• Checkpoint of the Stars

    Beginning with the arrest on marijuana charges of Willie Nelson in November 2010, Sierra Blanca has gained a certain national notoriety – as a bane for pot-toting celebrities. Observers far from the region often assume that local law officers in the Hudspeth County seat are on a mission to arrest famous people. But these busts, as local residents know, are made by federal agents at the Sierra Blanca Border Patrol checkpoint, 4 miles west of town, who in turn pass the work of citing or arresting and incarcerating the people they detain on to the Hudspeth County sheriff’s department.
    While Hudspeth County is the site of two Border Patrol checkpoints, the checkpoint west of Sierra Blanca is on Interstate 10, a main transportation artery, and it generates scores of drug citations and arrests each day, the great bulk of which involve U.S. citizens in possession of small amounts of marijuana. When Nelson’s arrest was followed by the drug busts of rapper Snoop Dogg and actor Armie Hammer, area Border Patrol officials took to calling the Sierra Blanca facility the “Checkpoint of the Stars.”
    Though Hudspeth County does reap benefits from the presence of the Border Patrol, and from the broader influx of federal homeland-security money that has flowed to southern border counties since 9/11, the checkpoint also imposes significant burdens on Hudspeth County. The already cash-strapped county bears the cost of incarcerating and prosecuting individuals arrested at the checkpoint – costs that far exceed the revenues generated by fines. Payments to Hudspeth County from a Department of Justice program aimed at compensating border counties for the expenses of these “federally initiated” cases have been intermittent at best. Though deputies are active in a host of other duties, Sierra Blanca checkpoint incidents account for the vast majority of cases handled each year by the Hudspeth County sheriff’s department. Hudspeth County deputies regularly respond each month to more than 200 checkpoint cases, mostly small marijuana cases, and FBI records indicate that Hudspeth County has had the highest per capita arrest rate of any of Texas’ border counties. In April 2012, with county finances strained to the breaking point, and exasperated by the lack of federal reimbursement, county officials for a time refused to accept the checkpoint cases, meaning that for several weeks people stopped at the checkpoint with felony-level drug possession were allowed to go free. Beyond the headlines and celebrity mug shots, Sierra Blanca’s “Checkpoint of the Stars” underscores the complex ways in which the nation’s drug and border-security policies play out in one low-income border county.