The Law: Taming a Tough County

Stretching some 58 miles along the Rio Grande lies Starr County, Texas, a barren land of sagebrush and mesquite trees. Most of its 20,000 inhabitants are Mexican-Americans who scrape together a living as stoop laborers during the melon-picking season. Yet in the past two or three years, brick houses worth as much as $75,000 have sprung up among the pink and green shanties that line Route 83 between Roma-Los Saenz and Rio Grande City. Outside some of them sit new refrigerators still in their shipping cartons.

Smuggling has long been a basic industry in Starr County—cotton during the Civil War, liquor during...

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