At the US border, chasing a thief along the Rio Grande

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BROWNSVILLE, Texas, Oct 21 (Reuters) When I walked from downtown Brownsville to the nearby Rio Grande the last thing I expected to see was an illegal immigrant fresh from the river, crouched behind a bush.

Border patrol agents have stepped up security but he had made it across in his bathing suit. Now, carrying a plastic bag, he was trying to hide as cars whizzed past on a road beside the small river that divides the United States from Mexico.

He looked to be in his late 20's, and when he saw me staring at him, he grinned and asked in Spanish if I saw ''la migra,'' or Border Patrol agents, coming. I looked at the empty riverbank below and shook my head.

Downtown Brownsville abuts the Rio Grande, or the Rio Bravo as it is called in Mexico, so there were people around, and it was the full light of day.

But when the traffic passed, he brazenly trotted over to a small side street, pulled a brown T-shirt, fashionably baggy shorts and running shoes from the bag and put them on. ''So, it's easy to cross the river here?'' I asked.

Yeah, it's really easy, he told me. Then he hurried away, saying he had to call someone to pick him up.

I looked back at the river, and now saw that two Border Patrol agents were standing less than 100 yards (metres) away under the bridge linking Brownsville and Mexico's Matamoros.

Bizarre, I thought. Here I am working on a story about the U.S. proposal to build a border wall to keep out illegal immigrants and no sooner do I get to the Rio Grande than this guy swims across as if he were making his daily commute.

Given that billions of dollars are being spent to stop him and his compatriots, he must be a clever fellow, I thought.

I tried to speak to the agents, assuming he was long gone but I could at least ask them questions. They didn't notice me.

I turned again to look at the greenish river, which winds through a small valley in the border flatlands and is narrow enough to throw a rock across.

Something in the same side street where the immigrant had put on his clothes caught my attention.

There he was again, pushing a very frightened woman into her car. I'll be damned, I thought, and shouted for him to stop.

STOP THIEF He turned, and after a flash of recognition, grabbed the woman's purse and took off running for the river. Without thinking, I ran after him, still shouting.

As we raced along the upper bank of the Rio Grande, I could hear the woman crying out ''mi bolsa, el tiene mi bolsa.'' My purse, he has my purse.

I wanted to get her purse back, of course, but anger spurred me on too. It was bad enough he had swum the river to commit a crime and scare this woman, but he also had hurt his own people by giving ammunition to those who demonize illegal immigrants.

The man slid down the muddy riverbank and disappeared into the high weeds at the water's edge, and that was it for me.

I had hoped the two Border Patrol agents would see the chase and join in, but they were sitting chatting, oblivious to all.

I heard a splash in the river and saw the robber, using his plastic bag as a floater, swimming back to Mexico. He melted into the thick brush up the slope to Matamoros and was gone.

I went back to check on the woman, but to my surprise she had taken off, too.

Then I trekked down to question the Border Patrol agents about why they had done nothing. ''What happened?'' they asked.

''A guy swam across the river right over here, went up to the street, robbed a woman, came running back to river with me chasing him, then jumped in and swam back to Mexico,'' I said.

''Did you get a description?'' one of them asked sheepishly.

Yeah, he's wet, very wet, I thought to myself. What did it matter at this point? They went to look where he jumped into the river, but this little saga was water under the bridge now.

REUTERS SYU RK0951

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