Border securityFootpaths across the Rio Grande allow easy route into U.S.

Published 23 August 2010

There are footpaths across the Rio Grande which could easily facilitate movement of illegal immigrants and smugglers across the river without getting wet — but they are not called bridges, but rather “grade control structure”; they were built in the 1930s to stabilize and prevent a shift during high river flow; the local sheriff says that “a terrorist could pass here with weapons of mass destruction and be in the United States and up on the interstate and gone in a short time”

On each side of a towering stretch of the $2.4 billion border fence in West Texas, designed to block people from illegally entering the country, there are two metal footbridges, clear paths into the United States from Mexico.

The footpaths that easily could facilitate movement of illegal immigrants and smugglers across the Rio Grande without getting wet seem to be there because of what amounts to definitional issues. Alicia A. Caldwell writes in the Washington Times that just about anyone would call them bridges, but the U.S.-Mexico group that owns them calls them something else.

Technically speaking, it’s not a bridge, it’s a grade control structure,” said Sally Spener, spokeswoman for the International Boundary and Water Commission, which maintains the integrity of the 1,200-mile river border between the United States and Mexico. The structures under the spans help prevent the river— and therefore the international border — from shifting.

Spener said the river was straightened years ago to stabilize and prevent a shift during high river flow. Without the structures, which also help slow the flow of water in the river, she said, it could erode its banks, wash out the river bed and degrade natural habitats.

Caldwell notes that whatever they’re called, there are fresh sneaker tracks on the structures, indicating they are being used as passages into the country.

The realization that a section of the border fence is sandwiched between two footbridges comes at a time of heightened alarm along the U.S.-Mexico border as the drug war in northern Mexico continues unabated. President Obama ordered thousands of National Guard troops to the border.

The steel fencing that stretches along about 600 miles of border in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California was built under former President George W. Bush’s administration amid a national outcry for border security. The steel fencing appears in urban areas, while more rural areas have shorter, concrete vehicle barriers.

In a border tour with the Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office in March, AP journalists happened upon the bridge moments after a man with a bicycle used the bridge to cross the river from Mexico. The border crosser, who told authorities he was only trying to fish from the north side of the river, was promptly arrested.

If he can do it, so can drug cartels with loads of narcotics of any kind,” Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Lt. Robert Wilson said. “Even a terrorist could pass here with weapons of mass destruction and be in the United States and up on the interstate and gone in a short time.”

Caldwell writes that it is unclear how often the bridge is used, but it is common to see people on the Mexican side lingering around the crossing or others playing in the river in the area.

The bridges may have made sense decades ago when they were built, Lt. Wilson said, but times have changed, and the once-quiet area across the border from rural Hudspeth County has been enveloped in Mexico’s drug war.

Cartel fighters have overrun a series of small towns in the Valle de Juarez, about fifty miles east of Ciudad Juarez, ground zero in the drug war. Residents have been forced to flee north to Fort Hancock after cartel fighters burned down houses, tried to torch a local Catholic church, and threatened to kill anyone who stayed.

It made a lot of sense for flood control when the boundary commission built them,” Lt. Wilson said. “Now with the way things have progressed, it’s pretty silly there are no controls here.”

Cordero insists agents in the area pay close attention to the bridges and other areas easily crossed on foot or by car. He said there also are numerous underground sensors around the bridges that alert agents to area traffic.

The crossings are owned by both the United States and Mexico and are needed for workers to maintain and occasionally fix cement structures that support the bridge, Spener said. Any changes to the structures, she said, would have to be approved by officials in both countries, and no one has ever asked to secure the bridges or remove them, she said.

We would be happy to work with Border Patrol if they have security concerns they’ve identified,” Spener said. “It would be a challenge, but we’d be happy to discuss it.”