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Friday, January 23, 2009

The Newly Fortified Ft. Hancock

(This is the first in a series of reports on the Texas-New Mexico-Chihuahua borderlands.) The river runs slow and shallow through the Chihuahuan desert as it flows 1200 miles from El Paso/Juárez to the Gulf of Mexico. Bearing two names, the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo forms the natural divide between the United States and Mexico. Now, another divide – a decidedly unnatural one – is marching west from El Paso, tearing through the farms and riparian zones that turn the desert green. The Department of Homeland Security’s border fence already marks most of the national boundary from San Diego to El Paso. But -- armed with federal waivers to bypass the opposition of borderland communities, farmers, and environmentalists -- DHS and its Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency have expedited the construction of an 18-ft. steel barrier along the Rio Grande. Ft. Hancock, an impoverished U.S. border town about 60 miles downriver from El Paso, is bustling lately from all the new attention to border security. The town’s center, such as it is, lies slightly east of the old U.S. Army’s frontier outpost, which in 1886 was named after Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, who was wounded in Gettysburg and later commanded the 5th Military Department in the Texas territory. But as the Indians were removed and the area settled by prospective farmers, the fort was abandoned and the town developed to serve the riverfront farmers, mostly Anglos, who depended – and still do – on Mexican farmworkers. Today, Ft. Hancock remains largely a town -- really only a "census designated place (CDP)" -- of white farmers and Mexican-American laborers.
Ft. Hancock is easy to locate on a Texas map because there is not much else around for scores of miles. But it might have proved difficult for Red (Morgan Freeman) in the 1994 film "The Shawshank Redemption" to get to, when, after leaving prison, he is told by his buddy Andy (Tim Robbins) to cross into Mexico at Ft. Hancock to hop a bus for the Mexican coast. (Wouldn't it have been easier to cross in El Paso and go to the bus terminal in Juárez?)
Until recently, Ft. Hancock was a close twin city of El Porvenir, a slightly larger Mexican town on the other side of the river. Today, the twins have grown apart as Ft. Hancock has again become fortified with a large contingent of 146 Border Patrol agents and with what the BP officers call “Tactical Infrastructure.” This TI (in BP jargon) includes a formidable fence that is now rising on either side of the port-of-entry bridge and the network of sensors deployed along the river. Reinforcing the town’s name, there is a newly fortified port-of-entry station and an adjoining a $19 million BP district headquarters building that is under construction.
On both sides of the river, longtime residents are alternately bemused and angry at the border security buildup.
(Next: Where's the Post Office in Ft. Hancock?)
Photos by Tom Barry: New Border Patrol headquarters and the fence under construction in Ft. Hancock.

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