In the first comprehensive history of the region, Jefferson Morgenthaler traces the history of La Junta de los Rios from the formation of the Mexico-Texas border in the mid-19th century to the 1997 ambush shooting of teenage goatherd Esquiel Hernandez by U.S. Marines performing drug interdiction in El Polvo, Texas.
Series: Jack and Doris Smothers Endowment in Texas History, Life, and Culture, Number Thirteen
Not quite the United States and not quite Mexico, La Junta de los Rios straddles the border between Texas and Chihuahua, occupying the basin formed by the conjunction of the Rio Grande and the Rio Conchos. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the Chihuahuan Desert, ranking in age and dignity with the Anasazi pueblos of New Mexico.
In the first comprehensive history of the region, Jefferson Morgenthaler traces the history of La Junta de los Rios from the formation of the Mexico-Texas border in the mid-19th century to the 1997 ambush shooting of teenage goatherd Esquiel Hernandez by U.S. Marines performing drug interdiction in El Polvo, Texas. "Though it is scores of miles from a major highway, I found natives, soldiers, rebels, bandidos, heroes, scoundrels, drug lords, scalp hunters, medal winners, and mystics," writes Morgenthaler. "I found love, tragedy, struggle, and stories that have never been told." In telling the turbulent history of this remote valley oasis, he examines the consequences of a national border running through a community older than the invisible line that divides it.
William P. Clements Prize, Best Non-Fiction Book on Southwestern America
- The Land
- La Junta
- Before 1830
- The Promised Land
- Anglos Arrive
- In Doniphan's Wake
- Jack Hays Gets Lost
- Whiting Draws the Line
- Scalp Hunting Redux
- A Sudden Death
- The End of Isolation
- Railroads and Ranches
- The Armies
- Skillman's Raiders
- The Rise and Fall of John Burgess
- The End of the Mescaleros
- Victor Ochoa
- Toribio Ortega's Rebellion
- Orozco and Huerta
- Pancho Villa
- Punitive Expeditions
- The Spencers
- Pablo Acosta
- Rick Thompson
- River and Border
- Gilbert Spencer
- An Afternoon with Enrique
Enrique Rede Madrid took them to the spot where his friend had bled to death. Prickly pears and ocotillos jutted from the loose, dry soil. Every footstep raised a puff of red dust. Standing exposed on the arid promontory, the reporters squinted across the river below, across the green fields on its flanks. They wondered whether people really lived in the weary adobe houses. They eyed the old border post, surrounded by splintered chairs, sun-baked bottles and scattered detritus of long neglect. They asked their questions, they learned what they wanted to know, then they climbed into their rental cars and left, sorting out details in their heads as they drove the long desert highways.
For five centuries there have been many reasons to come here, but few reasons to linger. Explorers, invaders, exploiters and enforcers have faded into history; ancient rhythms of life have endured. Rattlesnakes, javelinas and lynx still forage in the mezquital. Spindly ramadas lean into the midday sun, casting patches of shade across dusty plazas. People tend corn, squash and beans that struggle up from parched earth. Green swaths of alfalfa and cotton flourish where the river's waters have been trained to meander through the land. People work the fields, they pray and—gods permitting—they harvest.
The reporters came because this is where Clemente Bañuelos killed Junie Hernandez. You have already forgotten what they wrote about Junie's death—if you ever knew—even though it happened just a few years ago. That's understandable. Junie was nobody, and he lived in the middle of nowhere.
He lived in La junta de los Rios.
President George Herbert Walker Bush looked over the crowd assembled in the White House East Room. His Ivy League-inflected Texas twang carried through the room as he related a story about Vincent Van Gogh volunteering to help victims of a mining disaster in a small Belgian town. He paused briefly, presidentially, then introduced a St. Louis teenager who fought to protect his neighborhood against crime and drugs, and a couple from Washington, D. C., who established an academy to tutor disadvantaged kids. These were some of President Bush's Thousand Points of Light, and he had invited nineteen of them to the White House on that April day in 1990.
