Aliens and the Southwest. Our internal guidance system immediately points toward Roswell. But there’s also El Paso, home of the National Border Patrol Museum, which is devoted to aliens who don’t arrive in spaceships (even though Texas has been visited by that kind, too).
The museum was founded by Border Patrol retirees and runs without government help. Its exhibits feel homemade — lots of press-on letters, thumb tacks, and yellowing scotch tape — but full of information and glimpses of border patrol life. The message conveyed is that the Border Patrol catches dangerous criminals and saves people who might otherwise have died trying to get into the United States.
Confiscated items on display prove that most interlopers really don’t want to be found. There are track-obscuring sandals with soles made of carpet squares or wooden cattle hooves, and a backpack stocked with blankets, cigarettes, skin lotion, and a rainbow of colorful snack packs and energy drinks. Two post-apocalypse-style motorcycles, hand-built from lawnmower parts and scrap metal, were “fully loaded with aliens when seized,” a sign notes. Nine people were piled on them, zipping across the desert at night.
The Border Patrol has been at work since 1924, chasing bandits and bootleggers when the only thing being smuggled in was booze from Canada. People forget that America has two borders, and an exhibit features a pair of dummies — a Mountie and a U.S. Border Patrol officer — in a mock stare-down across the national boundary. Behind them, a cement pylon border marker is topped with a tuft of cotton snow.
For all the bad press directed at Mexico crossings, the most alarming exhibit in the museum is the “Punji Pit Booby Trap” discovered on the Canadian border, east of Porthill, Idaho. Intended to injure the U.S. border patrol by criminals smuggling whatever, its eight sharpened sticks are now in a pot of dirt inside a plexiglass box. A big sign in the museum warns: “Awareness is Survival.”
Lots of confiscated weapons are displayed, including improvised spears, a giant knife in a sheath inscribed “Guatemala,” and a 12 gauge shotgun seized from a Jamaican during “Operation Rumpunch.”
Gift shop books reflect the dangerous nature of Border Patrol work: Bloody Border, Dead In Their Tracks, No Flag For My Coffin. Another title, Fifty Years Of Border Patrol Humor, seemed so out of place that we had to check our photos to make sure that we hadn’t imagined it (it’s for sale in the online museum shop).
One popular exhibit is a raft built of junk and sailed by Cuban refugees to Florida. It’s as if Thor Heyerdahl teamed up with a kiddie pool. Although the display is titled “Voyage to Freedom,” it notes that the refugees were all arrested.
Border Patrol vehicles on exhibit include an airplane, an ATV, a snowmobile, and a jeep and helicopter that museum visitors can sit in. There’s also a circa 1990 Border Patrol Pontiac Firebird, part of “Project Roadrunner,” whose sign explains that “increased safety through fewer and shorter pursuits is our goal.”
A decommissioned 1980s robot, RAD, stands silently in a corner, its metal head topped with a Border Patrol campaign hat. RAD saw hard service, judging by its dents and scratches. We were disappointed to learn that its battle scars came as a classroom teaching aid, not while actually robo-patrolling the border.
So why aren’t robots patrolling the border? Well, they are, if you count hi-tech drone aircraft, but there isn’t yet one to spare for the museum. It’s fascinating to view the array of technology used to defend the border, and think how it fares against the ceaseless, spit-and-wire ingenuity of uninvited guests. Wait — ingenuity is supposed to be good! Is the next Mark Zuckerberg in the desert right now, perfecting his own set of social network cow hoof shoes?
But the museum is certainly not romanticizing illegal crossings — it’s clear who the heroes are. The museum displays a gallery of paintings — depictions of field operations — such as the rescue of a pig-tailed blond girl clutching a doll, and an officer reading scripture over a lonely wooden cross draped with a shoulder holster. One painting, “The Empty Water Jug,” shows an illegal traveler lying in the sparse shade of a desert tree, his bottle flung aside in despair. In another museum it might be a gloomy picture, but here you know that the Border Patrol will find the man before the buzzards do.