THE LINE BECOMES A RIVER
Dispatches From the Border
By Francisco Cantú
250 pp. Riverhead Books. $26
“The Line Becomes a River,” Cantú’s account of four years as a border cop in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, arrives at a dire moment. The national head is spinning with fever visions of brown-skinned alien rapists and beheaders and terror gangs, and of a mythical wall that the president says will protect “us” from “them.” The very idea of an American “us” that includes the foreign-born seems lost to a distant time, to a less terrified country that some of us are struggling to remember.
As Cantú tells us what he learned, he bolsters his point — that it’s hard to comprehend the border from books. This one challenges the reader to find the meaning, or some sense, in its loosely strung episodes, fragmentary encounters with border crossers and agents, clippings from books Cantú has read and the surreal dreams that haunt his fretful nights.
Cantú finds out that border agents are not so much college boys like him, but former cops and soldiers, migrants from cold climates and crappy jobs. Some new arrivals have no idea what’s going on at the border, but all are primed at the academy for narco warfare, with lurid PowerPoints of people killed by Mexican cartels: heads in an ice chest, bodies stacked in a cattle truck.
This is what you’re up against, this is what’s coming, the instructor says.
Except it isn’t. The job is often boring, chasing footprints, staring at monitors, shuffling paper. “You don’t want to bring in any bodies with your dope if you can help it,” Cantú is told. “Suspects mean you have a smuggling case on your hands, and that’s a hell of a lot of paperwork.” The aliens we encounter are not narco bosses and murderous kidnappers but their victims: bewildered, disoriented, helpless migrants. Some are dead. They don’t fit the terror profile.