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BOOKS IN THE MIRROR: Riding Along with the Border Patrol: PATROLLING CHAOS

For any journalist who covers the U.S.-Mexico border for any length of time, a ride-along with the U.S. Border Patrol is an almost mandatory part of the curriculum.

Most writers spend a few nocturnal hours with an agent, selected for his press savvy and experience, chatting about narcos, floaters and “OTMs” (Other Than Mexicans) while bumping along riverside roads.

On a good night, the basic drill might include rounding up a clutch of weary undocumented immigrants in the thickets of carrizo cane. When he signed up, Robert Lee Maril, author of Patrolling Chaos: The U.S. Border Patrol in Deep South Texas, took it a few steps further. Beginning in 2001, he rode about 60 10-hour shifts with agents based in McAllen, Texas.

The idea, as Maril puts it, was to paint a profile of the agency responsible for protecting the United States’ borders through the everyday experiences of the men and women wearing those dark green uniforms.

Maril drank coffee with the agents at their special restaurant tables and beer with them at their private after-hours gathering spots. He accompanied them to court to testify and shared mosquito spray in the riverside gloom.

And along the way he encountered quite a lot of interesting stuff, and had a great time writing about it. Consider the following snippet.

“There is an elusive carnival of humanity along the banks of the Rio Grande in Deep South Texas: bailouts, fresh tube, Waylon and Willie, M&Ms armed with .50-caliber machine guns, river divers, federales, Benny el Elfantino, gotaways and turnbacks, cannibals, Grupo Betas, and Nature Boy,” he writes, using Border Patrol lingo for some of the improbable characters.

And as entertaining as it is to read about the likes of “The Fat Man,” a beer-drinking entrepreneur whose franchise is crossing undocumented immigrants at Anzalduas Park, upriver from Brownsville, the book’s aim is to critique the agency from the inside out.

And the report card that Maril, a sociology professor at East Carolina University, hands out after two years of study is decidedly mixed. Individual agents mostly get As and Bs, with only a few falling short.

However, the paramilitary organization and its managers don’t fare as well. Despite the regular press releases and gaudy statistics, Maril concludes that the Border Patrol is failing its mandate.

“Managers at the McAllen Station acted as if the War on Drugs and an undeclared War on Human Smugglers were winnable wars,” he writes.

“Yet they lacked a comprehensive understanding of the rudimentary operations of organized drug and alien smuggling, were committed to an ineffective strategy that demoralized agents, and were somewhat burdened by convoluted manipulations of their own in-house statistics. Agents in the field realized that both wars were over, and the Border Patrol had lost.”

Not just a critic, Maril offers a chapter full of reforms and recommendations. Many ring true, but whether they are worthy or will be implemented remains to be seen. At least they are on the table.

Maril has done a great service in delivering a very readable book about what really goes on at America’s most porous border. Anyone who lives in the region or has more than a passing interest in national security will find it enlightening.

Also, if you read the book, you’ll learn who all those bizarre characters were in what Maril aptly calls the Rio Grande’s “carnival of humanity.”John MacCormack covers border issues for the San Antonio Express-News.

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