REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK: Michelle Garcia on reporting from the border

"How the Texas highways of my childhood have become a battleground."

Michelle Garcia and her pickup truck in Texas
Courtesy Michelle Garcia

SAN ANTONIO, Texas —The car with the halogen headlights has been tailing me across the network of highways in San Antonio for the last 30 minutes. Whoever is at the wheel must be a cop. Because even here, in the northern reaches of the borderlands, one learns that somewhere, someone is always watching, following, asking questions.

The lights appear in my rearview mirror as I enter the city from the south side. My speedometer checks out. No matter — any slight error will justify a stop, and I prepare my defense. It's just past dusk and all I can make out is a rectangular face and the glaring lights.

I couldn't tell you the exact moment I began to feel like a criminal on the Texas highways of my childhood. It may have been when state troopers pursued me with some sort of handheld scanner aimed at my license plate. Local cops have often tailed me for a mile or so before speeding off. At border crossings, my New York State driver's license coupled with the explanation that I ventured into one of the most dangerous parts of Mexico because I'm a journalist working on a story inevitably sounds alarms and I'm sent to a secondary inspection, where customs inspectors disappear with my pickup truck. A few sources have explained that I fit the profile of a drug mule — single female driving an old pickup truck.

Several years back, I was on my way to visit my father in the hospital when I spotted two agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection on a highway crossover nearly a hundred miles north of the actual border. It's a common sight: lawmen in their patrol cars on those crossovers, blocking the way. I glanced at them and, soon enough, one was riding alongside me while the other followed closely behind until I eased onto the shoulder. One tried to open the passenger door, and I rolled down the window and began shouting. "What right do you have?!"

"Probable cause, probable cause," one of them, a burly man who I suspect only recently began donning the uniform, interrupted. "Are you carrying aliens?" They both peered inside the cabin window

The strong arm of the law is nothing new in this part of the country. A century ago, Texas Rangers raged across the borderlands on the hunt for rabble-rousers and revolutionaries. Folk songs memorialize what the history books omit — widespread land grabbing and the mysterious deaths of Mexican-Americans in the name of taming the frontier. Deference to authority is the legacy of this history — "yes, sir," "no, sir."

Suspicion has a way of working its tentacles into the mind, imbuing everyday pleasantries with caution — especially if the seed is planted by someone in uniform.

The South Texas borderlands is the perfect site for a close-up look at the everyday experiences of what people in the North call "border security." But a month before I arrived there to report "Living under the law of border security" I encountered "border security" aboard a San Diego trolley car.

I had befriended a Mexican woman in her 20s outside the airport who was also hauling heavy suitcases toward the border. While we waited for a trolley to arrive, the "trolley police" came around on the platform and asked if we needed some help. Where are you coming from? he asked nonchalantly. Where are you headed? I deflected his questions and asked him a few in return. The son of New York Italian immigrants who moved west, he said he would soon trade the trolley uniform for a Border Patrol badge. He was already hooked on the Border Patrol pre-training with its study of the lingo of Mexican organized-crime groups, or "cartels," the coded behavior of drug mules and money runners. My eyes locked on to his. "Are you practicing what you’re learning right now with me?" Authority is a shoe he had yet to grow into and he backed away, hopping off the trolley.

I turned toward my travel companion and wondered: could she be running money back? Was she working a game? I ditched her before we crossed the pedestrian bridge into Tijuana. Suspicion has a way of working its tentacles into the mind, imbuing everyday pleasantries with caution —  especially if the seed is planted by someone in uniform.

A few weeks later, a customs inspector stopped me on the bridge that connects Ciudad Juárez, to El Paso, Texas. He asked to check my ID and search my overnight bag and the computer bag strapped to my back. He was looking for money and weapons going into Mexico, he explained, as tractor trailers sped across the border. How many weapons could I possibly carry on my back? I asked him. Those trucks were the ones hauling weapons and guns, I told him. But he ignored me. 

Flowers and a stuffed animal sit on the corner of Western Rd. and Mile 7 in Citrus City, Texas, in remembrance for two parents and four of their children who were killed when a suspect collided with their van during a chase involving the Texas Department of Public Safety
Nathan Lambrecht/The Monitor/AP


"The red pickup truck tears down the country road, mesquite trees and untamed brush all around. It bears a heavy load in the back, which officials later said provoked Texas game wardens to suspect drugs and give chase. Within minutes, a helicopter carrying state troopers — including a sharpshooter — joins the pursuit."

Read more here.

These moments swirl around my mind as I drive through San Antonio. I ponder the motivations for the pursuit. He thinks I'm a mule, drugs, for sure. I spot my exit onto I-10, four lanes away, and I glide over. He glides. And I miss it. My next shot is up ahead past the iconic Tower of the Americas. I make a sharp exit to the left followed by a few maneuvers and I'm back on my way. The grimacing face follows, not too close but within the frame of my mirrors.

I have nearly cleared the entire city, some 30 miles from the south side to the northwest corner. It's time to come up with a strategy. I exit and travel on the access road, the lights following behind. I dial a friend, a federal agent working on the border. He doesn't pick up.

Then I dial 911, explain the situation and ask the operator to dispatch a patrol car to a nearby supermarket. If this is some random law-enforcement operation, I'll soon find out. But when I arrive in the parking lot, I don't see a patrol car, and  redial 911. I approach a stop sign and glance in the rearview mirror. The silver-colored car carries three men. One wears a baseball cap. When I look up again they're gone. And that is the first time it occurs to me that my pursuers might be anyone but the cops, that they may be in fact, bad guys.

I circle around the parking lot once more before a police officer arrives and I relay the details of the pursuit to her. My uncle lives in a secluded area north of the city, I explain, and I can't risk leading my pursuers there. Within minutes, another patrol car arrives and I repeat my story. Who do you think was following you? the second officer asks. "With all due respect," I reply, "I thought it was you, a cop."

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