LOS EBANOS, Texas (Reuters) - A trip across the Rio Grande on a hand-operated ferry is a brief one. It covers about 70 yards but it takes you back 70 years to a different era on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Able to fit three cars plus a few passengers, the hand-pulled ferry between the dusty Texas town of Los Ebanos and the Mexican town of Diaz Ordaz is the last of its kind.
Its future is uncertain as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security surveys the region to erect a fence, which the government says is needed to stem the tide of illegal immigration from the south.
The modest ferry is vital for local people who otherwise would have a 60-mile round trip to the nearest bridge crossing, in Rio Grande City, and is the last of its kind on a border where small, informal crossings are fast being closed to tighten security.
No decision has been taken to close the ferry crossing, which is the smallest of eight official ports of entry into southeast Texas from Mexico, although it provides a rare glimpse of a fast vanishing world.
“It’s important otherwise you have to go around,” said Nelly Cline, who works in a store near the crossing.
Local people pay $1.25 for a round trip over the river on the ferry, which is hauled by five burly men using a pulley system.
Sitting in a small kiosk, the ferry’s operator, Mark Alvarez, sells tickets for the crossing, which has been in operation since 1950. It takes 50 cars or more a day, mostly Mexicans who use it to come to the United States for work or to visit family, although some tourists also use it.
“It’s a fun thing to do,” said Betty Slayton, a middle-aged visitor from Iowa, as she made the quick round trip under a hot midday sun.
Curbing illegal immigration and securing the nearly 2,000 mile (3,200 kilometer) southwest border are hot button issues in this U.S. election year, in which Washington has pledged to complete 670 miles of new barriers in response to calls for decisive action.
There are several dozen official ports of entry along the Mexico border, from the giant 24-lane crossing linking Tijuana with San Diego, California, to a bridge the other side of the continent linking Brownsville, Texas, with Matamoros, on the Gulf coast in Mexico.
But the many smaller, informal crossings, which were once a lifeline for many isolated U.S. and Mexican communities, have steadily been severed in the years since the attacks of September 11, 2001, focused closer attention on homeland security.
Among the first to go was a flat-bottomed boat service at Boquillas in the sun-baked wilds of Big Bend National Park in west Texas, that reached across a shallow ribbon of water to Boquillas del Carmen in Mexico. It was closed in 2002.
A few miles upstream an aluminum rowboat that brought Mexican ranchers and their families informally to Lajitas, Texas, to buy supplies at the old adobe trading post, was shut down in a surprise raid by U.S. federal border police the same year.
Local stable owner and long-time area resident Linda Walker recalled the swoop in which agents from the U.S. Customs Service and Border Patrol arrested the Mexican boatman who charged $1 for the round trip, seized his boat, and rounded up several Mexican customers shopping for supplies at the store.
“The river wasn’t a border for us, it was just a stretch of water, and our communities were deeply integrated,” said Walker.
“Now the journey takes four hours, and it’s completely gutted the communities across the river,” she added.
Current efforts to complete hundreds of miles of vehicle and pedestrian barriers by the end of this year have chopped off other informal routes over the border in the parched deserts of Arizona.
Along the southern reaches of the Tohono O’odham nation, the U.S. Border Patrol is overseeing the construction of a vehicle barrier to stem the flow of cars and trucks packed with illegal immigrants and drugs coming over the desert from Mexico.
The move, carried out with the backing of tribal authorities in the desert nation’s capital, Sells, has left three traditional gates open, allowing tribal members to cross informally back and forth to Mexico, but sealed others.
Traditional elder Ofelia Rivas mourns a new stretch of hefty steel posts sunk in concrete that reach out across a saguaro-studded valley south of Ali Jegk, her remote village of adobe homes and trailers
She says it chops off a gravel track once used by locals to roll south in horse-drawn carts to attend traditional ceremonies in Mexico that celebrate the natural world.
“It’s like they stuck a knife in our mother and we don’t know how to pull it out,” said Rivas, surveying the barrier.
She and other traditionalists say they now face a long journey around through the ports of entry at Lukeville or Nogales, scores of miles to the west and east respectively, and worry about having their sacred medicine bundles searched by border inspectors.
“We have no choice but to go through the port of entry and endure the indignity of what the inspectors put us through, the indignity and questioning of who we are,” Rivas says sadly.
“It hurts our way of life.”
Reporting by Ed Stoddard in Los Ebanos, Texas; Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Ali Jegk, Arizona; Editing by Eddie Evans