Los Diablos: Mexican Firefighters In The US
A member Los Diablos wildfire fighting team crosses Rio Grande legally into United States. (Photo by Lorne Matalon)
By Lorne Matalon
April 10, 2013

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, Texas — Even in a post- Sept. 11 world, there is one group of people with permission from the United States government to freely — and legally — cross into the country from Mexico and back without passing through a formal border crossing.

It’s a crew of firefighters from Mexico that U.S. authorities say are among the best in the world in fighting wildfires, as they’ve proven time and again across the country.

It’s early morning in Big Bend National Park. Horses ferrying an exclusive group of firefighters from Coahuila state in northern Mexico are moving quickly across the Rio Grande into West Texas. This time, there’s no fire. They’re in for a day of training.

The are known as Los Diablos, or the devils. Twenty years ago, they told rangers in Big Bend National Park that if U.S. authorities allowed them to help fire fires in the Park, they would work “like the devil.” Since then they’ve been true to their word, many times over.

Alejandro de la Cruz is 53 years old — lanky, with jet black hair with hands that testify to a rugged life in this harsh, remote section of the border. He says he’s happy to be working with his American counterparts. The firefighters have work visas that allow them to cross the border and travel to wildfires without going thru a formal border crossing.

De la Cruz’s partner Gerardo Oreste, switching easily between Spanish and English, says he’s just happy Los Diablos can cross instantly when they’re called in.

“We feel OK because we help you guys, and you guys help us, too," he said.

The U.S. helps by paying between $17-19 an hour for the work, a princely sum by Mexican standards but a bargain according to Park Ranger Matt Graden.

Los Diablos seem to be extremely humble, but Graden said they ought not to be.

“They’re amazing, they can mobilize in four hours from their village across the river. They can be here in four hours. That’s unheard of to ask anybody to be able to do. So that’s pretty professional right there," Graden said. "And when they show up they know exactly what to do. They don’t need someone to tell them what to do. And they’ve got great leadership. They’re awesome. They might be humble but they are highly professional, highly trained and really skilled and incredibly hardworking.”

That said, Los Diablos are worried about being singled out in interviews, concerned they may become targets in Mexico where extortion is a problem for anyone thought to be earning a decent living. Instead, Los Diablos prefer to let their actions speak for them. And that list, just for last year alone, is impressive.

In July they helped control a wildfire in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas; in September they were in Sisters, Ore.; and in October they fought fires spawned by Hurricane Sandy in New York.

Gabriel Oreste said he’s just happy to help. Oreste works with John Zubia, a fire manager at the National Park Service. Zubia said he’s grateful for the courage regularly displayed by Los Diablos, especially at the start of wildfire season.

“We’re out in middle of nowhere, so when we need firefighters that actually walk way into the back country, these guys are it," Zubia said.

The National Park Service and the Department of Homeland Security call Los Diablos an example of efficient bilateral cooperation. The irony is that at the very spot Los Diablos cross legally into the U.S., a state-of-the-art border crossing building has sat empty on the Texas side of the Rio Grande for more than a year. It waits for a delicate, diplomatic dance between Mexico and the United States to conclude. The crossing is expected to open soon.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The border crossing at Boquillas officially re-opened Wednesday.

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