BOQUILLAS, Mexico — The sealing of the border after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, crushed connected rural economies in both Mexico and the United States.
Today in one swath of northern Mexico, a formal border crossing with Texas is the lynchpin of a plan to rebuild the post-9/11 economy in both countries on one rural section of the Rio Grande.
But economic rebirth in one small, but strategically located, town is stunted because there’s no electricity in the area.
That’s changing with the arrival of solar power funded by Mexico's federal government.
Residents of Boquillas, Coahuila, told visitors that they will pay for their power, but not to offset the approximately $1.5 million cost (in U.S. dollars) of installation.
Instead, the money will be placed in an account that will be drawn on to replace batteries that store power collected on the solar farm.
Following the 2001 terrorist attacks, you could still cross over to Mexico on this stretch of the Rio Grande. The issue was returning. You needed a passport and a place to check in with U.S. customs and immigration agents.
Boquillas is a time warp, a funnel into old Mexico, devoid of crime and gaudy visual pollution. It has been a longtime magnet for visitors from around the world.
It is the subject of ballads and a haven for photographers, drawn by layers of shifting hues at dawn and sunset, all flanked by the Sierra del Carmen mountain range.
A transmission wire distributing solar power flows from a utility pole in Boquillas.
After 9/11, however, you couldn’t return to the United States, not here, at least not legally.
Although people routinely traveled back and forth, no formal port of entry existed here. But an experiment in post-9/11 border policy began here in April 2013.
Pedestrian-only border stations are now staffed on each side of the Rio Grande by U.S. and Mexican immigration officials. But how you get back and forth has not changed. Visitors still must row or walk across the river.
The formal crossings were opened to attract visitors to a region where tourism is the principal economic driver and to help the U.S. National Park Service work with Mexican counterparts to protect a shared border wilderness.
"Things are slow but a few dozen people are coming every day," boatman Carmelo Sandoval said in Spanish.
He said up to 20 visitors make the crossing every day, several dozen on holiday weekends.
Before 2001, up to 20,000 visitors trekked to Boquillas every year, often as a part of a hiking trip to adjacent Big Bend National Park.
Those numbers won't likely be replicated even with the introduction of solar power and its implication for a reliable supply of electricity.
Boquillas still has tremendous tourism potential. It’s the gateway to an epic slice of desert color draped by an ocean of sky.
But there’s no power here, meaning there's no way to communicate or install heating or air conditioning in this hardscrabble place, something the town's residents say is crucial to enticing visitors to stay overnight in a place known for extremes of weather.
Soon an array of solar panels covering an area that's half the size of a football field will store enough power to run the town of 45 families for two days.
Ivan Antonov Velev is the solar project manager. He was sent here from Mexico City on a contract from Mexico's Federal Electricity Commission (CFE).
“I feel really happy that in a certain way we can help these guys because their life is really hard," said Ivan Antonov Velev, the solar project manager.
Velev was sent here from Mexico City by the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) which is promoting solar in rural Mexico.
Velev described seeing a glimpse of solar’s potential to transform the local economy.
He said one night he harnessed solar power to access the internet via satellite. Even though there’s no cell service here, many people have cell phones they use on trips to other towns.
“Actually our little house we rent here in the village, it was surrounded by people trying to get in contact with internet," he said. "Thirty or 40 people around with a wireless connection. Somebody on a horse, somebody in a car. I guess with power, the next step will be communications.”
Across town, Edgardo Mesa showed us how he squeezes power from a worn consumer-size solar panel that’s wired into an old car battery. It will give him three hours of power on a good day, he said. He uses the energy to power a heater in winter, a stove and a CD player.
“Now the town is going to progress a little more. I was away for a year but when I heard about solar power I just came back to live over here because it’s going to be a lot better now," Mesa said.
"And there’s jobs available, a lot of jobs available for the village people,” he said.
The National Park Service lobbied for the border crossing here. Previously the Park Service had actively supported sending in electricity from Texas. That project fell apart in the early 1990s.
But the motive was the common denominator in both cases — to ease communication with Mexican counterparts to protect a shared border wilderness.
“Now that we have Boquillas Crossing open, I think it’s a good test case to ease some of the post-9/11 tension over border issues," said Tom Alex, archaeologist with the National Park Service in Big Bend National Park.
“The conditions here are considerably different than you’re going to find in an urban situation with Juárez, Tijuana or any of the major cities like that," Alex said.
Project manager Velev said he's seen solar improve other micro-economies in rural Mexico.
“You see these little kids running around, eager to learn," said Velev. "The teenagers were coming here to get their internet connection. And hopefully when they see the possibilities, they’ll start doing something for their local economy and the way they sustain themselves.”
Solar power will be shared with neighboring towns once transmission lines are built.
But there is no timeline to erect transmission poles and wires to the closest town. Without those lines, the solar power and all it implies for economic growth for this rural slice of the border will be confined to Boquillas.
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