The Thousand Points of Light were a characteristic Bush mix of patrician altruism and corny populism. It was a way to reach out to the commoner, to connect with the electorate. Volunteerism is people helping people, not government helping people—a theme that foreshadowed the compassionate conservatism of the second Bush White House.
One of the nineteen points of light honored that day was Lucia Rede Madrid, a frail white-haired woman in a wheelchair. President Bush gave Mrs. Madrid two medals. The first was the President's Volunteer Action Award, designating her as one of the Thousand Points of Light. The other was the Ronald Reagan Award for Volunteer Excellence, a special recognition of the individual whose contribution is greatest among the Volunteer Action Award winners. The brightest point of light.
Mrs. Madrid's grandparents were among the five founding families of an unattractive village called Redford, Texas. Their eleventh child, Maria Antonia Luján, was born in 1878. She became a schoolteacher but gave up the occupation when she married handsome Eusebio Rede. Eusebio took up farming in Redford and Maria Antonia became the local postmistress. Lucia Rede was their daughter. After graduating from college in Alpine, Texas, Lucia married Enrique Madrid, who worked as a diesel mechanic at a nearby silver mine. A few years later Enrique put down his wrench in favor of running the Madrid family's grocery store in Redford.
Located near the Rio Grande, about a half-mile above the El Polvo river crossing, Redford is named for the red rocks in the hills on either side of the valley. Polvo is the Spanish word for dust.
The oldest structures in the vicinity are down in El Polvo, on a mesilla above the river. The ruins of an adobe cavalry fort slowly dissolve in the infrequent rains. A stone watering trough crumbles next to the abandoned shell of a bandido-era border post. A dirt road leads down to a few houses at the crossing. Some yards boast colorful flowers; others harbor disabled automobiles.
Redford is up the hill, by the farm-to-market road. Redford is barely a village. It has a small church and an elementary school. The front yard of the schoolhouse is paved, and there are basketball hoops at either end. A flagpole is planted at center court. An ancient flat-tired road grader rusts from yellow to brown along the side of the road.
Redford claims one hundred inhabitants. Maybe that's true. Maybe on a winter day when the crops don't need tending and a battered school bus has collected children into the cement-block school. Maybe then, maybe if you counted the people who live in El Polvo, too. Most days, though, you would be hard-pressed to spot a half-dozen people among the scattered mobile homes and adobe houses.
Lucia Rede Madrid was a schoolteacher like her mother. She spent decades working with kids from El Polvo, Redford and the surrounding ranches and farms, and she witnessed her students' disadvantages. Many local families were too poor to afford schoolbooks. County funds were so scarce that the elementary school couldn't maintain a proper library.
In 1979 Mrs. Madrid began collecting a few books for her students. She kept them in her home, where kids could come by to read, study and learn. Over the years her fledgling library grew. Mrs. Madrid knew how to gather donations and how to harness the charity of others. The books crowded her home, then overflowed into her husband's store. By the mid-1980s she had collected over 20,000 volumes.
There is a picture of Mrs. Madrid in her library at about the time that she received presidential recognition. She is sitting at a rectangular wooden table next to a boy of about ten and a girl of perhaps twelve. Mrs. Madrid is showing a book to the young boy while the girl reads. There are books on shelves, books on tables, books stacked on the floor. The boy sitting with Mrs. Madrid is Esequiel Hernandez Jr. His family called him Junie; he would be killed by Clemente Bañuelos in a few years. The young girl is his sister, who would grieve.
Enrique Rede Madrid, the man who showed reporters where Junie died, is the son of Enrique Madrid and Lucia Rede Madrid. He is an anthropologist and a steward of the Texas Historical Commission. College students come to tiny, desolate Redford just to meet Enrique. They come from expensive private liberal arts schools. They sit with him and learn about desert prehistory and traditional native foodways. He shows them how to harvest and eat sotol, lechuguilla and other desert plants, and he teaches them the fine points of slaughtering and butchering goats. Cabrito—young goat—grilled over a wood fire is a West Texas delicacy. Goat's milk is nutritious and can be used to make traditional Mexican white cheeses such as queso fresco and queso asadero.
