EAGLE PASS, Texas (Nexstar) — Life on the river is not as it once was.
As Jessie Fuentes sets his kayak free in the Rio Grande, he’s struck by the abrupt entrapment of his favorite pastime — the river, once free-flowing and free for all to access, is now outfitted like the outer walls of a prison.
The banks are bogged in mud, and the Carrizo cane was uprooted for concertina wire. Spools of tiny spikes are strewn with torn T-shirts, perhaps the only thing their one-time owners had on their backs before they surrendered to state troopers.
Fuentes said it looked like Texas was fortifying for an army to invade.
“For me, it hurts,” he said. “It can be beautiful. It used to be beautiful on both sides. Until Governor Abbott implemented his Operation Lone Star.”
Nexstar received special access to join Fuentes on a kayaking excursion down the river, which is now closed to the public as the state ramps up border security efforts under Operation Lone Star. The goal: reach the buoy barriers. Governor Greg Abbott ordered the thousand feet of floating orange spheres into the middle of the river to deter and bottleneck migrants. Fuentes is now suing the state to remove them.
“This is about the river,” he said of the lawsuit. “I just can’t believe what they’re doing to this river.”
Fuentes’ concerns are both ecological and cultural. The buoys, he argues, disrupt the natural flow of the river, collect sediment and debris, and would lead to abnormal islands that will block water and harm the natural environment.
Even before the buoys, however, he says DPS caused the erosion of the riverbanks by uprooting plants and installing razor wire, transforming the once lush greenery lining the river into mud and dust.
“My suit is about the buoys, but it’s really about everything,” he said. “I want to return the river to its natural state.”
There is, indeed, a stark contrast between the Mexican and American banks of the river. Mexico is green. The US is brown. The Mexican side hosts fishermen and children playing in the water. The US side conceals troops and heavy weaponry behind dust and steel.
The buoys themselves cover just a small fraction of the river around Eagle Pass. They cover 1,000 feet — less than one-fifth of a mile. The stretch they cover is about 18 inches deep. There is no room for people to dive under them, but plenty of room to avoid them altogether. At least two dozen migrants did so in the three hours Fuentes was on the river.
The Department of Public Safety said while they do not yet know if the buoys are reducing migrant crossings, they target the busiest section for crossers and direct them to other points of entry. This helps DPS free up manpower in other areas.
“It’s a very effective tool,” DPS Spokesman Lt. Chris Olivarez said. “We have to try to do as much as we can as trying to discourage illegal border crossings. And I think that’s the main goal for what we want to do… because families and children are crossing that river. It’s very dangerous, it’s not safe, it’s not humane. And also, it’s illegal.”
Olivarez said the state may add more buoys after monitoring the effectiveness of this initial stretch.
Fuentes hopes his litigation will prevent that.
“We live and die by how this river flows. If people don’t take care of it, everybody’s gonna suffer.”