Exploring the Hidden Gems of Terrell County, Texas
Less than 1,000 people call Texas’ Terrell County home. Located in the Border Patrol’s Big Bend Sector, the county’s outer edge traces along the Rio Grande and can only be reached by traversing winding roads on private property.
You have to watch your step on the cliffs that tower over the chasm carved by the river, not just to dodge cactus or prevent a fatal slip, but in hopes of catching a glimpse of one of the many shell fossils that time has stamped into the rock.
A fossil in Terrell County, Texas. pic.twitter.com/r1NwHTSzGv
— Spencer Lindquist 🇺🇸 (@SpencerLndqst) May 28, 2023
Discovering Terrell County with Sheriff Thaddeus Cleveland
Terrell County Sheriff Thaddeus Cleveland knows this area well, maybe better than anyone. He was raised here. Cleveland, who is considering a run for Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, is also a 26-year veteran of the Border Patrol and the former Patrol Agent in Charge of the Sanderson Station. He offered a tour of a portion of the county, the entirety of which covers 2,358 square miles.
Sheriff Cleveland explains that families moved out of the area years ago as the railway economy dried up. In Sanderson, the county’s lone town, the effects of this hollowing out have been palpable. Many of the buildings are uninhabited and dilapidated. It’s retained a certain charm, however, owed partially to its natural beauty and in part to the metal velociraptor statue that greets visitors coming north off the highway.
About twenty miles to the Southeast lies a ghost town called Dryden, population 13, littered with abandoned buildings on overgrown lots reclaimed by time.
But at least one abandoned building between the two towns still has regular inhabitants, though they try not to stay very long. On a dusty plot of land surrounded by desert brush lies a house with a sheet metal roof behind a rusted chain link gate.
A small square hole in the back wall provides access to a cavity underneath the house, where numerous illegal immigrants have stowed their camo backpacks, which Cleveland explained were often filled with leftover food and the wet clothes used to cross the Rio Grande.
Before entering the house through the unlocked front door, Sheriff Cleveland assured me that there wouldn’t be any illegal aliens currently hiding inside. “Well, there always could be,” he qualified as he opened the door.
The inside was rather tidy given the circumstances. The door opened to the kitchen, which had a small table and a white stovetop to match the cabinets. Open doors lead to a side room and living room. Deeper inside was a chair and two couches with books strewn about.
A vintage poster propped up on a dresser demanded: “Help Stomp Out Litter.” The Sheriff agreed that the poster’s prominent placement was less likely evidence of conscientious ecological concern and more likely a warning to those hoping to maintain a low profile.
A small, barren room separated the main living space from the bedroom, which still had a bed in the corner. It was easy to see how the house could accommodate even a sizable group of illegal immigrants spending the night on their way to the highway. “Who knows how long they’ve been successfully using this area,” Cleveland stated.
Located 19 miles from the border but only half a mile from the highway, the house couldn’t have been located more strategically, providing the perfect hideout for illegal migrants en route to their pickup points. Here they can stop and hide for the night after illegally crossing the river and hiking the unforgiving terrain, then wait out the following day until nightfall comes.
Hours earlier, Sheriff Cleveland took his truck, nicknamed El Caballo Negra (The Black Mare) through miles of rocky terrain and down a steep hill to the exact spot where illegal immigrants cross the Rio Grande. The portion of the riverbank, called Bonewater Crossing, was one of the many areas formerly used by Native Americans.
Although the unforgiving landscape has claimed the lives of many illegal immigrants, the topography is ultimately to the advantage of illegal crossers, Cleveland told The Daily Wire before going on to explain that Border Patrol’s efforts are hindered by the rough terrain.
While several unpaved private roads allow access from the highway to the river, each one takes hours to traverse. Even worse, the entry roads don’t connect, which means that lateral movement along the river is obstructed by cliffs and chasms.
As El Caballo Negra retraced the grueling trek that thousands of illegal immigrants have taken on foot, it was equally easy to imagine how illegal crossers could slip by authorities undetected, or how they could get lost in the vast arid expanse, where 20 miles of desert could separate you from the nearest highway.
But as dangerous as the crossings are, they are also carefully orchestrated by cartels and their human smugglers. The cartel controls the river, Cleveland explained, adding that in the Big Bend Sector, they charge illegal immigrants different sums of money depending on their nationality.
While a Mexican national might have to pay $10,000 to be smuggled into the United States, Hondurans and Guatemalans were often charged approximately $15,000. Chinese, on the other hand, could be charged $50,000.
Once they make it into the U.S., many of these illegal immigrants are still indebted to the cartels and will enter into an arrangement that Cleveland referred to as “modern-day slavery.”
Between the challenges of the landscape and the efforts of the cartel, Border Patrol can’t simply rely on manpower. Border defense technology is also key. While San Diego and Arizona were characterized by flat, open areas of land that were perfectly suited for border barriers, this sector, with its rocky bluffs in the middle of private property, required a different approach.
Cleveland was most grateful for the autonomous surveillance towers that dotted the sector. The solar-powered towers, created by Orange County’s Anduril Industries, utilize artificial intelligence to detect humans and vehicles as far as 2.8 kilometers away. Before Border Patrol had the assistance of advanced technology, agents would drive hours to the river after cameras picked up movement, oftentimes just to find that a deer had crossed its path.
Despite the myriad challenges that come with patrolling the Big Bend Sector, Cleveland asserted that it could be locked down. He told The Daily Wire that the sector needs more technology — and to double the size of the Sanderson Station Border Patrol unit from 50 to 100.
Cleveland echoed the sentiments that others along the border had asserted. It wouldn’t be difficult to find the manpower and resources needed to secure the border if only our leaders could first find the will.
Sheriff Thaddeus Cleveland’s interview will be featured in an upcoming mini-documentary from The Daily Wire, which will be posted on our YouTube channel.
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