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A version of this story aired on Texas Standard from KUT Austin.
BOQUILLAS, Coahuila — A border crossing that’s seen as part of a template to rescue damaged, rural economies along the Rio Grande has marked its second anniversary.
The symbolic importance of the crossing that links Big Bend National Park in Texas to Boquillas del Carmen, Coahuila, was heralded by a visit from cabinet secretaries from the United States and Mexico. The United States ambassador to Mexico was also on hand.
After 9/11, security concerns translated into enforcement of laws that had rarely been largely overlooked before. That meant the age-old practice of walking across this sinewy slice of the Rio Grande was banned.
“No American people, no business for us,” said resident Victor Valdez, recalling years where the only money he made was singing to tourists from his side of the border. Tourists would wade in half way and him give their tips.
Prior to 2001, thousands of park visitors would cross over to savour Mexico for a few hours, while Mexicans represented 40 percent of sales at the park’s supply store. After the 9/11 attacks, a connected economy disintegrated.
But high level decision-makers said that the crossing is the linchpin in plans to revive the region’s once tourist driven economy.
“This is a positive story about a border, ”said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell in Boquillas.
That an American cabinet member would cross the river in a rowboat was unimaginable two years ago. She came to say that this part of the border is different and with a legal crossing, ripe for tourism.
“A wild experience, so it’s not the same as crossing into Tijuana or Juárez,” she said. “This will be rural Mexico and rural United States and there’s a lot to celebrate.”
“This (crossing) improved the relationship between the U.S.A. and Mexico not only on the border but as a whole, but also the economic, the economic side,” he said.
The U.S. and Mexico jointly fund the North American Development Bank, created under terms of the the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The bank is actively looking to invest in sustainable tourism here.
“The border is a place of opportunity, not just a place of threat,” said the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, E. Anthony “Tony” Wayne.
Wayne understands security threats.
As an Assistant Secretary of State in the second Bush administration, he won praise targeting the money trail that funds terrorism. But he also helped craft economic reform in several countries before President Obama sent him to Mexico City in 2011.
“Certainly security is still very important,” Wayne continued.”But at the same time we’re trying to create new openings for both people and goods across all the border crossings.”
Since the the opening, the population here has risen by 30 percent. Solar power’s just arrived. And with that electricity comes hope for a slightly easier life in this beautiful but harsh environment.
Another visitor was freshman Texas Republican Congressman and former CIA agent Will Hurd, a member of the House Homeland Security Committee. He wants his colleagues to see the border region.
Just last week, he traveled to Juárez with two fellow Republican congressmen who’d never been to this part of the border.
“It has impact, it has a reaction. When they go back, you know I’ve a couple more people in my posse to show what the border’s really like,” Hurd said.
There are big hopes for tourism this summer. Big Bend National Park chief interpreter Dave Elkowitz says good weather and low gas prices make it likely that there will be more than the ususal 350,000 annual visitors to Big Bend National Park in 2015, many of whom will cross into Mexico.
“It is a good day for tourism and for the opportunities to provide an economic, viable means for the village and for people from the U.S. to experience the vision of those who created the national park,” Elkowitz said.
That vision was outlined in 1944.
President Roosevelt wrote to Mexican President Avila Camacho describing Roosevelt’s wish to create an international park.
That has never formally taken place. But three protected areas in Mexico front Big Bend National Park, now effectively fulfilling that plan. With a legal crossing, a pristine, shared desert landscape is open for business, says Boquillas resident Lidia Falcon.
“I love my countries, both of my countries,” she said.
There are nearby villages on both sides of the river that suffered after 9/11. Both nations want Boquillas to succeed because what unfolds here might provide a template to rescue them.