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American Coyotes

Border agents only authorities in some areas of west Texas

| Sunday, July 19, 2015, 12:11 p.m.
Much of rural west Texas remains uninhabited.
Justin Merriman | Trib Total Media
Much of rural west Texas remains uninhabited.

LANGTRY, Texas – When fabled hanging-judge Roy Bean held court in his saloon here 132 years ago, he declared himself the “Law West of the Pecos.”

Today, when it comes to security along the U.S.-Mexico border, there's a lot of law west of the Pecos — mostly U.S. Border Patrol.

There's just not many people in Langtry, population 14, or much of the rest of rural west Texas.

Portions of west Texas are witnessing population declines unseen since the Dust Bowl. Several factors contribute to that: technology making farmhands redundant; aging populations dying off with few births to replace them; and a lack of good jobs to anchor younger generations.

It's similar south of the border, where Mexicans call stretches of the Chihuahua Desert running toward the Pecos and Rio Grande rivers “despoblado” — unpopulated.

That population drop runs in stark contrast to the growth of Border Patrol since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Stations in West Texas, from Del Rio to El Paso, reported 5,844 agents on staff in October — more than doubled since 9/11.

Langtry doesn't have a police department, but there's a pretty constant Border Patrol presence. Though there to enforce federal anti-smuggling laws, they can intervene in certain serious situations.

A Tribune-Review investigations reporter watched one day as a border agent spent hours “sign cutting”: looking for crimps in the soap bush, breaks in the black willow, and footprints in the white caliche dirt leading toward a church truck with north Texas plates.

The truck was parked between a museum devoted to Judge Bean, a staple of western pulp novels and films, and the Wagon Wheel Café Store, pretty much the only place in Langtry that's regularly open, except for the post office.

Radios won't work where the road dips into Eagle Pass, so an agent has to drive up a cliff to contact his partner. The other agent is 15 miles away, dragging a set of tires covered in chains behind his truck to create dusty furrows that will betray the footsteps of undocumented immigrants who try to reach Highway 90 from the river.

Neither agent has anything to report.

In Rio Grande City and other southeastern Texas towns, many residents told a Trib investigations reporter that they are sick of so many police stationed to watch the border. But in Langtry and other tiny towns, citizens welcome the post-9/11 federal presence.

“You have to live here to understand it,” said lifetime resident Sharon Cash, 72. “It's not just people, but drugs. Everything moves through here.”

The good news for West Texans is that less seems to be moving through, at least when it comes to illegal immigrants.

In the fiscal year that ended shortly before the 9/11 attacks, Border Patrol sectors in El Paso, Big Bend, Laredo and Del Rio arrested a total of 395,536 undocumented immigrants, according to annual federal reports.

Last year, they detained 84,739.

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