People have lived down the road at El Polvo for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Before it was El Polvo it was called Tapacolmes, and before that it was home to families that survived using the skills that Enrique Madrid now teaches. People lived in the place then for the same reasons that they do now—there are some lands along the river that are moist enough to be farmed, and there are shallows in the river where people can cross to the other side.
People like the Madrids, Valenzuelas, Hernandezes, Acevedos, Cataños and Evaros have lived here for generations, doing the best they can with the meager opportunities afforded them. They grow corn and cantaloupe and onions in their fields, and they raise goats that graze in the scrub. People come from the other side of the river to buy a half-gallon of milk or to mail a letter.
By twenty-first-century standards, this isn't enough of a community to support life. If it weren't for the family of families that stretches up and down both sides of the river, El Polvo and Redford would have been abandoned long ago. When children reach high school age, they take the bus to Presidio High School, sixteen miles up the road. For a night out at a restaurant or a cantina, families go into Ojinaga, across the river from Presidio.
La Junta de los Rios embraces an extended network of friends, family, partners and acquaintances on both sides of the Rio Grande. They are here because of the river, and they do not make distinctions among themselves on the basis of upstream or down, left bank or right. It is all La Junta. According to Lucia Madrid, "Anglos have tried to divide it, for a different country, but no.... the Rio Grande has never, never divided the people."
The river binds La Junta. Denise Chávez, one of Lucia Madrid's daughters, says, "The river is a unifier to me in my heart and in my spirit because it is the primal source of life. It gives hope, nurture and sustenance, and so to me, La Junta de los Rios, when you talk about it, it seems to be a specific thing, but really it is a universal pipeline, the artery of life."
Denise's brother, the remarkable Enrique Madrid, is somewhat less poetic: "The river is a minor inconvenience, something that will get your feet wet when you're doing your daily business."
Unofficial border crossings like the one at El Polvo are a normal and accepted part of life in La Junta. People load their pickups with furniture, lumber, goats or beer and drive across the shallows. Families graze livestock on one side and raise vegetables on the other. The porosity of the border and the similarities of life on both sides make it difficult to maintain a mental distinction between the United States and Mexico. Denise Chávez recognizes the abstraction: "There's Mexico on one side, there's the United States on the other, and sometimes you're a citizen of both and yet by being both you're neither—you're something else."
People in more populated places have a hard time understanding how things work along this stretch of the Rio Grande. They expect a border, and they don't expect unsupervised crossings. They believe that the United States should seal its perimeter. Politicians visualize a firm, bright barrier along the Rio Grande and consider it a place where some of the problems of Detroit and St. Louis can be nipped in the bud. "The border program is an absolute joke," said one Ohio congressman. "Our border is wide open. There's heroin and cocaine on every street corner, and it's easier to get than aspirin."
Heroin and cocaine are not evident on every street corner in Bedford. There are no street corners in El Polvo. Statistically, more than 85 percent of all illegal drugs enter the United States not through neglected low-water fords but through official ports of entry such as El Paso and San Diego. That is because the high volume of traffic at official checkpoints permits searches of only a small percentage of vehicles and because the trucking industry opposes delays from stricter enforcement. The best place for big-league smuggling is an international bridge swarming with customs agents.
Admittedly, though, marijuana does come across the border at El Polvo, just as it does all along the West Texas border. And there are doubtless some marijuana traffickers in El Polvo or Redford, just as there are in every border town. Marijuana smuggling can be more profitable than herding goats, but it doesn't seem to be attracting a crowd to Redford. An article in the Denver Post called Redford a drug capital. When Enrique Madrid saw that, he laughed, saying, "We're a little town of one hundred people. We're not the capital of anything."
