rio Bravo residents live below the poverty level in colonias.
Stray dogs roam wild and children play in the streets where everybody knows everybody.
There is but one stoplight leading into the town and only a few stop signs on a handful of roads.
All roads lead south to the river — which Mexicans call the Rio Bravo because of its size and fierce currents.
Many residents say they didn’t understand when they were approached and asked if they wanted checks of $18,000 to $30,000 to give up access to sections of their riverfront lands.
“Don’t sign anything. Call us. We have lawyers who can help for free,” Tricia Cortez, executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center, told the crowd in Spanish on Monday night.
Laredo City Councilwoman Melissa Cigarroa said the coalition wants residents to know they will lose access to riverfront lands forever if they accept the money and give the land to the state.
“The primary message was to not sign any documents presented by the state of Texas. The state of Texas is looking for a right of way, an easement, in order to build their ineffective and destructive border wall,” Cigarroa told Border Report after the meeting.
She has been a member of the coalition for years and was on the board of trustees of the Rio Grande International Study Center, a nonprofit that looks after the Rio Grande, which is the only source of drinking water for Laredo and most of South Texas.
“We want to make sure the residents know they have rights. They’re landowners. They have rights. The state of Texas cannot use eminent domain to grab any land and the residents need to know that,” Cigarroa said. “We’ve got rights to protect the water and to protect the land.”
Prior to the meeting, a Native American song was sung and drums were beat, which coalition members said was to ask spirits for protection to help them fight the border wall.
A conch shell was blown and the group turned to all four directions in a chant before entering the building. Afterward, the group held hands in a circle and prayed.
“The wall won’t protect us,” David Delgado, pastor of Rio Bravo Community Church, told them in Spanish.
“I want answers I want to know exactly where the fence will go,” he said in English.
“Whether we live here on the border, in McAllen, or Laredo, or Washington, D.C., we have rights,” said Ricky Garza, border policy counsel, with the Southern Border Communities Coalition.
Cortez reminded the crowd that the No Border Wall Coalition through river protests, marches and art managed to fend off the federal border wall for two years.
“They said over and over again this was a done deal, the money was there, but they under-estimated us,” Cortez said.
“It’s normal to feel like you can’t win, but it is possible. We did it,” she said to raucous applause.
Rio Bravo resident Sabin Palacios told the group the town should form a local No Border Wall committee.
“You all must understand. They must treat us with respect. If our town unites we can do anything,” Palacios said in Spanish.
“This is a race against time,” Cortez told them.
“If built, it will affect the environment, animals. And people will still tunnel under it and go over it, like in other parts,” Cigarroa said.
Mayor Aguero said instead of spending $25 million to build each mile of border wall, she believes the money should be put into adding personnel to help patrol the border. She says there is no police force in Rio Bravo, or in the neighboring town of El Cenizo.
A town hall meeting was held last week in El Cenizo, which had about 40 people attend. That town is even smaller, with no 7-Eleven or stop light, and a population of barely 3,000.
Elsa Hull, who lives in Zapata County, has block-walked both towns for the past two weeks with other coalition members. She says many families are confused by the paperwork thrust at them. And they are enticed by the money, which for many is more than they earn in an entire year.
“There are some high-pressure tactics and they are offering people a little bit of money, but it’s not going to be enough to purchase another home or another piece of property,” Hull told Border Report.
Hull said after battling the federal border wall they were “blindsided” by a new state-funded border wall.
“It’s very disheartening and frustrating and it makes you angry that you think that you get one little ground on one level and then you are just blindsided because now you have to start it up all over again at the state level wanting to do the same stupid, useless wasteful thing,” she said.
But Rio Bravo Fire Chief Juan Gonzalez says he wants a border wall.
Gonzalez and his wife live in El Cenizo, and both serve on the volunteer fire force. He says they have to respond to all calls since there is no police department, and only a Webb County constable or deputy who occasionally patrol the area.
“Every day there’s chases with Border Patrol and National Guard, the sheriff’s office,” Gonzalez said.
He said on Saturday, there were two drug-related arrests involving bails of marijuana that he says were brought on an ATV driven from the river through town. On Sunday night, he said there was a chase and a bailout involving migrants who were brought illegally across the river.
“If they put the wall between El Cenizo and Rio Bravo, the illegal drugs, illegal aliens would have to go north, which would be part of Laredo so they can take that problem away from us,” Gonzalez told Border Report.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com