Barbs along the Rio Grande

By Kent Paterson

A pleasant and quiet day prevailed just above the International Dam on the Rio Grande near the spot where Ciudad Juárez, El Paso and Sunland Park, New Mexico converge around Mt. Cristo Rey, the emblematic Christ Mountain that overlooks the hustling and bustling Paso del Norte borderplex.

Visitors to this historic site now have a new piece of environmental architecture to behold-a long string of concertina wire erected along the river bank by the Texas National Guard as part of Governor Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star.

Photo by Kent Paterson

As the radiance of an early fall afternoon warmed the landscape, winged creatures came to life. Gazing through the barbs, the visitor watched ducks flap and splash in the river. Nearby, a pair of egrets waded in the shallow water. If necessary, these birds and others can fly over the prickly fencing. Coyotes, mountain lions, foxes and other large creatures which grace the Paso del Norte, however, will encounter a strange and unwelcome obstacle on their ancient routes.

Downriver, below the Santa Fe Bridge connecting the downtowns of Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, the pedestrian will see another shiny string of barbed wire. This strand is set smack dab in the dry river bottom.

Usually this concrete sculpted stretch of the Big River consists of wastewater trickles, dirty puddles and trash clumps. But sometimes it has a mind of its own. Remember the Little Katrina floods of 2006 when the river roared like a mighty lion and threatened to inundate the borderland? Will the barbed wire hold in such an event? Or will it be uprooted and turned into a stream of spikes?

Photo by Kent Paterson

Gazing across the wire above the International Dam, the visitor will notice an earlier-built structure snaking up and down an arroyo at the base of Cristo Rey. Remember We Build the Wall, Inc.? That’s the crew consisting of Iraq War vet Brian Kolfage, Steve Bannon, Kris Kobach and confederates who one day back in 2019 rolled through Sunland Park (without duly notifying the locals) and began building a steel bollard border wall of their own on private land.

We Build the Wall later held a ballyhooed summit at the construction site that attracted Donald Trump Jr. and was webcast as part of a fundraising campaign to wall off as much of the U.S.-Mexico border as the outfit could purchase.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York, the money mill raised more than $25 million before things went south.

Photo by Kent Paterson

Last April, United States District Court Judge Analisa Torres in New York sentenced Floridian Brian Kolfage and Coloradan Andrew Badolato to prison time of 51 months and 36 months, respectively, for their roles in what the feds considered an illegal fundraising operation.

Both men pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, with Kolfage entering an additional guilty plea to tax and wire fraud charges originally pursued by the U.S. attorney in the Northern District of Florida.

“Brian Kolfage and Andrew Badolato abused the trust of donors to We Build the Wall and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to line their own pockets,” said U.S. Attorney Damian Williams. “The defendants have now been held accountable for their criminal conduct.”

Not fooling around, Judge Torres in July sentenced a third defendant, Timothy Shea, to 63 months in la pinta. Shea was additionally accused of attempting to obstruct the federal investigation of We Build the Wall. Collectively, Kolfage, Badolato and Shea were ordered to pay approximately $6.1 million in restitution. It’s noteworthy that none of these men were from the U.S-Mexico borderlands.

Thanks to a pardon from former President Trump, Steve Bannon eluded the federal dragnet. Nonetheless, he faces his day in a New York state court next year on charges related to the wall-building scheme. If the outcomes of the previously mentioned court cases are any indication, perhaps Mr. Bannon will be in for a change of wardrobe in 2024.

We Build the Wall, Inc., might have disappeared from the political scene. But the group’s Sunland Park wall (and a similar one built in south Texas) remains seemingly glued to a flank of Christ Mountain. Once upon a time, the endless vistas, rugged escarpments, contrasting seasons and surprising resilience of diverse desert life inspired the poets, writers, musicians, and visual artists of the borderlands. Nowadays, the creative senses might be captured by the barbs, bollards, buoys and barriers of all manner which increasingly percolate the landscape.

Photo by Bob Chessey

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