ACALA, Texas - On each side of a towering West Texas stretch of the $2.4-billion border fence designed to block people from illegally entering the country, there are two metal footbridges, clear paths into the United States from Mexico.
The footpaths that could easily guide illegal immigrants and smugglers over the Rio Grande seem to be there because of what amounts to linguistics. While just about anyone would call them bridges, the U.S.-Mexico group that owns them calls them something else.
"Technically speaking it's not a bridge, it's a grade control structure," said Sally Spener, spokeswoman for the International Boundary and Water Commission, which maintains the integrity of the 1,200-mile river border. The structures under the spans help prevent the river - and therefore the international border - from shifting.
Spener said the river was straightened years ago to stabilize and prevent a shift during high river flow. Without the structures, which help slow the river's flow, she said it could erode its banks, wash out the river bed and degrade natural habitats.
Whatever they're called, there are fresh sneaker tracks on the structures, indicating they're being used as passages into the country.
After a private meeting with Rio Grande Valley police chiefs yesterday, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said news of the unsecured footbridges did not surprise him. "This is a long border," Perry said. "It's been discouraging that there's something as obvious . . . [as the bridges] and the federal government hasn't addressed it."
The realization that a section of the border fence is sandwiched between two footbridges comes at a time of heightened alarm along the U.S.-Mexico border as the drug war in northern Mexico continues unabated.
The steel fencing that dots about 600 miles of border in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California was built under former President George W. Bush's administration amid a national outcry for border security. The steel fencing appears in urban areas, while more rural areas have shorter, concrete vehicle barriers.
The footbridges were built in the 1930s as part of a treaty with Mexico, Spener said.
On a recent visit to a bridge west of the fence line near Acala, Border Patrol Special Operations Supervisor Ramiro Cordero spotted an hours-old adult-sized sneaker print in the soft sand at the foot of the bridge facing into the United States.
In a tour with the Hudspeth County Sheriff's Office in March, Associated Press journalists happened upon the bridge moments after a bicyclist crossed from Mexico. He said he was trying to fish from the north side but was promptly arrested.