BOQUILLAS, Mexico— As we hop off the boat on the Mexican shore of the Rio Grande, Richie Sinkovitz hands the oarsman a pale blue envelope filled with cash to hold for safekeeping.
It's money from a Mexican man's bank account that was recently closed in the United States.
The brief exchange on the boat looks suspiciously like an underhanded financial dealing, but it’s not. It’s how banking gets done in a frontier region where people's efforts to cooperate across the U.S.-Mexico line are often complicated by a closed-border system.
Sinkovitz, an employee of the U.S. National Park Service, is the crew boss of Los Diablos, an emergency fire crew of 32 Mexican nationals who are employed by the U.S. government.
Los Diablos primarily fight fires in the national park along the border in West Texas, but they also respond to emergencies across the United States—from battling fires in Yosemite National Park, to helping relief efforts after Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina.
Known for their work ethic and their ability to traverse difficult terrain with relative ease, Los Diablos (Spanish for "The Devils") have a reputation that precedes them.
“Other people get blisters on their feet. The Diablos don’t have these kinds of problems,” said Adrian Valdez Carello, a 40-year-old Diablo who has served on the fire crew since 1997.
Carello says his team of firefighters, which lives in the blistering hot Mexican states of Coahuila and Chihuahua, where temperatures sometimes top 120-degrees fahrenheit, can take the heat better than most.
“We don’t mind drinking hot water,” Carello told me. He says that's because most of the homes in his community don't have electricity, so cold water isn't really a thing where they're from.
Since Los Diablos are federal employees of the U.S. government, they all have social security cards and U.S. bank accounts, into which they can deposit their $17-20/hour salaries.
But here’s the rub. Most of the firefighters are not U.S. citizens and are only allowed to cross the border to help fight fires. But when there's no smoke, there are no firemen. That makes more mundane activities such as banking and shopping nearly impossible for the Mexican men who risk their lives for our country.
Withdrawing their money in Mexico is also difficult. Using their bank cards at ATMs in Mexico has triggered fraud alerts in the past, and getting around the bank's safeguards requires even more paperwork and trips to the bank, which they can't get to.
So that's why many of the Mexican firefighters instead use the unofficial banking services of Sinkovitz and the rest of the Fire Management Office in Big Bend National Park, who help them withdraw their paychecks from U.S. banks.
“We have letters that the Diablos sign saying that we can do very minimal banking on their behalf,” said Ed Waldron, the park’s Fire Management Officer.
Every once in awhile, firefighters on the U.S. side of the border will organize a “work trip” to the bank, when the Diablos can cross over and manage their accounts for the day. It's also one of the only opportunities they have to do a little shopping in the U.S. and stock up on supplies.
“They always get frozen pizza, frozen chicken and ice cream for their kids,” said John Zubia, who also works at the Fire Management Office.
Banking and buying frozen food wouldn't be such an ordeal if Los Diablos had visas that allowed them to cross the border freely. But the paperwork and cost involved in acquiring a multiple-entry visa poses a huge obstacle, not to mention a rugged 14-hour trek to the nearest U.S. consulate in Juárez.
Ironically, the drive to Juárez from across the river, stateside, takes nearly a quarter of that time. But that’s just one of several barriers Los Diablos face as a result of the closed border dynamics.
With the nearest gas station 160 miles from town, many people in Boquillas don’t even have cars and travel by horseback instead. Carello says he doesn't know anybody in his town who has a U.S. visa.
But it wasn’t always this complicated. Before the 9/11 terrorist attacks provided the impetus for the United States government to shut all informal border crossings, people in the town of Boquillas were free to move across the border as they pleased. And Los Diablos could help fight our fires in a more timely manner, without having to be processed each time they crossed the border.
“There are stories of rangers just going down to the river’s edge and throwing on their lights and sirens until somebody came down,” said Waldron, who has been working in the Fire Management Office for five years, not long enough to have experienced the good old days himself.
Last year, in celebration of the second anniversary of the reopening of the Boquillas border crossing, United States Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Mexican officials came together to sign an updated U.S. - Mexico Wildfire Protection Agreement to strengthen cooperation in prevention and management of wildfires across a broader swatch of borderland territory.
“We have a 2,000-mile border between the United States and Mexico. Wildland fire knows no borders,” Jewell said. “Working on these landscapes together is a way we can build a bond between our two countries.”
But until the kinks are worked out, Los Diablos will continue as they have: Crossing over the border only to help the U.S. respond to our disasters, but once the fire is out, they have to go home.