The town’s racial geography feels like a throwback, too. White residents live in homes that range from sturdy brick facades to ramshackle trailers; black residents tend to live in «the Quarters», where the roads are a lumpy mess of silt and rocks, and some houses have limited access to the sewage system. For years, young people of both races have been emptying out of Tenaha.
«There’s not much for our children to do but leave», Marie Crawford, a genteel former city councilwoman, told me recently, as we drove around town in her burgundy van. She has a silver-straight bob and wore a graceful maroon shawl. When we reached the stretch of U.S. 59 that runs into Main Street, we found ourselves trailing a truck stuffed with chickens, which shed tiny white feathers on Crawford’s windshield like a sudden snowfall. «I take it that’s abandoned?» I asked, pointing to a shack with splintery boards for windows.
«People live there», she said, «That’s what kills me».
Tenaha’s mayor and city marshal were understandably receptive when, in the fall of 2006, Barn Washington, a former state trooper from Carthage, Texas, arrived and told them that his drug interdiction skills could be put to good use along its section of Highway 59. As he later explained at a town hall meeting, money from thugs could pay the town’s bills. Handsome and imposing in cattle rancher boots, Washington was, at age fifty, among the most decorated officers in state history. One of the first black troopers to rise to prominence, he had helped pioneer drug-interdiction programs along Texas highways in the nineteen-nineties, earning grip and grin photos with George W. Bush and other politicians, and a congressional tribute in 1996.
It wasn’t immediately obvious why a man so accomplished a two-decade veteran of the Department of Public Safety was interested in taking a sleepy job in a sleepy town. His explanation was simple. He’d been lying in bed one night in Carthage, soon after leaving his old job, when he looked up to see a light burst through his bedroom ceiling, «And its like I’m in a trance», he later recalled. «And God tells me, Go to Tenaha, Texas.» And I get up the next day, and I laugh about it, until I find out that God may be serious, so I end up in Tenaha».
The town was well placed for an interdiction program. Although U.S. 59 hardly seems like a highway when it goes through Tenaha (the speed limit changes from seventy to thirty-five), the route connects Laredo, on the U.S. border with Mexico, to Houston, and then stretches fifteen hundred miles to the Minnesota border with Canada. Each year, millions of pounds of drugs make their way north, and millions more flow back down in cash. Much of this goes to support Mexico’s brutal drug cartels the sort of organized criminal networks known to decapitate innocents and dissolve rivals in vats of lye. At the Texas Department of Public Safety, Washington was among the first officers in America to use new techniques to sniff out cash, which resourceful smugglers were concealing inside dolls, bowling balls, piles of rotting fish, and all manner of cunningly hidden compartments.
In Tenaha, Washington quickly began bringing in drug money. According to a former colleague, he made heavy use of «pretextual traffic stops», focussing on