City of Hidalgo, Texas—Othal E. Brand Jr. is a man in control, and as such, when drug cartels began exploiting the stretch of river at the water pump station he runs, he built a Border Patrol-friendly boat ramp, watchtower and helicopter pad to beef security there.
In the Rio Grande Valley, Brand wields more power than most—he’s the elected president of Hidalgo County Water Improvement District 3 and his father was mayor of McAllen, Texas, for 20 years—but to hear him tell it, his actions speak more to a layman protecting his property than a show of might for the sake of it.
“It bothers me when I hear, ‘It’s the federal government’s job’ [to secure the border],” said Brand, giving a tour of this riverfront pump facility from behind the wheel of his massive black Cadillac. “Or when people say, ‘Oh, that’s Border Patrol’s job.’ Nah. You live here. Citizens can help, too.”
Partly by Brand and the water district’s doing, this pumping facility might be the most secure section along the 1,896-mile Rio Grande.
Life on the River
The pump station of Water Improvement District 3, one of 26 water districts in the Rio Grande, isn’t exactly the center of the border crisis.
In fact, most of those who illegally enter the United States through the river here do not willingly give themselves up, as is often the case with unaccompanied children from Central America or mothers with children.
These are the types of immigrants who want to get away, crossing the river in Pontoons at the direction of smugglers who spy American activity atop trees from the Mexican side, and navigating the thick brush on the Texas shore.
But the business of this pump station near the city of Hidalgo is valuable, so its protection matters.
The pump station, located on the U.S. side of the river but on the Mexican side of an 18-foot-tall steel border fence, is the main provider of drinking water for the city of McAllen.
On the afternoon of July 15, SUVs from Border Patrol, Texas Department of Public Safety, and Texas Parks and Wildlife are parked on a perch overlooking the Rio Grande, keeping watch.
A Border Patrol watchtower stands tall above the river.
When two Border Patrol agents walk over to question Brand’s visitors, he firmly shoos them away, telling the green-uniformed men, “They are here with me.”
“I used to know most of those guys [Border Patrol] by name,” Brand said. “Now you’ve got guys here transferred from other states. Most of them are from everywhere but Texas.”
The manpower is strong at the pump station because of the $1.3 million-per-week surge in law enforcement operations ordered by Texas Gov. Rick Perry last month.
But also, resources are significant at the pump station because of the easy access to the river his district provided.
“My men built that boat ramp about three years ago after they were shot at,” Brand said. “It’s the only boat ramp on a 20-mile stretch of the river. We used to have traffic everyday. But our traffic here is zero right now. That’s because I’ve put up cameras which I give the Border Patrol access to. I’ve put in paths and roads; I’ve cleared a staging area for them; I have Wi-FI; I have backup power. At night, it’s lit like a Christmas tree out here. I’ve made our area friendly for law enforcement. It has absolutely stopped all the traffic.”
The workers who pump water here—Brand’s “men” as he calls them—need the protection.
In July 2011, workers at the pump station were shot at from the Mexico side of the river, a short swim away.
“Last year we found eight bodies in the river here,” Brand said. “Four of them had no heads. None of them drowned.”
Though the protections may seem excessive, Brand says he’s being pragmatic.
A helicopter pad near the river hasn’t been used yet, but Border Patrol could land here in a pinch if its agents or law enforcement were to be injured on the job.
Brand realizes not every place can be secured like his pump station and that no one solution can fix the border crisis.
Before Perry announced Monday he would activate up to 1,000 Texas National Guard troops to the border, Brand called for him to do so. Perry’s decision comes at a time when Border Patrol agents report a slowdown activity in the Rio Grande.
Border Patrol agents say the number of unaccompanied children in their custody fell from a high of more than 3,300 in June to around 700 last week.
But Brand says a slow week may not constitute a trend.
“Texas has almost half of the manpower of the other border states [New Mexico, California and Arizona] and the Rio Grande sector is the shortest distance to Central America,” Brand said. “I’m not comfortable. You stop the traffic, and the minute you leave and divert resources elsewhere, they come back.”
When Brand grew up on the Rio Grande, it wasn’t like this.
Brand, 61, has lived in McAllen since 1955 and he remembers when he used to play at the river, barbecuing and camping.
When drug violence exploded in the last decade, Brand says, he began to lose his sense of security.
Just like any ordinary neighbor can, its a feeling Brand believes he can control.
“This issue has brought us together—the farmers, the ranchers and the people on the river,” Brand said. “We’re like the Boy Scouts.”