A few days before a late winter bass fishing tournament, a steady stream of anglers backed their motorboats into the chilly waters of Falcon Lake and zipped away in hopes of finding a lucky spot among the lake’s many inlets and islands.
The largemouth bass are almost always biting in this 154-square mile reservoir, the largest lake on the Rio Grande and in many ways the economic lifeblood of surrounding Zapata County.
Since it was created in 1953 with the construction of Falcon Dam, the bi-national lake has served as both a barrier and conduit between Mexico and Texas. But now that President Donald Trump is pushing for the construction of a wall or fence along the entire length of the border, some residents fear Falcon Lake could soon be surrounded by concrete.
As remote as it is, Zapata County, population 14,000, has not been sheltered from the violence of the drug war taking place on the Mexican side of Falcon Lake. An American jet skier was gunned down in 2010 — officials say the Zetas cartel was responsible. The county’s former sheriff was an early apostle of heightened border security, testifying before Congress in 2006 on the threat of spillover crime.
But for many in Zapata County — which gave Trump more support than neighboring counties along the heavily Democratic border — a wall is not the solution.
At Falcon Lake Tackle, which sells rods and reels as well as hunting rifles and handguns, co-owner Tom Bendele said he believes a wall or fence makes sense along some parts of the border. “I understand the idea of a wall, a pinch point, I get it,” he said. “But I’m not sure you could put a wall in or near a lake. It would either wall us in or wall us out. People think Trump’s crazy with this wall.”
Falcon Lake is just one section of the Texas border where a wall would appear unmanageable: a five-hour drive upriver sits the 100-square-mile Lake Amistad in Del Rio; further west lie the remote and environmentally sensitive parks of Big Bend.
A growing number of Texas Republicans have said it’s impractical to wall in the entire Texas-Mexico border. “There’s parts of our border which it makes absolutely no sense,” said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in a recent TV interview. And while Department of Homeland Security boss John Kelly has called for a “layered” approach to border security involving walls, manpower and technology, an internal agency report calls for sealing the remaining 1,200 miles of unfortified border, most of which is in Texas, with a wall or fence.
Falcon Lake is not included in plans for the first stage of wall construction, which targets areas in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley, as well as San Diego and El Centro in California.
Asked if any decision had been made about the Falcon Lake area, U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Carlos Diaz said “it would be very premature to speak about specific locations at this point.”
‘We won’t allow it’
Since he retired as a teacher several years ago, Abel Garza has spent nearly every day fishing along the edges of Falcon Lake. He lives in a house overlooking the county boat ramp in one of several subdivisions, RV parks and retirement communities that hug the shores of the lake.
Falcon Lake holds a cherished spot in bass fishing circles. As recently as 2012, bassmaster magazine ranked it the nation’s top bass fishing lake; last year, it ranked 9th. The lake regularly hosts high stakes tournaments that attract some of the best anglers in the country.
“If a wall were built and we would somehow lose access to the lake, it would decimate our economy,” said Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell. “I don’t think it’s feasible or practical to build a wall here.”
Largely thanks to Falcon Lake, visitors spent $15 million in Zapata County in 2015, up from $9 million in 2000. The leisure and hospitality industry employs hundreds of local residents, a significant number in the small county.
On a recent afternoon, Garza pulled a two-foot-long bass from the lake he planned to have for lunch. “I told my wife, ‘I’m going to retire and go fishing every day,’” he said. “The good thing is my wife loves seafood.”
But Garza’s mood darkened when the topic of the border wall came up.
“Where are they gonna put it? In the middle of the lake? Outside the town?” he asked.“We won’t allow it. That’s a bunch of bull.”
Garza said he didn’t think a wall would keep out the immigrants and smugglers who he hears crossing over a couple of times per week, often in the middle of the night. “They have scouts who see when Border Patrol leaves,” he said. “They know how to outfox them.”
Garza said the illegal crossers also benefit local residents: “Low wages,” he said. “We need our grass cut.”
A virtual wall?
It’s difficult to cull statistics for the Falcon Lake area since the Border Patrol doesn’t provide data for individual stations such as the one in Zapata County. But the county is part of the larger Laredo Sector, where apprehensions of immigrants illegally crossing the Rio Grande have fallen about 20 percent over the last five years to 36,562 in 2016. Seizures of marijuana have decreased by more than half over that time, though cocaine seizures are up 58 percent.
As in most border counties, FBI crime statistics show that the rate of violent and property crime in Zapata County is lower than the state average. But the lake has not been immune from cartel-related violence. In 2010, an American man jet-skiing on the Mexican side of the lake was gunned down, according to his wife who said gunmen on a boat attacked them. The body of David Michael Hartley wasn’t recovered and officials pinned responsibility on the Zetas drug cartel. A Mexican official investigating the incident was also killed.
And in December, a Starr County man was shot and killed while fishing on the lake. Zapata County officials said Oscar Garza and a friend were shot at after a confrontation “escalated” with men on another boat. Neither suspects nor a motive in the killing have been released. Officials with the Zapata County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to repeated requests for information.
Until his 2012 retirement, Zapata County’s former sheriff, Sigifredo Gonzalez, was an outspoken advocate for stronger border security, telling Congress in 2006 that law enforcement along the border was “very much outgunned and outmanned.”
In a foreshadowing of Trump’s campaign kickoff speech, Gonzalez told lawmakers: “How many rapists have come into the country? How many child abusers?”
Yet even Gonzalez, one of the state’s most forceful voices for a more fortified border, dismisses the notion of a border fence in Zapata County. “I’m 100 percent in favor of border security,” Gonzalez said. “But in places like Falcon Lake I’m totally against it. Would you give the whole lake to Mexico?”
In several parts of the Rio Grande Valley, the existing border fence was built up to a mile from the Rio Grande, placing farmland, cemeteries, birding sanctuaries and even family homes in a kind of no-man’s land.
Gonzalez said a border wall around the lake would amount to a second punishment for the residents of Zapata County, who saw their original settlements flooded by Falcon Dam 65 years ago, when they also lost an international bridge connecting them to Mexico. “Zapata County has learned to make lemonade out of lemons,” he said. “There are a lot of businesses making a living off the lake. It would not be a good situation at all for the residents.”
Like Gonzalez, County Judge Rathmell is pushing for increased technology and manpower instead of a physical barrier. He said the county recently granted Customs and Border Patrol permission to place cameras on county water storage tanks and applauded the agency’s use of a blimp to keep watch on the lake. He also welcomes the arrival of ten new Texas Department of Public Safety troopers in the region, part of the department’s $800 million border build-up.
“As county judge I strongly support increased border security,” he said. “I think a virtual wall would help the area.”
Rathmell said neither Department of Homeland Security nor Trump administration officials have sought his input and it’s not clear if the objections of local residents will be taken into consideration when wall or fence placement is decided.
Gonzalez said that marks a shift from 2006, when the Bush administration sought input from local officials.
Joe Dodier, who lives on a bluff above the lake’s western edge, says a wall or fence around the lake would be “ridiculous.” From the front yard of his home he can see the spot where Hartley’s wife came ashore after her husband was shot and killed. On a clear day he can also see the distinctive mountains that surround the Mexican metropolis of Monterrey. A wall would not have prevented the 2010 shooting, he says, and would destroy the tranquility of his home, where he rents out rooms to visiting fishermen.
“It will upset a lot of people,” he said. “This is America, the melting pot.”