LAST JAN. 19, 33-YEAR-OLD SENIOR Agent Jefferson Barr spent his eighth anniversary with the U.S. Border Patrol working against a bitter wind, hunting smugglers who were running marijuana across the Rio Grande from Mexico to Eagle Pass, Texas. Barr and Agent Ned Thomas were crouched in a patch of mesquite and prickly pear some 100 yards from the river when, at about 10 p.m., their quarry approached. "We yelled, 'Párense!' [Halt!], and they dropped their bundles and started running," says Thomas. As he wrestled one of the four smugglers to the ground, he heard Barr and another man trading shots in the moonless night.

"I could see the muzzles flash," says Thomas, 34, who in his own eight years with the Border Patrol had never so much as had to draw his pistol in the line of duty. "The guy pushed me off and started running back to Mexico. I shot at him twice, then yelled for Jeff, and all I heard was kind of a gurgling sound." Thomas rushed to Barr's side. "I saw a big blood stain above the badge...and his eyes were glazed over. I started giving him CPR right away. After a little while, I could tell that he died."

A way of life may have died along with him, at least in Eagle Pass. With a burst of urban-style violence, the murder of Jeff Barr signaled a transforming moment for the dusty, peaceful border town 140 miles southwest of San Antonio. "Border Heaven," the tourist brochures call it, though in reality it is a poor but close-knit community of 25,000 that recently served as the setting for John Sayles's widely praised film Lone Star. Illegal immigrants—typically farm workers seeking brighter prospects in the U.S.—have been a fact of life here for generations, and the people of Eagle Pass, 95 percent of whom are of Mexican descent, routinely give them food or shelter.

But starting with Barr's death, the town has seen an influx of a new class of illegal aliens: young drug-runners, bearing cocaine as well as marijuana, who are choosing backwater gateways to the U.S. now that points of passage like El Paso have been shut down as part of the White House's war on drugs. Many pack automatic weapons far more potent than anything in the arsenals of local law enforcement officials accustomed to tracking down docile farm workers. The stakes are high: A pound of marijuana that sells for $100 in Mexico may go for $1,000 in the U.S. "They're not just ignorant country folk," says Senior Border Patrol Agent Patrick Murphy of the newcomers. "They've got records for rape and murder." The patrol recorded 51 armed assaults against agents in Eagle Pass during the first six months of fiscal 1996, compared with none in the year before. Marijuana seizures jumped more than fourfold, to 37,000 pounds. "Eagle Pass is becoming a very hot spot," says Chief Patrol Agent Paul M. Berg.

Neither Jeff Barr nor Ned Thomas set out to be soldiers in anyone's drug war. Thomas, who has a B.A. in English from the King's College in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., married Deborah Anderson, 55, now a homemaker, in 1991 and has two sons, Joel, 3, and Ryan, 2. He is a devout Christian who carries a Bible in his uniform pocket. His slain friend and colleague was also no stranger to scripture. Barr's father, Kenneth, 55, is a Baptist pastor in central West Texas. When Barr was growing up, both his father and his mother, Gloria, 55, were teachers at Sterling City High School. The oldest of three children, Jeff earned a degree in education at nearby Angelo State University in San Angelo, where he met and in 1985 married Leigh Ann Halamicek, 33. His love of the outdoors—and a talent for tracking—drew him to the Border Patrol. Yet Leigh Ann was nervous about moving to Eagle Pass. "If you're not used to the border, I mean, it's a cultural shock," she says.

National boundaries are blurry here: John Sayles calls Eagle Pass and neighboring Piedras Negras, Mexico, "basically one divided city," where citizens of both countries move back and forth on a two-lane toll bridge over the Rio Grande. "People come to shop at the Wal-Mart in Eagle Pass every day and they walk back at night," Sayles says.

In Barr's early years with the patrol, illegals were invariably unarmed, rarely offering more than a scuffle to border guards who found them along the river, in rail yards or cheap motels. Says Thomas: "I always thought of the job as a kid playing capture-the-flag or cowboys-and-Indians—kind of like a big game." He remembers a stakeout when Barr, an avid hunter with a small taxidermy business on the side, killed a cottontail with a rock, later showing his colleagues how to skin it. Barr also liked to make pencil sketches of wildlife and often brought stray animals home to Leigh Ann, daughter Tiffany, now 10, and son Cody, 6. "They called our house the Barr refuge," says Leigh Ann. "One night, Jeff shoved a duffel bag through the door and left, and I thought he was handing me a bag full of rats. But it was baby possums."

Barr, who colleagues say was fearless, nevertheless performed his duties with sensitivity and restraint. Leigh Ann recalls one incident when "kids were coming across [the border], and they're hungry and stuff. Of course you have to chase them. They started to pick up rocks and throw them." As it turned out, the youngsters only wanted some fried chicken. "You guys go back across," Barr told them. "I'll take your friend here to get some chicken, and I'll send him back across the bridge."

Now the situation is sufficiently worrisome that U.S. Army Gen. (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey, President Clinton's drug czar, made a special visit to Eagle Pass in July. "The 40-some people I sat down with were scared to death," he says. Ranchers told him of smugglers 20-strong crossing the border with sniper rifles and night-vision goggles. "A lot of ranchers are simply being driven off the land [by the violence]," says McCaffrey, who has proposed boosting the number of agents and upgrading equipment along the border. Testifying before a Senate committee on July 31, one rancher was so fearful of retaliation that he spoke in a digitally altered voice from behind a curtain, his head shrouded in a hood.

Leigh Ann saw Barr for the last time, fleetingly, at about 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 19. She had come home from her job teaching elementary school, just as he was leaving for night duty in his prized '65 Mustang. "He was right by his car," she recalls. "And I said, 'I love you.' " Now he lies in Cowboy Cemetery, 80 miles from her San Angelo home. "That's where we always said we wanted to be buried. It was just supposed to be when we were old and gray," Leigh Ann says. "The night before Jeff's memorial service, the two kids were sleeping, and I crawled in between them. I thought Cody had grabbed my hands, but I thought, no. I knew that, be it the Lord or what, Jeff had come and said goodbye. And I knew that somehow it's going to be okay. We'll live through it. It's just going to have to be a different way."

Ned Thomas sought counseling after Barr's death, but even now, as he warily combs the river, his friend's last moments play out in his mind. "You know, what could I have done different so Jeff wouldn't have died," he says. "It's kind of a helpless feeling."

It is a helplessness shared by the town and Barr's family. "What we had, most people don't have in a lifetime." Leigh Ann says. "[The killer] will never know what he's taken away."

RICHARD JEROME
JOSEPH HARMES in Eagle Pass

  • Contributors:
  • Joseph Harmes.