For Francisco Cantú, the border is in the blood: his mother, a park ranger and daughter of a Mexican immigrant, raised him in the scrublands of the Southwest. Haunted by the landscape of his youth, Cantú joins the Border Patrol. He and his partners are posted to remote regions crisscrossed by drug routes and smuggling corridors, where they learn to track other humans under blistering sun and through frigid nights. They haul in the dead and deliver to detention those they find alive.
Cantú tries not to think where the stories go from there. Plagued by nightmares, he abandons the Patrol for civilian life. But when an immigrant friend travels to Mexico to visit his dying mother and does not return, Cantú discovers that the border has migrated with him, and now he must know the whole story. Searing and unforgettable, The Line Becomes a River makes urgent and personal the violence our border wreaks on both sides of the line.
Praise for The Line Becomes A River:
“A must-read for anyone who thinks “build a wall” is the answer to anything.”
“Fresh, urgent…A devastating narrative of the very real human effects of depersonalized policy.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred)
“Cantú’s rich prose and deep empathy make this an indispensable look at one of America’s most divisive issues.”
—Publisher’s Weekly (starred)
“There is a line dividing what we know and do not know. Some see the world from one shore and some from the other. Cantú brings the two together to a spiritual whole. My gratitude for this work of the soul.”
“A beautiful, fiercely honest, and nevertheless deeply empathetic look at those who police the border and the migrants who risk – and lose — their lives crossing it. In a time of often ill-informed or downright deceitful political rhetoric, this book is an invaluable corrective.”
—Phil Klay, author of Redeployment
“Francisco Cantu’s story is a lyrical journey that helps bridge the jagged line that divides us from them. His empathy reminds us of our humanity — our immigrant history — at a critical time.”
—Alfredo Corchado, journalist, author of Midnight in Mexico
“Cantú’s story, and intelligent and humane perspective, should mortify anyone who ever thought building a wall might improve our lot. He advocates for clarity and compassion in place of xenophobia and uninformed rhetoric. His words are emotionally true and his literary sensibility uplifting.”
–Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams and Of Wolves and Men
“This book tells the hard poetry of the desert heart. If you think you know about immigration and the border, you will see there is much to learn. And you will be moved by its unexpected music.”
–Luis Alberto Urrea, author of The Devil’s Highway
“Before we took to the range one afternoon, the firearms instructor gave the class a PowerPoint presentation in a darkened room. Agents arrested more than 700,000 aliens on the border last year, he told us. If you think that’s bad, when I first got to the field eight years ago, back in 2000, that number was over one and a half million. And I’m here to tell you that not everybody coming across that line is a good person looking for honest work.Our instructor beamed images of drug war victims onto a screen, grisly photos of people killed by the cartels in Mexico. In one image, three heads floated in a massive ice chest. In another, a woman’s body lay discarded in the desert, her feet bound, a severed hand stuffed into her mouth. The instructor paused on an image of a cattle truck with twelve dead bodies stacked in the back, all of them blindfolded and shot execution-style. These twelve weren’t gangsters, he told us, they were migrants kidnapped and killed for some meager and meaningless ransom. The next image showed a group of Mexican policemen shot dead in the street, and then an image of bloodied body slumped in a car seat—a newly elected mayor who had promised to clean up the drug violence in his town, shot dead on his first day in office.This is what you’re up against, our instructor told us, this is what’s coming.”“I took a deep breath. Look, I told her, I spent four years in college studying international relations and learning about the border through policy and history. You can tell whoever asks that I’m tired of studying, I’m tired of reading about the border in books. I want to be on the ground, out in the field, I want to see the realities of the border day in and day out. I know it might be ugly, I know it might be dangerous, but I don’t see any better way to truly understand the place.”
“Listen, I know you don’t want your only son turning into a heartless cop. I know you’re afraid the job will turn me into someone brutal and callous. Those people who look at you funny when you tell them I’m in the Border Patrol probably imagine an agency full of white racists out to kill and deport Mexicans. But that’s not me, and those aren’t the kind of people I see at the academy. Nearly half my classmates are Hispanic—some of them grew up speaking Spanish, some grew up right on the border. Some went to college, like me. Some went to war, some owned businesses, some worked dead-end jobs, some are fresh out of high school. Some are fathers and mothers with their own children. These people aren’t joining the Border Patrol to oppress others. They’re joining because it represents an opportunity for service, stability, financial security—
My mother interrupted me. But you could work anywhere you want, she said, you graduated with honors.
