The U.S. Border Patrol plans to poison the plant life along a 1.1-mile stretch of the Rio Grande riverbank as soon as Wednesday to get rid of the hiding places used by smugglers, robbers and illegal immigrants.
If successful, the $2.1 million pilot project could later be duplicated along as many as 130 miles of river in the patrol's Laredo Sector, as well as other parts of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Although Border Patrol and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials say the chemical is safe for animals, detractors say the experiment is reminiscent of the Vietnam War-era Agent Orange chemical program and raises questions about long-term effects.
"We don't believe that is even moral," said Jay Johnson-Castro Sr., executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center, located at Laredo Community College, adjacent to the planned test area.
"It is unprecedented that they'd do it in a populated area," he said of spraying the edge of the Rio Grande as it weaves between the cities of Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
Border Patrol agent Roque Sarinana said the pilot project aims to find the most efficient way to keep agents safer and better protect the nation's border. "We are trying to improve our mobility and visibility up and down the river," Sarinana said.
Criminals have grown adept at using the dense foliage to elude capture, he said.
"They can come over almost undetected," he said.
Should the Border Patrol project prove efficient, cane removal could become part of its arsenal of tools that have been used along various parts of the U.S.-Mexico border, including walls, fencing and look-out towers.
Members of the Laredo City Council have raised concerns about the spraying program and called on Mexico President Felipe Calderon to intervene.
Mexican officials are raising concerns the herbicide could threaten the water supply for Nuevo Laredo.
A U.S. government outline of the project indicates the Border Patrol is going to test three methods to rid the 1.1-mile bank of river of carrizo cane, which has thick stalks that form tight, isolated trails that can be dark and all but invisible from higher up on the bank.
One method calls for the cane to be cut by hand and the stumps painted with the herbicide, Imazapyr.
Another involves using mechanical equipment to dig the cane out by the roots. It is unclear if herbicides would be necessary in this scenario.
The third and most controversial removal method calls for helicopters spraying Imazapyr directly on the cane - repeatedly - until all plant life in the area is poisoned.
The Border Patrol said that after using the herbicide, it plans to make the river's edges green again by planting native plants.
Johnson-Castro said he has no issue with removing the cane, a non-native plant brought by the Spaniards centuries ago. The challenge, he said, is how it is done.
"We are saying it is one hell of a big deal," he said.
Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas said he believes federal officials when they say testing shows the chemical is not dangerous, but that he also realizes opponents of the project have concerns to evaluate.
"It is a complicated situation because we have to think about protecting our border," said Salinas, a retired FBI agent. "But let's do it in a sensible, reasonable way to make sure humans won't be harmed, nor the vegetation, nor the animals, nor the environment."