Caught in a magnanimous mood, the chief United States Border Patrol agent once called the people of Redford "salt of the earth, hardworking people with good values," noting that "they have been there for generations." The task of the Border Patrol is to distinguish the troublesome few from the respectable many, and the local populace is generally content to leave that challenge to the government. In the opinion of Redford storekeeper Rosendo Evaro, "Drug smugglers never caused any trouble. They go on with their business and we go on with ours." Life is difficult enough in La Junta without looking for problems.
One February day in 1997 Junie Hernandez herded forty goats through the brushy arroyos between El Polvo and the river. He was eighteen, the sixth of eight children, a high school sophomore given to wearing Western shirts and a white cowboy hat. Junie was a skinny teenager with a trace of a moustache who didn't smoke, drink or do drugs. He wasn't college material; he kept a United States Marines recruiting poster on his bedroom wall.
Like most people who grew up around El Polvo, Junie was comfortable on a horse and comfortable with a varmint gun. When he took the goats out of their pen to graze, he usually toted an ancient .22-caliber rifle that had belonged to his grandfather. A .22 is a plinker that uses little rim-fired shells less than a quarter-inch in diameter. Good for shooting squirrels, but there aren't many squirrels in El Polvo. There are rattlesnakes and compact peccaries called javelinas—a .22 is enough to deal with those, and it's enough to scare off a coyote. Mostly, though, a .22 is good for killing time while your goats forage, good for popping a few tin cans or for trying to snip a twig off a tree.
Without meaning to offend urban sensibilities, it should be noted that a varmint rifle is also an accepted distant early warning device in West Texas. People who go onto land that isn't theirs do so at the risk of hearing a couple of small-caliber rounds zing by them. It is a good idea to respect private property along the border. Of late, this traditional means of instilling territorial discipline has fallen into disfavor—not because of any risk to the targets, but because certain classes of trespassers (particularly those who smuggle people and controlled substances) have taken to arming themselves heavily. A friendly reminder from a rancher's .22 bolt-action carbine might be met with a rejoinder from a distinctly more urban 9 mm Glock semiautomatic pistol.
Junie was a young member of the old school, and when he heard noises in the brush on that February evening he figured it was someone or something that didn't belong there. He popped off two or three rounds from his old rifle—just enough to keep folks honest. A few minutes later Junie saw a Border Patrol vehicle drive slowly up the dirt road from the crossing, and he knew that he had committed an error in judgment.
The Border Patrol agents were almost to Redford when a beat-up pickup truck pulled up behind them and flashed its headlights in the descending darkness. They stopped. Junie hopped out of the old rig and ran up to their vehicle. "I'm sorry that I was shooting," he said. "I thought someone was doing something to my goats. I didn't know that you were back there."
Agents Johnny Urias and James DeMatteo had heard the gunshots, but hadn't felt any physical risk. They figured no harm, no foul. Agent Urias remembers telling Junie, "Use more discretion when shooting your weapon, especially at night."
Not "Assume the position," or "Holy Mother, you coulda killed me," or even "Don't be firing a rifle around here." Just "Use more discretion with your weapon, son." That's how it is in La Junta.
Three months later Junie stepped down from the school bus around four in the afternoon and walked down the dirt road to his family's homestead. He spent some time studying for his driving test and helped his father unload hay for the livestock. Then, as he did most evenings, Junie herded the goats out into the scrub to graze. He took his granddad's old .22 and headed along the dirt road toward the dilapidated shack where the army watched for bandidos during the Mexican Revolutions. The goats wandered through the sparse vegetation, bleating intermittently as they tugged at the dry browse.
A covey of Gambel's quail scurried across the dirt track, their silly topknots bouncing, their frantic twig-legs moving too fast to see. The afternoon sun warmed the windy day.