“So what? I asked. This isn’t necessarily a lifelong career choice. Think of it as another part of my education. Imagine what I’ll learn—imagine the perspective I’ll gain. Look, I know you’re not an enforcement-minded person, but the reality of the border is one of enforcement. I might not agree with every aspect of U.S. border policy, but there is power in understanding the realities it creates. Maybe after three or four years I’ll go back to school to study law, maybe I’ll work to shape new policies. If I become an immigration lawyer or a policy maker, imagine the unique knowledge I’ll bring, imagine how much better I’ll be at the job because of my time in the Border Patrol.”
“Fine, my mother said, fine. But you must understand you are stepping into a system, an institution with little regard for people.
I looked away from her and a silence hung between us. I glanced down at my hands and weighed my mother’s words. Maybe you’re right, I replied, but stepping into a system doesn’t mean that the system becomes you. As I spoke, doubts flickered through my mind. I smiled at my mother. The first job I ever had was bussing dishes with migrants from Guanajuato, I reminded her. I’m not going to lose sight of that. I’m not going to become someone else.”
“The migrants who survive the journey through Mexico’s interior and evade capture across the U.S. border are often shepherded by their smugglers to “drop houses” in the suburbs of southwestern cities and towns. In Phoenix, a police report reviewed by Wall Street Journal reporter Joel Millman in 2009 described the discovery of twenty-two men in the small upstairs bedroom of a rental property on a sparsely populated block of homes. “The subjects I found,” wrote the local detective, “were all in their underwear and laying in a line next to each other along the walls and inside the closet.” The men “had been jammed in so tightly and so long that the wallboard showed indentations from bare backs pressed against it. Pink walls, decorated with the stickers of Disney characters, were stained with sweat smudges. Down a short hallway was a tiny laundry room labeled ‘Office.’ There, according to captives’ accounts to investigators . . . immigrants were beaten and ordered to produce phone numbers of relatives in the U.S. who were then called and told to wire ransom money.
Millman reported that in Phoenix alone, authorities discovered 194 drop houses in 2007 and 169 in 2008. In 2009, Phoenix officials reported that 68 such houses were raided in the first five months of the year, leading to the discovery of 1,069 undocumented migrants. The proliferation of drop houses like these, Millman wrote, marked “a shift in the people-smuggling business. A couple of decades ago, workers commonly traveled back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border . . . Now, organized gangs own the people-smuggling trade.
This takeover, according to U.S. and Mexican police, was in part “an unintended consequence of a border crackdown.” As border crossings became more difficult, traffickers increased their smuggling fees. In turn, as smuggling became more profitable, it was increasingly consolidated under the regional operations of the drug cartels. Every surge in border enforcement has brought a corresponding increase to the yield potential of each prospective migrant. For smuggling gangs, holding clients for ransom is a simple way of maximizing profit. Matthew Allen, the senior agent in charge of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Phoenix, put it succinctly to Millman: “The alien becomes a commodity . . . One way you raise the value of that commodity is by threatening [and] terrorizing someone.”
“In 2014, the Mexican government released new data officially recognizing an incidence of more than 164,000 homicides since 2007. Researchers such as Molloy are quick to remind the public that such statistics “probably report a minimum number of the deaths that have occurred.” They do not account for the missing and disappeared, estimated at more than 25,000 in 2012. Nor, of course, do they account for the high rates of kidnapping and extortion.
These numbers also fail to take into account all those who have died or gone missing crossing the border into the United States, people often fleeing the violence-ridden towns and cities of their birth. In 2017, Manny Fernandez reported in The New York Times that the Border Patrol had recorded over six thousand deaths in the sixteen years between 2000 and 2016. In Arizona’s Pima County alone, the remains of more than two thousand migrants were found. The sheriff of another rural county in Texas told Fernandez that “for every one we find, we’re probably missing five.” Even as overall crossings dropped to new lows, the proportion of migrant deaths in the deadliest counties remained constant or even grew. All along the border, coroners, county medical examiners, and forensic anthropologists at state universities and nonprofit organizations struggled to identify thousands of remains. “No one deserves to be just a number,” one forensic expert told Fernandez. “The idea is to figure out who they are, and give them their name back.”