Raising his rifle, Junie plinked at something in the brush over toward the river, then resumed ambling behind the goats. Junie didn't know it, but he had repeated the mistake that he had made with the Border Patrolmen. There were people in that direction. Like the Border Patrolmen, they said nothing.
Junie circled behind the old border post and approached the square stone trough. He looked across the road and uphill, to his left. Was that something rustling around in the mesquite? Junie raised his rifle, but he never got a chance to fire.
From the other direction, 130 yards to Junie's right, Corporal Clemente Manuel Bañuelos, United States Marines, fired a single high-velocity 5.56 mm round from his M-16. Like the three other marines who had been invisibly trailing Junie—including Lance Corporal James M. Blood, who was in the general direction of Junie's aim—Bañuelos was wearing full guille-suit camouflage, and he was an expert marksman. The bullet entered under Junie's right arm, lifted him off his feet and blew him backward into the stone trough. Blood poured from Junie's wound.
There are reasons and explanations, far too many of both. The shooting was investigated four times and it was reviewed by three grand juries. It came down to this. A decent young man was tending his sheep and doing what people do every day in La Junta. Four camouflaged, heavily armed, misinformed United States Marines were in a place where they shouldn't have been, badly executing a secret and ill-advised mission. They were supposed to be watching for drug smugglers, not goatherds. They were not supposed to arrest anyone or even reveal their presence, much less shoot citizens, but they were authorized by their rules of engagement to defend themselves, which is what Corporal Bañuelos said his squad was doing when they stalked, flanked and killed Junie.
Diana Valenzuela, wife of goat cheese promoter Jesus Valenzuela, asked the most poignant question: "What are these 'rules of engagement'? We had no idea we were being engaged in the first place."
Enrique Madrid, the anthropologist and cultural resource of Bedford, said, "I'm telling you, the only way they could have botched this up more was if they shot Mother Teresa. If there was one truly innocent man on the border, it was this young man." Later, holding his mother's two presidential medals in his hands, Enrique reminisced about how she had taught Junie in school, and remarked on the irony of what the federal government had brought her: "two presidential medals and an M-16 bullet in a kid's chest."
Enrique Madrid and his wife, Ruby, along with the Reverend Mel La Follette, Jesus and Diana Valenzuela and Junie's sister Belen Hernandez, went to Washington, D. C., to visit with lawmakers. They asked for an end to armed military patrols on the border. They asked that the task force that killed Junie—called JTF6—be disbanded. After meeting with the citizens' committee, one solon said, "Of course I grieve with the family, but you know what they want in Redford? They don't even want the Border Patrol there—I don't agree with that."
Junie's death spurred debates about militarization of the border and the use of federal troops on United States soil. It spawned arguments over drug policy and immigration and criminal responsibility. It prompted a withdrawal of armed soldiers from border duty. On the first anniversary of Junie's death Amnesty International issued a report accusing the United States Border Patrol of brutality.
The Marine Corps never admitted any wrongdoing in the shooting, but it did pay almost $2 million to Junie's parents. Esequiel Hernandez Sr. used some of the money to buy a plot of land across the river for his goats. He still lives in El Polvo, but can't countenance grazing the flock where his son died.
After Junie's funeral a crude wooden cross marked his grave. His name was misspelled. Some of the money from the United States Marines went to buy a handsome new granite headstone for Junie. Behind it stands a modest white cross adorned with yellow plastic flowers. Junie's bandana is neatly folded at the base of the granite marker. His bolo tie hangs over the arms of the cross.
The reporters are gone. Dust devils swirl outside the Hernandez home. Burros find shade under acacia trees and stand motionless in the desert heat. No one watches Junie's father drive his pickup across the river to his goat pen.
“No other history of the area has approached the broad interpretation of this book as it weaves this intensive study of La Junta so closely into the international trends and events taking place in Texas, Mexico, and the United States. . . . The writing is witty, bold and enticing.”
Andres Tijerina, author of Tejano Empire: Life on the South Texas Ranchos