It is difficult, of course, to conceive of such numbers in any tangible and appropriate way. The number of border deaths, just like the number of drug war homicides, or the numbers that measure the death toll of the Mexican Revolution or the War of Independence, does little to account for all the ways that violence rips and ripples through a society, through the lives and minds of its inhabitants.”
“Early in the afternoon, sitting in boredom before the dual monitors of my workstation, I looked up to behold the massive image of a prairie falcon in one of the camera feeds at the front of the room. The bird had landed atop a distant surveillance tower somewhere in the rolling grasslands of eastern Arizona and was looking directly into the lens of the camera, as if to peer into the fluorescent airlessness of the office. I stood up from my chair and walked closer to meet the bird’s interrogating gaze.
What cowardice has caused you to retreat from the desert? Why not return to the border’s smoldering edges, why not inhabit the quiet chaos churning in your mind?
I took several steps toward the screen, as if to reach the bird. I’m afraid to come any closer, I wanted to whisper. I’m afraid the violence will no longer shake me.”
“In 2004, the internationally regarded Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team—a nongovernmental human rights organization of forensic scientists established in 1984 to investigate the thousands of unsolved disappearances during Argentina’s “Dirty War”—began its own investigation of the Juárez femicide cases. In later reports, the team documented a willfully inept justice system with investigatory bodies prone to “grave methodological and diagnostic irregularities” in identifying female remains. In investigating the more than thirty unidentified bodies taken from mass graves, the team found that state authorities had often failed to label the remains, leading, in some cases, to the mixing together of the recovered body parts of distinct persons, a literal amalgamation of individual victims into an undifferentiated mass.
The unsolved murders in many ways provided a blueprint for the structural underpinnings of the large-scale violence that would soon come to eclipse them. By 2008, little more than a year after Calderón declared war on the cartels, Ciudad Juárez had become ground zero for the conflict. As cartel violence exploded south of the border, Juárez underwent a grim transformation. It was no longer the city where women died, it was the city where everyone died. At the height of violence in 2010, according to El Diario de Juárez, more than three thousand murders were reported—an average of “eight per day—earning Juárez the nickname Murder City and the dubious title of “murder capital of the world.” During these same years, El Paso was named the safest city in the United States.
The indiscriminate killing in Juárez and all across Mexico was so rampant that in 2012, when New York Times foreign correspondent Damien Cave reported on a new wave of killings and disappearances among the women of Juárez, even larger than those of the 1990s and early 2000s, attention could not be roused. “People haven’t reacted with the same force as before,” a human rights investigator for the state of Chihuahua told Cave. “They think it’s natural.”
“Watching the defendants shuffle to the front of the room to stand before the bench, I realized that I had never before seen so many men and women in shackles, that I had never laid eyes on a group of people so diminished. I had apprehended and processed countless men and women for deportation, many of whom I sent without thinking to pass through this very room—but there was something dreadfully altered in their presence here between towering and cavernous walls, lorded over by foreign men in colored suits and black robes, men with little notion of the dark desert nights or the hard glare of the sun, with little sense for the sweeping expanses of stone and shale, the foot-packed earthen trails, the bodies laid bare before the elements, the bones trembling from heat, from cold, from want of water. It dawned on me that in my countless encounters with migrants at the hard end of their road through the desert, there was always the closeness of the failed journey, the fading but still-hot spark from the last flame of the crossing. But here, in the stale and swirling air of the courthouse, it was clear that something vital had gone missing in the days since apprehension, some final essence of the spirit had been stamped out or lost in the slow crush of confinement.”
“Some politicians in the United States think that if a mother or father is deported, this will cause the entire family to move back to Mexico. But in “fact, the mothers and fathers with the best family values will want their family to stay in the U.S., they will cross the border again and again to be with them. So you see, these same people, the ones with the most dedication to their family, they begin to build up a record of deportation, they have more and more problems with the government, and it becomes harder and harder for them to ever become legal. In this way, the U.S. is making criminals out of those who could become its very best citizens.”